CASABLANCA (1942) – You must remember this, as there will be a movie quiz on it later

Casablanca

There’s this guy who’s been burned in love, see. So he hangs out at his bar and acts like he doesn’t care about anyone. Then his lover comes back, only now she has a husband who has secret papers he has to get out of the country, fast. Now, the barfly could get his revenge and forget them both, or he could help the guy out and snooker his old flame into staying with him. Ah, what’s a World War II apolitical in occupied France to do?

If you’re lucky enough not to already know this scenario, I highly urge you to buy the two-DVD set of¬†Casablanca,¬†winner of 1942’s Best Picture Oscar. The rest of us can once more enjoy a legendary movie that, like The Wizard of Oz or Citizen Kane, only grows better with time.

In a career-defining role, Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, the nightclub owner who appears stoic until visited by old flame Ilsa (dreamy Ingrid Bergman), who sends his stoicism up in flames and has a few issues of her own to deal with. For one thing, there’s a war going on. It’s impossible for anyone who didn’t live through the Second World War to appreciate the intensity of what was at stake. But Casablanca gives us a pretty darned good idea, just by personalizing the whole thing under the guise of romance.

Ably supporting Bogart and Bergman is the supporting cast of a lifetime, including Claude Rains, Paul Heinreid, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. There’s also the miracle of an Oscar-winning screenplay (by Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein), which was derived from a so-so stage play and then made up as it went along. (Even the actors didn’t know how the ending would occur until the day they filmed it.)

Lastly, there’s the great music. Most of it is Max Steiner’s lush score, but the movie also makes much of a then-little-known song called “As Time Goes By.” And wait until you see what this movie does for the French national anthem (a rousing highlight of the movie, shown in the clip linked below).

The DVD set includes tons of extras, including two documentaries hosted by Bogart’s widow Lauren Bacall. But my personal fave extra is the long-overdue Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck parody Carrotblanca, which, for my money, was the funniest movie of 1995. (You’ll be pleased to know that Tweety Bird does a wicked Peter Lorre imitation.)

So round up the usual suspects and savor a Hollywood classic. You’ll be glad you stuck your neck out for this one.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) – Murderous farce goes down surprisingly smoothly

CaryGrant

Frank Capra has become hallowed in film history as the director of films that champion the average American and the common cause. Of course, that’s only if you haven’t seen his film version of the Broadway black-comedy hit Arsenic and Old Lace, one of the funniest farces ever.

Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who’s newly married after having lived with his doting aunts all of his life. At first glance, this family seems as sunny as any in a Capra comedy. Mortimer’s eccentric uncle has delusions of being Teddy Roosevelt, and there are references to Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathan. But his aunts are as doting as aunts can be. And Mortimer, newly married, is preparing to go on a Niagara Falls honeymoon with his loving wife Elaine (Priscilla Lane).

This happy domesticity unravels the moment Mortimer happens to open his aunts’ wooden chest and sees a corpse inhabiting it. At first, Mortimer jumps to the logical conclusion that crazy Teddy has committed the murder. Then he discovers that his sweet aunts were responsible for that corpse and 11 others who are buried in the cellar.

The aunts regard their work as mercy killings. After all, they poison only lonely old men whose lives have no meaning — unlike Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who heartlessly kills anyone who gets in his way and who happens to pay a return visit to his old home on the same night that Mortimer uncovers the unwelcome houseguests.

As with most farces, Arsenic and Old Lace requires a certain suspension of disbelief. In particular, this story is quite obviously a remnant of the 1940’s, when mental illness was a lot more frivolously regarded. And the ever-opening door, a staple of farces, seems awfully overused — especially when Jonathan, a convicted murderer, seems rather unconcerned about so many people (including cops) traipsing in and out of the house.

If there’s any glue that keeps the story together, it’s Cary Grant. Just watching him do wacko double-takes or muttering under his breath like Popeye the Sailor is worth the watching. There’s a great moment when he and Massey try to protect their secrets at the same time, and then some major plot points play across Grant’s wondrous face for about ten seconds. It’s far funnier and more effective than a page of expository dialogue could be.

Besides enjoying the movie as a major black comedy, film aficionados can only wonder how a comedy about murderers (a) became such a hit during World War II and (b) how it ever made it past movie censors intact.