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Saturday Matinee #86, Great Movie Ride Summer Movie Marathon, Final Week: Casablanca (November 26, 1942) & "The New Spirit" (January 23, 1942) - published August 25, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

Saturdays and summer vacations are often the best times to have movie marathons. I rarely have time to sit down and have a back-to-back-to-back marathon of films, so I'll usually spread the movies out across several days. For example, in anticipation of Marvel's The Avengers, I watched each of the five films - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger - in the days leading up to the premiere. Last year, I prepared myself for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides by watching each of the previous three films every Friday before the fourth film hit theatres. These marathons usually help to get me in a summer blockbuster mood, in which I'll be inundated with splashy effects and loud noises more often than anyone should be.

There's something exciting about just letting yourself get absorbed into a series of movies. You become a part of that world, and you enjoy moments and situations that generally don't occur in real life. People sing and dance. Fight scenes are elaborate and choreographed. Explosions are thrilling and only marginally life-threatening. To celebrate summer movie marathons, Saturday Matinee will devote the whole summer to a very special movie marathon. Each week, we'll take a look at one or two films represented in Disney Hollywood Studios' The Great Movie Ride, along with an accompanying Disney short that fits thematically for viewing. Saving the best for last, our final film in our Great Movie Ride Summer Movie Marathon is 1942's Casablanca, accompanied by the WWII propoganda cartoon "The New Spirit."


Casablanca

"If it's December, 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?"

Our story begins and ends with Rick Blaine, an American expatriate living in Casablanca, Morocco. Prior to Casablanca, he lived in Paris, and before that, had dealings in Spain and Ethiopia. For now, he runs Rick's Caf� Am�ricain, a legitimate night club that also houses an illegal casino. He's a hardened and lonesome individual, one who'll stick his neck out for no one. At least, not until he finds himself in the middle of a political tug of war between the Pro-Vichy police and the French freedom fighters. Both sides have pressured him over the "letters of transit," official documents stolen by Ugarte, a crook who sells exit visas to refugees. Ugarte has temporarily entrusted them to Rick, before he was killed in police custody. Freedom fighter Victor Laszlo is looking to use them, while Major Strasser of the Third Reich is looking to reacquire them and apprehend Laszlo.

Rick has no interest in the politics of the war, as his Cafe Americain serves all sorts of customers. He knows plenty of under-the-table dealing goes on, as does Captain Louis Renault, the prefect of police. However, Renault allows it to go on, partly because of his own gambling tendencies, and partly because he knows Rick never deals himself. In fact, both Rick and Renault have a 20,000-franc bet on whether or not Laszlo leaves Casablanca. Rick's all for Laszlo leaving, until the freedom fighter enters Rick's cafe with a female companion. Ilsa Lund, the companion, was once involved with Rick, but left him a "Dear John" letter when the Nazis invaded Paris. Now, Rick is torn on whether to give the letters to Laszlo - knowing it would take Ilsa away from him again - or using them himself.


"The New Spirit"

Donald Duck, patriotic American, wants to know how he can do his part to support the United States in World War II. The radio tells him that paying his income taxes is one way to support our troops. This doesn't seem very exciting to Donald, who always found the forms complicated and unimportant. Paying taxes is a privilege, the radio tells Donald. The government need taxes for guns, ships, democracy! "Taxes to beat the Axis!" it proclaims.

Donald, now infused with the new spirit, is eager to pay his taxes. With the new simplified form, he can pay his taxes much easier. The radio tells him how to fill out the form, which includes listing his dependents - Huey, Dewey, & Louie - and his total income for the year. As a single with dependents, Donald sees that all he needs to pay is $13. "If you really want to help, mail it in early," the radio advises. Donald, in his earnestness, delivers it personally to the U.S. Treasury.

Soon after, the radio transitions to a montage that shows how taxes go to factories to help the war effort. Taxes making guns, taxes making planes, taxes making ships. Each one is shown, blasting the aggressors out of the skies and seas. Taxes to beat the Axis, indeed.

I can trace the beginning of my relationship with Casablanca to one very specific day: December 25, 1999. In the months leading up to that Christmas, I started showing interest in classic Hollywood films beyond my childhood favorites of The Ten Commandments and The Sound of Music. The spark was ignited when I caught Breakfast at Tiffany's on PBS one weekend. Having grown up with Audrey Hepburn only as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, seeing her as Holly Golightly opened my eyes to a variety of roles she played. This led to my hunting for classic films to watch on PBS or AMC, as our cable package did not yet include the classic movie lover's holy grail: Turner Classic Movies.

For Christmas that year, I wanted classic movies, anything that would help me get more interested in the bygone Hollywood era of studio systems, black-tie premiere parties, and "That's Entertainment!" Heeding this request, my aunt gave me the "Casablanca: Special Edition" VHS as a Christmas gift. At the time, I just knew it as the movie in The Great Movie Ride, a black and white film with a man and woman standing in the fog of an airport runway. The moment I began watching the film properly, I fell in love. Perhaps it was the confused look of the Englishman who was unaware he'd been pickpocketed. Perhaps it was the way Ilsa said, "Hello, Sam," as he brought his piano and bench to her. Perhaps it was Renault's knowing glance at Rick shortly after Strasser's been shot (it's been 70 years, that's not a spoiler for anyone). As Rick Blaine would have said, "it's a combination of all three." Casablanca as a whole is a film that once seen, is never forgotten.

In the thirteen years since that Christmas, I've seen a variety of films from that era, but I still look to Casablanca when I want to satisfy my classic movie fix. Occasionally, I may switch to Random Harvest (1942, MGM) or Gilda (1946, Columbia) to add variety, but Casablanca ultimately remains my go-to movie when I want to escape to the black-and-white wonderment of classic Hollywood. No other film seems to measure up to it in terms of its cast, its story, its score, and its all-around replayability. If I ever catch it on Turner Classic Movies, I'll stop flipping channels and keep watching, no matter where they are in the film. I get caught up in that world so easily that sometimes it's hard to leave. Occasionally, I'll just let the movie play, on a loop, while I do my work on a computer. The film has become so ingrained in my memory that I could just listen to the film in the background and still know what is going on, how the scene is set up, and just when the Steiner score hits that important note to "sting" a scene. Heck, in high school, my alarm clock was a programmed boombox that woke me each morning to the Casablanca soundtrack CD. Nothing says "good morning" like Max Steiner's grand, striking score booming at 6:30 in the morning.

It would be hard to write about Casablanca without drawing attention to its two leads: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The two are the heart and soul of the film, you can't have one without the other. Their chemistry is amazing in this film, and we can see just how much Ilsa's abandonment has changed Rick. During the Paris flashbacks, we see a Rick who's openly romantic, someone who's genuinely having a good time. He's happy and content, while Ilsa is the one that still appears to have secrets. By the time she re-enters his life, Rick is truly another man - as Ilsa attests. He treats Yvonne like the one-night stand it likely was, and shows no remorse. Rick looks out only for himself, because he can't bear to put himself out there again for any woman. She's done that to him, and he knows it. But neither can ever really deny their feelings for each other, which is what makes both of their sacrifices at the end so admirable. Being together would be selfish of both, and being apart will help save both their worlds.

It's quite remarkable that Casablanca is the only film Bogart and Bergman made together. Bogart, a Warner Bros. contract player, worked in other pictures with other members of the cast, even reuniting with Casablanca's Claude Rains (Captain Renault), Sydney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Ugarte), Helmut Dantine (Jan Brandel), and director Michael Curtiz for 1944's Passage to Marseille. Bergman, meanwhile, was on contract with David O. Selznick, an independent producer who headed Selznick International. He had loaned her to Warner Bros., as he was interested in borrowing Olivia de Havilland for a film (which, I assume, never came to pass since none of her 1940's films were produced by Selznick after all). Bergman's only other film to feature a Casablanca co-star was Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 classic Notorious, in which she worked with Claude Rains (Captain Renault) and Cary Grant. While seeing Bogart and Bergman together in other roles would have been interesting, perhaps it was for the best that they're only Rick and Ilsa to each other. It helps to make the myth of Casablanca all the more endearing for the audience. Sometimes repetition might weaken the appeal of a popular Hollywood coupling.

For me, Casablanca begins and ends with Bogart and Bergman. Don't get me wrong, I adore the rest of the cast - especially Peter Lorre as slimy Ugarte and Claude Rains as delightfully-frank Captain Renault. And Paul Henreid, a talented actor in his own right, sometimes gets unfairly slammed in this film, since he's essentially second fiddle to Bogart. But the magic of Casablanca really only works because of the amazing chemistry between Bogart and Bergman. I believe the supporting cast still would have succeeded even if the leads - Bogart, Bergman, and underrated Paul Henreid - were played by other actors. The film itself might not be as memorable, but c'est la vie.

"The New Spirit" was one of Walt Disney's many contributions to the war effort, and was actually commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. They met with Walt in late December 1941, to discuss using cartoons in the war effort; Walt had expected to make cartoons selling war bonds. He had done so in a few cartoons already, such as "Seven Wise Dwarfs" and "The Thrifty Pigs." However, what the Treasury wanted was a cartoon to show the benefits of paying income tax. After all, the "Five for Four" bonds that the public were buying would have to be paid off in the future somehow, and that's where the tax money comes in.

Walt began work on the cartoon immediately, to get it ready for a February 1942 theatrical release. The storyboard presentation would be done for Henry Morgenthau (Secretary of the Treasury), his secretary, and an aide. Bob Thomas's book Walt Disney: An American Original (1976, Hyperion Press) features an excellent account of how that presentation went:

Walt's audience of three sat expressionless through the entire recital, and they remained silent when Walt finished. Then the aid said tentatively, "Well, I, uh - I always visualized that you would create a little character who would be called Mr. Taxpayer." The secretary was more blunt: "I don't like Donald Duck."

Morgenthau said nothing, and Walt's Irish temper began to mount. "Well, you want to get this message over," he said. "I've given you Donald Duck. At our studio, that's the equivalent of giving you Clark Gable out of the MGM stable. Donald Duck is known by the American public. He'll open doors to the theaters. They won't be running a cartoon of Mr. Taxpayer; they'll be running a Donald Duck cartoon. By giving you this, I'll be losing money. Every theater that plays this short will knock off a Donald Duck cartoon that would have been booked. I did it because I want this thing to be successful. I felt it was the only way to tell the story: by using a character they know and putting him in a situation that they themselves will be in. If you don't like this, I'll have to throw away half the picture, because it's already in work." (Thomas 181)

It's important to see not only Walt's tenacity at doing things his way, but his reasoned way of explaining himself. At the time, the American public might not have reacted warmly to a mere cartoon character like "Mr. Taxpayer" being used solely to spread a political agenda. If it were someone they were familiar with - like Donald Duck - they would be more inviting to the idea he was presenting. It was proven to be a success, as Thomas's book explains how 37% of taxpayers were influenced to do so by "The New Spirit" (Thomas 182). The short was so successful, that it would be re-purposed again a year later, now as "The Spirit of '43." That one saw a new story for Donald. He would be tempted by both a Thrifty Saver and a Spendthrift. The Thrifty Saver wants Donald to regularly pay his income tax, while the Spendthrift instead wants Donald to blow that money on dates and fun. Naturally, Donald chooses to pay his income taxes, which lead to the same montage that closed the first cartoon.

This cartoon is much more patriotic than the first. Gone is the instructional "how to fill out the 1040 A Form" nature, and instead, we see a fun little tug of war in an "angel on my shoulder" story. The imagery here is also blatantly patriotic, from the Hitler-esque mustache on the Spendthrift, to the makeshift American flag behind the Thrifty Saver. Although both this cartoon and "The New Spirit" were made for the U.S. government, only this one is in the public domain. As a result, you're apt to find it on plenty of PD releases. Our family had one such release when we were younger; it also included several public-domain Warner Bros. cartoons from the WWII era, such as "Daffy the Commando." Growing up with those two cartoons, I ended up having vague knowledge of the war before learning more about it in school. I think that's why I'm always eager to read up about World War II, and why that filmmaking period fascinates me so much.

Casablanca has been released to DVD and Blu-Ray several times over the years. Although it is a Warner Bros. film, MGM first released a DVD in 1998 as Casablanca was among the WB films for which Turner Home Entertainment held rights. When Warner Bros. acquired the Turner library (essentially re-acquiring their own pre-1948 film library, in addition to MGM's pre-1986 library and the entire RKO catalog), they released their own DVD in 2000 and 2003, the latter as a two-disc Special Edition shown here with my original 1999 VHS.

The film then came to Blu-Ray and DVD (again) in 2008 as an "Ultimate Collector's Edition," all of which went out of print in 2010. March 2012 saw new Blu-Ray and DVD releases, now under the "70th Anniversary Edition" banner, and featuring a new 4K restoration and several new bonus features. This newest release - also seen in the picture above - is the best version of the film available for home viewing. However, eagle-eyed readers may notice that the Casablanca screen caps featured in this article are from the 2003 DVD. While the 2012 transfer is best for home theatre viewing, I generally prefer the 2003 image for smaller-size presentations, such as on my laptop.

"The New Spirit" can only be found in 2004's "Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines," a DVD set that I've recommended time and again in the past. It's a fascinating examination of Disney's wartime efforts, as well as how animation is used as propaganda. As mentioned earlier, "The Spirit of '43" has lapsed into the public domain, and can be found on many budget DVD releases or YouTube.

With this, our Great Movie Ride Summer Movie Marathon has come to an end. I hope you've enjoyed visiting - or revisiting - some of the greatest films of all time, and we'll continue our regularly-scheduled Saturday Matinee next week. Enjoy the rest of your visit here at From Screen to Theme, and I'll see you at the movies... the stuff dreams are made of. ;)

The Great Movie Ride, Trailer Queue:
Footlight Parade
(1933, Warner Bros.)
Casablanca
(1942, Warner Bros.)
Mary Poppins
(1964, Disney)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
(1981, Lucasfilm)
Singin' in the Rain
(1952, MGM)
Fantasia
(1940, Disney)
Alien
(1979, 20th Century Fox)
The Searchers
(1956, Warner Bros.)

The Great Movie Ride, Attraction Order:
Footlight Parade
(1933, Warner Bros.)
Singin' in the Rain
(1952, MGM)
Mary Poppins
(1964, Disney)
The Public Enemy
(1931, Warner Bros.)
The Searchers
(1956, Warner Bros.)
A Fistful of Dollars
(1964, United Artists)
Alien
(1979, 20th Century Fox)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
(1981, Lucasfilm)
Tarzan the Ape Man
(1932, MGM)
Casablanca
(1942, Warner Bros.)
Fantasia
(1940, Disney)
The Wizard of Oz
(1939, MGM)

The Great Movie Ride, Albert's Five Favorites:
1. Casablanca (1942, Warner Bros.)
2. Mary Poppins (1964, Disney)
3. Singin' in the Rain (1952, MGM)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Lucasfilm)
5. Footlight Parade (1933, Warner Bros.)

 

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