Armchair Oscars – 1943

Best Picture

Casablanca (Directed by Michael Curtiz)
The Nominees: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, Watch on the Rhine

Casablanca (Directed by Michael Curtiz)
My Nominees:
For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood), The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown), Sahara (Zoltan Korda), Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin)


The Oscars are, and always will be, the greatest Complaint Department the world has ever known outside of politics.  Few, if any of us, agree with the choices that the Academy has made in selecting it’s Best Picture award over the years infuriated at awards given as personal favors, missed opportunities and unfair campaign practices.  Yet, we forget that once in a while they did get it absolutely right.

Looking over the years, I find that out of the 80 plus selections for Best Picture, I agree with only four, but those films; All Quiet on the Western Front, Casablanca, The Godfather and Schindler’s List are films of such undeniable achievement that few can dispute the fact that they deserved every credit they received.

This is the second time that I have agreed with the academy’s selection for Best Picture and there are few Americans who would disagree about Casablanca, a movie that has a universal appeal because it presents three-dimensional characters dealing with matters of the human heart and the struggle of self-sacrifice. Yet, what impresses me most is the film’s restraint. If Casablanca had been a flywheel film, spilling its secrets and having its characters do things just to please the audience, the film would have crumbled into obscurity.

Casablanca is routinely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made but it was just another movie to those made it – one of 200 pictures that Warner Brothers released in 1942. In the decade before television, the major studios had a movie a week to get out and with that schedule one movie was just as important as another. Casablanca was not expected make much money even though the cast was first rate: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. It doesn’t comfortably fit a genre, the plot is too complicated to put into a 30-second ad and, in the maelstrom of World War II, movies about the events overseas were a tough sell unless they presented John Wayne or Gary Cooper blasting the Axis powers back to the Stone Age.

Yet, Casablanca did find an audience. When it was released late in 1942 it quickly found audiences lined up around the block to see it. Part of its appeal I think was the timeliness of the subject. This was a time when Hitler’s armies were spreading across Europe and making themselves frighteningly unpredictable. That uncertainty is present in the film. There is a desperation that is always present just beneath the surface of the film, the pervasive dread of the Nazi death grip on the world. After the war, they would become the favorite villains of the movies, seen more for their uniforms and for their universal disdain then their beliefs, but here, with the terror still present in the world, their omnipresence is far more poignant.

The movie takes place in the tiny village of Casablanca in Northern Morocco, one of the last French-occupied countries not in the grip of the Nazis.  As the movie opens, it has become a human traffic jam of refugees trying to get money and transport to Lisbon where they can catch a plane to America – or at least out of the Nazi’s reach.  Few opportunities arise to book such a passage so many find themselves stranded in Casablanca for days, weeks and even months.

At the epicenter of this chaos is Casablanca’s most popular nightspot, Rick’s Café American, run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a man who remains steadfast at staying out of personal or political affairs.  He lives by a code: “I stick my neck out for no one.”

One day Rick is given an order by police chief Louis Renault (Claude Rains) that a man wanted by the Reich is on his way to Casablanca, and Rick is to make sure that he stays there. The man, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), escaped a concentration camp and is now a major figure in the French resistance. His passage to Lisbon would be detrimental to the Reich. Rick isn’t interested but to humor Renault, he agrees.

What Rick doesn’t know is that Lazlo is currently married to Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a woman that left him standing alone on a rainy train platform some years earlier with a Dear John letter soaking in his hand.  This single, devastating gesture is the reason that Rick has retreated into the desert.  He has held a deep resentment for years, so naturally, this reopens old wounds as Victor and Ilsa enter Rick’s club. He is thunderstruck when he sees her, his face is a mask of shock and emotional turmoil. Later, trying to drown his sorrows in a bottle of booze, he laments “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

What Rick has written off as a mean spirited act of betrayal actually has a legitimate explanation.  That puts Rick and Ilsa in an interesting quandary.  She loves Rick and can’t bear to hurt him again, but she loves Lazlo and knows that he needs her more than ever.  The ultimate decision then becomes what is the right thing to do for the greater good?

Bergman’s performance as the emotionally confused Ilsa is due in part to the fact that during filming she was never told which man she was going to end up with. She twists and turns with confused emotions and we never see her leaning one way or the other. When Rick tells her in the end that she is getting on the plane with Lazlo, her face reveals confusion as she tries to comprehend it. The moment is very real. If she knew how the movie was going to end, I don’t think that the subtleties of her performance would come out the way they do.

Bogart, known at this point for his cold tough-guy roles, showed a sensitive side here and hereafter flourished as a leading man. As Rick, he is cold to those who come looking for a favor but in Ilsa’s eyes, he simply melts. This was a side of Bogart that was new to audiences, and it changed his image for the rest of his career. This was his best performance so naturally he lost the Oscar to an unworthy contender – Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine (heard of it? . . . didn’t think so). Bogart would win the Oscar for 1951’s The African Queen – continuing the academy’s strange habit (after Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Gable in It Happened One Night) of giving Oscars to Hollywood tough guys for sensitive pussycat roles.

The movie is loaded with great characters – most are crooked, few are honest. The movie doesn’t supply any stock villains. Only one, a Nazi called Strasser, and I think having only one significant Nazi present in the film is a good idea. The fear and dread that befalls the characters in Casablanca is made more effective by the fact that we do not see them. Everyone knows about the terror of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs, everyone knows that by 1942, they held the world under their thumb and just knowing that gives the film a certain urgency. Their evil presence is simply felt.

I greatly admire the screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch for their restraint. It must have been tempting to present the Nazis dominating the screen but the presence of too many might have lessened the credibility that Lazlo could escape. Also, it must have been so tempting in a movie with this much star power and this much emotion to supply an ending that would find Rick and Ilsa in each other’s arms. That would have been a mistake. Rick’s change of heart is the most important aspect of the film. He realizes that he must let her go in the interest of the greater good, that Lazlo, off on his mission, needs her now more than ever. The script allows the characters to follow their hearts rather than some kind of crowd-pleasing convention. It took nerve to allow the characters to find the courage of their convictions, that the cause of stopping the Nazis is far more important because they realize that their personal petty problems just “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Best Actor

Paul Lukas (
Watch on the Rhine)
The Nominees: Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), Gary Cooper (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Walter Pigeon (Madame Curie), Mickey Rooney (The Human Comedy)

Humphrey Bogart  (Casablanca)
My Nominees:
Joseph Cotton (Shadow of a Doubt)


For his role as Kurt Mueller, a family man who is discovered to be secretly working for an anti-Nazi underground movement in Herman Shumlin’s Watch on the Rhine, Hungarian-born stage actor Paul Lukas received the only Oscar for which he was ever nominated.

I have a feeling that the academy gave him the award, not for his performance, but because he had managed to effectively transfer the role from the stage to the screen without making the screen performance too stagy. It is a good performance in a good movie, but it no one could overshadow my selection for Best Actor, Humphrey Bogart, for his single greatest performance as Rick Blaine in Casablanca.  Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Lukas’ Kurt Mueller are not that far removed from one another – both men put their lives on the line to keep their loved ones safe from the Nazi menace, but in the case of Rick Blaine, it takes a great deal of soul searching to bring him around.

Bogart is my favorite actor of the first half of the twentieth century (with kudos, of course, to the two Jimmies – Stewart and Cagney).  He was rugged, world-weary and possessed a toughness that isn’t made of bullets.  His face, even when he was young, showed the years of sadness and regret.  He had sad eyes that allowed you to peer into a very troubled soul, you believed the he was a man who had seen the world degradation that mankind had to offer.  It took a long time for his career to arrive at a place where he could use his sad face to great effect.  He spent the 1930s backing up the likes of James Cagney in a series of B-grade gangster pictures, and he seemed destined to stay that way. He would spend the 40s, however, proving his range after starring as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and showing an unusual side of himself. He showed that he could play a tough guy but there was something hidden under the facade, something damaged, but not so much that it soured his moral sense of will.  In many ways, it prepared him for Rick Blaine.

Rick would become his defining role, a man who wants no part of the war, a broken man who has wandered into the desert to lock away a wounded heart.  He runs “Rick’s Cafe American” as his private island, but when the Nazis begin their assault across Europe, it becomes a refuge to others as well. Those desperate to escape the Nazis use the nightclub as a stopover while they attempt to book passage west to America. Rick asks no favors from either side, he hates the Nazis but he knows that running a quiet business will keep them out of his hair.

The Nazi menace is terrifying but what falls into Rick’s life is more personally wounding. One night he is asked to keep a wanted member of the French Resistance, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), from leaving Casablanca. That sounds easy enough but what isn’t so easy is when Rick finds out that the man’s wife is Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a woman who broke his heart years ago. We are given a back story of how he met the great love of his life, a woman who seemed to brighten his days. Then suddenly the Germans marched into Paris and Ilsa ran off unexpectedly, without an explanation.  What gnaws at Rick is the fact that he never found out why she left.

One of his best moments comes late at night after the club has cleared out and he is left to drink and to stew over why she made him look like a sap. “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine.” It is a moment we can all relate to.

The power of Casablanca comes from the emotional retooling of Rick’s soul. He has had his heart torn out once but comes to realize that his feelings for Ilsa are tiny when compared to the greater cause. The ending is one of the best pieces of script writing in cinema history, as Rick finally makes a decision that benefits the greater cause rather than his own feelings. Rick is a man who nurses the wounds in his heart but it’s a small sacrifice. Through the characters he has encountered we sense that he has become a man adept, not at becoming a superhero, but at doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Best Actress

Jennifer Jones (The Song of Bernadette)
The Nominees: Jean Arthur (The More the Merrier), Ingrid Bergman (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Joan Fontaine (The Constant Nymph), Greer Garson (Madame Curie)

Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca)
The Nominees: Ingrid Bergman (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Teresa Wright (Shadow of a Doubt)


If you possess any measure of faith then it is difficult not to be moved by the story of Bernadette Soubirous, the French peasant girl in Lourdes, France who, during of period of six months in 1858, apparently had 18 visions of the a lady clad in white with roses at her feet that her evidence later insisted was The Virgin Mary.  The story is such an emotional journey for the faithful that the movie opens by telling that “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”

The story became legend and was turned into the book “The Song of Bernadette” in 1941 by an Austrian Jew, Franz Werfel who heard the story from refugees that he took into his home while they were being hunted by the Gestapo.  The book and the 1943 film version where widely acclaimed both by critics and by the public.  The film is unapologetically sentimental.  It pulls no strings in the heart-tugging story of a girl whose visions must are taken on faith (no one else can see the visions) which draw the devotion of the faithful and also the anger of the town officials.

Watching the film again recently, I found that I had the same two issues that I had the first time I saw it.  For one, I wish that the movie hadn’t made the visions visible to the audience.  We see what Bernadette sees and that cancels any doubt in our minds that she’s telling the truth.  Seeing the visions ourselves there is no question of Bernadette’s earnestness or even her sanity.  I wish the film had been a bit more challenging by not showing us the vision and letting her testimony work on our faith.  The movie still has admirers, and I completely understand why, but for me I guess I prefer something a bit more challenging.

My other issue with the film is Bernadette herself.  Yes, Jennifer Jones occupies the role with grace but she does so with such sweetness and such a good heart that there is never any question about her honesty. As she is interrogated, she maintains the demeanor of a saint and she’s such a naive sweetheart that the performance feels a little one-note.  Today, Jones’ performance is mostly noted as being the first to ever win The Golden Globe for Best Actress. Personally, I think she got too much credit for this performance.

My favorite performance by any actress of the decade (though it may run neck and neck with Barbara Stanwyck’s work in Double Indemnity) comes from Ingrid Bergman whom I never thought got enough credit for Casablanca.

Casablanca is mainly seen as Bogart’s picture, as the film that saw him become a more complex actor but it is hard to discount Bergman who carries the burden of a struggle of the heart between two men who are worthy of her. On one side is Victor (Paul Henreid), her husband who is the leader of the French Resistance and on the other is Rick (Humphrey Bogart), a man she fell in love with years ago when she thought Victor had been killed in a concentration camp.

Bergman’s role is very simply written. She arrives in Casablanca with her husband, finds the love she left behind and as her emotions for Rick are reawakened she finds the she doesn’t know which man she should be with. The multitudes of her work are seen in the passages where she has no dialogue, where she agonizes over these two men. Her best scenes are those in which she remains at an impasse, helped along because director Michael Curtiz never told her how the movie would end. Her performance comes through in her sad eyes as she begins to realize that whichever man she ends up with, there will be happiness and sadness. The look on her face at the end as Bogart nobly tells her to get on the plane with her husband is one of the lasting images of the cinema.

Strangely enough, Ingrid Bergman never considered Casablanca her best work and said “I made so many films which were more important, but the only one people ever want to talk about is that one with Bogart.” I don’t know if she would have wanted to win an Oscar for her performance in the film but no one can ever deny that she certainly deserved it.

Looking over my three choices for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress, I realize that for 1942 I completely weigh in on the side of Casablanca.  That may seem one-sided, as if I’m praising the film in all three categories as Casablanca for Casablanca‘s sake, but that’s not the case at all.  The film, and the two performances are individually brilliant.  One doesn’t work without the other.  It is a movie that is uniquely American, dealing with American ideals about duty, about honor, about love and about our position in the world and our position as individuals – what are our stakes for personal honor vs. duty to one’s country.

Casablanca, like all great movies, is a window into another world, another time gone by that has come and will never come again.  It takes place at a moment when the American public had to make up it’s mind about what it wanted for the future, casting aside personal vision for the greater cause.  That’s something worth talking about, something worth praising, and in my case, something worth rewarding.

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