Tag Archives: Frank Capra

16. Casablanca (1943)

Director:   Michael Curtiz


Alex – 9.5   Elliot – 10.0   IMDB 8.7   Rotten Tomatoes 9.0

Alex’s Commentary:

Where does one begin when reviewing Casablanca and how high do I rate it? Given that it is probably my favorite movie to date, I might be tempted to give it a 10; however, as we still have almost 70 years remaining on our cinematic journey, a 9.5 feels appropriate.  Casablanca has everything going for it – a great story, great acting, great directing, great cinematography, even great music. Obviously, I think this movie is great!

Set in World War II Casablanca, the story revolves around refugees of varied socioeconomic backgrounds attempting to flee war-torn Europevia letters of transit obtained through whatever means possible. 4faf455ea6a41d31685a93c550ec2a3c--casablanca--scriptBut this story is merely a backdrop for the real story, the ill-fated love triangle of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).

The dialogues are replete with expressions that have become part of the everyday vernacular or are simply remarkably memorable – “here’s looking at you kid”; “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”, “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue”; “We musn’t underestimate “American blundering”. I was with them when they “blundered” into Berlinin 1918”; ”Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade”; “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”; and of course the quote that was never actually said “Play it again Sam.”

I had forgotten how entertaining the Epstein Brothers screenplay was encompassing both humor and poignancy.  The film is only 102 minutes but feels even shorter given Curtiz’s rapid pacing of scenes. The juxtaposition of Rick and Ilsa’s flashback time in Pariswith current Casablanca is extremely effective. Max Steiner’s atmospheric score captures the cultures of Morocco,France and Germanywhile throwing in some “current” American standards for Sam and the band, most notably “As Time Goes By.”

Although none of the actors or actresses won any Academy Awards, stellar performances abound. Favorites among the cast members include Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), Ugate (Peter Lorre), and of course, Sam (Dooley Wilson).

Casablanca is a must see on every film critics list and certainly on mine.


Elliot’s Commentary:

With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But, not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up – Paris to Marseilles… across the Mediterranean to Oran… then by train, or auto, or foot across the rim of Africa, to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon; and from Lisbon, to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca… and wait… and wait… and wait.

There are so many things that are wonderful about the film Casablanca, that it is hard to properly organize one’s thoughts.  Casablanca has been enshrined in our minds as the quintessential film of classic Hollywood for a reason, and I am at a loss to name a single fault in the film.  It is a film that defies genre classification, and its universal appeal is hard to replicate.  In all honesty, I wouldn’t be able to name a single city in Morocco if this film hadn’t put the city of white houses on the map.  The genius behind this cinematic masterpiece, director Michael Curtiz, also brought us the classic films Yankee Doodle Dandy, Angels with Dirty Faces, and White Christmas.  Curtiz provided the next step from 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, and used the global conflict as the background to frame a larger plot around rather than produce another propaganda film.  Curtiz didn’t really need to worry about making propaganda films, because Frank Capra was taking charge of that realm of filmmaking with the Why We Fight series.  To try and distill the reason why Casablanca remains one of the best motion pictures of all time into one specific reason, would be a futile and pointless effort.  Casablanca is the product of the universe aligning to provide an example of what happens when every fixture of a film works in perfect harmony to create a visual opus.

It is hard to imagine that I wrote a paragraph on the film without mentioning the inimitable Humphrey Bogartebcb26e27d304a0ff5a9c42942c2b526--humphrey-bogart-bulgarian When I hear someone say Bogey, I don’t think about golf, I think about this magnificent man. The majority of the film’s action takes place in Rick’s Café Américain, and Bogey plays the proprietor of the establishment, Rick Blaine.  I do not think that anyone who has ever been born could play a better mysterious leading man with a concealed past and steadfast morals, than Bogey did.   It was also a fantastic casting decision to have Peter Lorre play a supporting role to Mr. Bogart, in a reprise of their superb on-screen dynamic first exhibited in 1941’s Maltese Falcon.

The entire premise of the film involves life in the geographical purgatory of Casablanca, which is located along the escape route for French refuges seeking asylum in America.  For many trapped in this French-owned African colony, life is about waiting to either escape toAmericaor for war to end.  However, in this diplomatic gray area, most people must resort to using the black market to obtain the necessary documents and paperwork to ensure their exodus.  In the mean time, Rick’s Café Américain provides a taste of Western culture in an otherwise barren landscape.  While Rick adamantly tries to abstain from engaging in political matters concerning the growing divide between French loyalists and German officers, a series of events unfolds that forces him to rethink his role as Switzerland.

Rick’s suppressed past jarringly reemerges in the form of the incomparable beauty, Ingrid Bergman, who plays the character Isla Lund.  Bergman is the perfect foil for Bogart’s character, because it takes a woman like her to shake Bogey’s cool.  As the plot unravels, Isla and Rick had a tumultuous love affair in Paris before the Nazi occupation tore them apart.  imagesWhile, I am not interested in spoiling the film, I do have to note that there were other forces than the Nazi’s that also played a part in their separate diasporas.  However, after a couple of years have passed, Isla and her husband Victor Laszlo descend upon Rick’s purgatory seeking letters of transit to aid in their departure.  Victor Laszlo is an extremely important figure in the underground, and publishes revolutionary newsletters that organize the resistance in Europe against Nazi occupation.  As Victor and Isla arrive in the city, they head to the bastion of Western culture in the city, Rick’s Café Américain.  This sparks Humphrey Bogart to deliver one of the most famous lines in cinematic history, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Rather than spill out the rest of the plot summary that you can read on Wikipedia or IMDB, I want to highlight two of my favorite scenes of the film.  The first of which, is a scene that contains the most moving presentation of the La Marseillaise (The French National Anthem) that has ever been portrayed in film.  The scene is set in Rick’s and takes place after the arrival of Victor Laszlo.  A group of German soldiers at Rick’s are inebriated at the bar, and begin singing the German national anthem.  In the sake of full disclosure, I have no idea if it is the Nazi National Anthem or the German National Anthem.  Victor Laszlo stands up in the bar and begins to sing La Marseillaise, and slowly more and more patrons of the bar join Laszlo in song.  This leads to a cacophonous battle of music between the German soldiers and the stranded French citizens.  Then, in a triumphant moment, the French song crescendos to completely drown out the German voices.  This is the turning point of the film, and causes the politically abstinent Rick to realize the importance of Laszlo to the underground cause.

The second important part of this movie that I would like to highlight is the evolution of Hollywood in its portrayal of the black piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson). Now I need to write a small concession before I explain myself, I am not saying that in 1943 Hollywood had finally overcame its issue of race portrayal in film.  In fact, I am willing to argue the point that it still hasn’t overcome it.  However, I want to applaud Casablanca for refusing to make Sam a caricature. dooley-wilson-casablanca-(1942)-large-picture I understand that as one of the only black people in the movie, his portrayal of a piano player could tread the Gone With the Wind line and ignore the vibrant Black culture in America at that time.  However, Casablanca very clearly denotes that Sam is a minority owner of Rick’s and that he and Rick have been lifelong friends.  Also, Dooley Wilson is insanely talented and if I had unlimited money I would pay for his hologram to play As Time Goes By at my wedding.  While race portrayals of most 1940’s films are still incredibly dated, a nice way of saying racist, it was at least nice to see that one screenwriter wrote a role that positively portrayed a black man in early Hollywood.

I know I have said this before in my review of Gone With the Wind, but this film trumps my previous recommendation.  You must see this film.  There hasn’t been a single film we have seen thus far that is as cinematically important or as well done as Casablanca is.

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11. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

Director:   Frank Capra

Alex – 8.5   Elliot – 8.7   IMDB 8.0      Rotten Tomatoes 7.4

Alex’s Commentary:

 It’s hard to imagine a person not liking a Frank Capra movie. You Can’t Take It With You incorporates the familiar Capra themes of the inherent goodness of man (unless you work for the IRS) and money is not the root of happiness. These themes resonated with Capra when he saw the George S. Kaufman / Moss Hart play on Broadway.  He also immediately recognized its potential appeal to the depressions era crowds that would eventually flock to the movie.

This is our second Capra movie that has garnered both the Best Picture and Best Director honors. Although I enjoyed the romantic tension displayed by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night more than the budding romance between James Stewart and Jean Arthur,  You Can’t Take It With You is still considerably fun.lionel barrymore, james stewart, jean arthur & edward arnold - you can't take it with you 1938 The film has a wonderful script that provides a vehicle for the all-star cast to display their theatrical talents. Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) plays the role of the family patriarch and purveyor of homespun philosophies of life. The story juxtaposes wealthy Wall Street financiers with a neighborhood coping with a decimated economy. The presentation of high unemployment and dissatisfaction with the economy could easily be an allegory for a present-day 1% versus 99% Occupy movement. Hopefully, today’s economy will have a Capra-inspired happy ending.

A young James Stewart offers a good performance and displays his acting potential which will continue to evolve as we explore his future Academy Award winning films. On the other hand, Jean Arthur is at the top of her game. It’s difficult to articulate the qualities that make Jean Arthur one of my favorite actresses but the combination of attractive girl-next-door looks coupled with a spunky good-natured sense of humor is infectious. Of course, a screwball comedy needs an entire cast of screwball characters, and this film delivers. Among the numerous residents inhabiting the Vanderhof household are Ann Miller, the accomplished dancer who plays a bad dancer, Donald Meek as the eccentric inventor,  Mischa Auer who plays Russian dance instructor Kolenkhov, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, as the resident “on relief.” Obviously, not all of the character portrayals would be considered politically correct but this was a different era and clearly not meant maliciously.

Much of You Can’t Take It With You feels contemporary. The story holds up well and surprisingly does not feel dated. I would be remiss to mention that there were multiple scenes that had me laughing hysterically.  You Can’t Take It With You is a feel good classic 1930’s film that deserves to be on your watch list if you have yet to experience it.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless classic, with a message and dialogue that is as relevant today as it was in 1938.  You Can’t Take It With You has more a poignant message than Capra’s previous winner, romantic comedy It Happened One Night.  Frank Capra is also the second director thus far to win the Academy Award for Best Picture twice, the first being Frank Lloyd.  However, the talent of the prolific Capra puts him in a league of his own.  James-Stewart-in-You-Can-t-Take-It-With-You-james-stewart-29986512-1067-800Besides his two Best Picture wins, Capra has also picked up two Best Director wins for the same films.  On a personal note, Capra directed one of my favorite films of all time, Arsenic and Old LaceWhile I could rant about Capra for 1000 more words, I should probably go back to the purpose of this blog and discuss the film.  You Can’t Take It With You comes from a rare breed of filmmaking that has the power to evoke a wide array of emotions in a viewer.  I was laughing, I was happy, I was sad, I was angry. It was as if I was a marionette and Capra stood above me as a puppeteer who manipulated my emotional responses for the entire 126 minutes of the film’s running time.

The title of this film actually stems from a colloquial rephrasing of the scriptural verse 1 Timothy 6:7 “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”  This is fitting of both Capra’s religious beliefs as well as the tone of the film, which could easily be considered a modern-day parable.  The film was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning Drama penned by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and is a stylized morality play criticizing the impact that the over-emphasis of wealth incurs on the human psyche.  Perhaps the iconic rapper, Notorious B.I.G., described the concept best in his song “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” While Capra’s own life embodies a Horatio Alger story, his roots allowed him to gain a different perspective on the role of wealth in human happiness.

The film is centered on the romance of Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) and Tony Kirby (James “Jimmy” Stewart), as the couple seeks acceptance of their relationship from their polarized parents.  The Kirby’s are the banking kings on Wall Street, whereas the Sycamore’s have rejected the self-indulgent world of capitalism to focus on their individualized creative pursuits and whims.  Though not paupers by any means, the Sycamore’s have rejected pursuing fields that do not make them happy and instead engage in businesses that allow their creativity to thrive.  This creative hotbed has also attracted outsiders to settle down within their abode, as evidenced by a particularly zany exchange of dialogue between their former ice delivery man and a new recruit where the delivery man states that “[he] came to make a delivery nine years ago, and has been [there] ever since.”  The Sycamore’s collect stamps, write plays, play the xylophone and harmonica, dance, make candy, and make fireworks as well engage in whatever hobbies du-jour tickle their fancy. The only real exception in the family is Alice who is working as Tony Kirby’s secretary in the Kirby Company.  Tony is the Vice President of the company but only through nepotism, and has a clear disinterest in the family business.

The film has several key movements, first the establishment of the characters, then the meeting of the family, and finally the trials and tribulations of a prohibited love. One of my favorite scenes in the film comes during the meeting of the two families in which Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), Tony’s father, meets the Sycamore’s dance instructor, Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer).  Anthony tells Kolenkhov that he used to wrestle, and Kolenkhov responds by flipping Mr. Kirby on his back and pinning him.  The suddenness of the action and the body type of the elderly Mr. Kirby is enough to make anyone with a sense of humor break out in laughter.  I’m not usually a fan of slap-stick comedy, but Capra manages to incorporate some slap-stick gags in a surprisingly artful fashion.  you-cant-take-it-with-you-prayerThe film also changes its tone substantially in a jail scene in which the entire cast is incarcerated.  As the indignant Anthony P. Kirby rails into Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), Alices’s Grandpa, for the unpleasantness of the situation, Martin goes on a verbose rant filled with scathing criticism of both Mr. Kirby and his capitalist way of life.  He describes that Kirby’s money and power have not made him any friends, and that he has forgotten what happiness even feels like.  Using the metaphor of a harmonica, a relic of Kirby’s carefree past, Mr. Vanderhof dares Kirby to try and renounce his selfish ways and attempt to be a father and a human being for once in his life.  Vanderhof’s point is further solidified during the sentencing of the two parties for crimes of disturbing the peace and manufacturing fireworks without a permit.  While Kirby has four lawyers to represent the three members of his family, Vanderhof has a courtroom full of friends and neighbors to provide moral support.  It was hard not to choke up during a particularly joyous scene in the courtroom as Vanderhoff’s supporters take up a collection and pay off his 100 dollar fine.

This film is a fantastic story, with a great cast, and a great message.  The only complaint I had about this film was the racial stereotyping of the “help” in the house.  However in this era of filmmaking, these patronizing portrayals of Blacks were unfortunately common place. It is important to recognize the time period in which the films that we view were made, because these racial portrayals were tame compared to peer productions.  Honestly if you are reading this review and have never seen the film, go out and see it.  I promise that you will not be disappointed.  I don’t care which demographic that you represent, this thought-provoking and enchanting film is truly a classic of American cinema and should not overlooked.

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7. It Happened One Night (1934)

Director:  Frank Capra


Alex – 9.0   Elliot – 9.0    IMDB 8.3   Rotten Tomatoes 8.9

Alex’s Commentary:

I love It Happened One Night. Of the films we have seen, this is the first film that I have seen on numerous occasions (although this is the first time on a large screen HD television). In fact, I never previous appreciated the beautiful cinematography. The elegant black and white scenes reminded me of Ansel Adams photographs. There are scenes of moonlight and daylight, urban city and rural county, people at parties and people on buses, and lots of rain.1416087532_5 I also never realized how attractive Claudette Colbert was.  Especially with the moonlight streaming onto her face through a cabin window as she laid thinking of Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on the other side of the blanket separating their beds.

The story has been retold in various guises through films of every decade. The spoiled rich girl, Ellie Andrews, escapes from her millionaire father (Walter Connolly) who wants to stop her from marrying a worthless playboy, only to be befriended by out-of-work newspaper man, Peter Warne. Naturally, their initial icy relationship blossoms into love as they travel together toNew York. The movie is often considered the first screwball romantic comedy to win the Oscar for best picture.

The story and the acting are first-rate. It Happened One Night was the first film to win the “big five” Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra) and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin). The story is warm and engaging. The characters are wonderfully detailed and developed. Even the minor characters are memorable from the fast taking bus rider, Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), to Ellie’s father, to the cottage owners, to the thieving highway man. Although the film is a comedy, it is still a depression era movie that does an excellent job of depicting multiple facets of American life in the 1930’s: both from the perspective of the wealthy, King Westley arriving to his wedding in an autogyro, to those who must chose between spending money on a bus ticket versus eating a meal.

It Happened One Night is a delightful timeless film that all lovers of romantic comedies should include on their must-see list.

Elliot’s Commentary:

I don’t think it is that much of a stretch to say that It Happened One Night is my favorite Oscar Winner that we’ve seen thus far.   First, let me start with two words that sum up my feelings about the film: Clark Gable.  Directed by the very talented Frank Capra, of It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fame among countless other classics, It Happened One Night is the first glimpse we have had of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is hard to do anything but gush in response to this film, but I will try to maintain some sense of decorum in this commentary.  From the classic backlighting, to the acting, to the production value, to the story, there is something timeless about this film that we haven’t really witnessed thus far in our journey through the best picture winners.  Even the sound quality and sound mixing make this picture a standout in comparison to its more dated predecessors.

An aspect of films like It Happened One Night that one has to take into account, is the fact that what may seem cliché to us now was still an original plot motif when the film was made.  The beautiful Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled rich girl, who runs away from her overbearing father to taste freedom for the first time.  While originally Ellen Andrews (Colbert) flees her father to join her new husband, it quickly becomes apparent that she did not marry “King” Westley for love.   However, Ms. Andrews faces many trials and tribulations as the sheltered debutante attempts to take to the lengthy voyage fromMiami toNew York.  Luckily for both Andrews and viewers alike, the suave newspaper man Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is there to serve as Sherpa for her life-changing journey.  Convinced that the overnight bus fromMiami toNew York won’t leave without her, Ellen takes her time during a brief break only to discover no bus. Suddenly she is met with the stunning realization that the world doesn’t revolve around her.  Peter Warne however, noticed that she had left her ticket on the bus and was waiting to greet the shocked Ellen Andrews.

Through their tumultuous journey together that includes their luggage being stolen, private investigators searching for the missing heiress, being broke and hungry, forging streams, sleeping in hay bales, stealing cars, as well as a myriad of other instances of lovable shenanigans, they discovered that they could quite possibly be in love with each other.   7448b0ad8aae9e38ab8d5aedb58d6f21My favorite scene in the film is one in which Clark Gable shows Colbert how to hitchhike.  He goes on a long spiel illustrating the three different kinds of gesticulations he uses to hail passing cars, and then attempts to demonstrate them.   As he furiously goes through the three options, he fails to elicit a single response from the passing stream of automobiles.  Colbert then steps up to the plate, and asks for a try.  Gable relents to prove to her how difficult the task actually can be.  Colbert then hikes up her dress revealing an amount of leg that was the 1930’s equivalent of a Janet Jackson super bowl performance, and immediately gets them a ride.

While I could write 5000 words on why I love this movie, I think it would be best for me to just endorse that anybody who enjoys classic films, romantic comedies, or just film in general should really see the film It Happened One Night.  *Spoiler Alert* Runaway Bride  totally copied its premise from a scene at the end of this film, and I would take Claudette Colbert over Julia Roberts any day.

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