“I stick my neck out for nobody!” — Casablanca — Best Pictures of 1942 (#1)

Yes, Casablanca is, of course, my choice for the best picture of 1942. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. There are few classic movies that are as universally loved and rightly so. What might come as a surprise is my neglecting The Magnificent Ambersons, often considered one of the greatest U.S. movies. Though I think Orson Welles probably made a great movie, its mutilation by RKO has left us with only a disjoined skeleton of a narrative that I’ve never been able to connect with. There is beautiful photography, great sequences, and some fantastic performances, all of which simply make me angry about the movie we lost. While I love parts of it, I can’t say I love The Magnificent Ambersons or consider what we have among the best films of 1942. I do, however, consider Casablanca in that class.

Casablanca is about as close to a perfect movie as they come. There was every opportunity for it to descend into Hollywood phoniness, but it somehow manages to maintain an emotional authenticity that was rare from the celluloid sausage factories of Hollywood in the 1940s.

The artistic success of Casablanca is all the more surprising when one reads up on the history of its production. It was, simply put, chaotic. The script wasn’t finished when they started production, and cast and crew filmed early scenes unsure how the picture would end. Would Elsa stay with Rick or fly off with Laszlo? Internal memos from Warner Bros. shows a lot of hand wringing over how to resolve the story without tarnishing Bogart’s and Bergman’s star statuses and monkeying with public expectations. Of course they finally figured it out and created what I would call a sublime ending.

Of course the success of Casablanca would not have been possible without Bogart’s great performance, bringing the emotionally wounded Rick to the screen. Nor would it have been possible without Ingrid Bergman’s performance either. Elsa is a woman crippled by her desire to be with the man she loves and her duty to a higher cause. The performances anchor the film and are some of the best of each of their respective careers.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman smolder in Casablanca

But the movie is much richer, more complex than the Rick-Elsa-Laszlo triangle. The anxious ex-pat community of Casablanca, desperately fleeing the advancing Nazis, is masterfully realized. We watch characters from around the world, from all economic and social classes, caught in limbo as they wait for those elusive exit visas to get to the United States. Writers Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch didn’t ignore the importance of these subplots to the main story. These characters and their backstories help humanize Rick. We see how the endless stream of sob stories forces him to build an emotional wall, but that wall is illusory. He is constantly measuring his ability to help with as little risk to himself as possible.

Not that he’s a coward. He simply understands the importance of picking his fights and planning them out so he is available to help another day. What a powerful message that must have been at the height of the war. No matter how dark or cynical the times, one man, no matter how selfish he may be, can change things for the better.

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10 Comments

Filed under 1942, Yearly Best Pictures

10 responses to ““I stick my neck out for nobody!” — Casablanca — Best Pictures of 1942 (#1)

  1. Jon

    Can’t argue with this pick. It’s a fantastic film. Here are my 10 favorite of 1942….not in any particular order.
    Casablanca, Bambi, Tales of Manhattan, The Pride of the Yankees, The Magnificent Ambersons, To Be or Not to Be, Random Harvest, Cat People, The Palm Beach Story, The Talk of the Town

    • Interesting choices. Of those I didn’t have in my own countdown I enjoyed Cat People, Talk of the Town and some of The Magnificent Ambersons. I have to admit that I really didn’t like Random Harvest or Pride of the Yankees, though there are some good performances in both.

  2. Undoubtedly! Although I haven’t seen many 1942 flicks, I concur with you on all points. “As Time Goes By” this movie only grows more dearer to me.

  3. Great choice and I’m glad to see this as your number one – definitely my favourite of 1942 too. As well as Bogart and Bergman, I also love Claude Rains in this – and there are so many great one-liners. It’s a film that’s always worth watching just one more time. I do like ‘Ambersons’, though I agree with you that it is frustrating to wonder how much greater it would have been if it had not been cut to ribbons.

    There are still so many more from 1942 that I need to see, including some of your choices, and I’m badly lacking in foreign-language films from that year, so I can’t really draw up a top ten … but a few from that year which I like and which you haven’t included in your choices are Roxie Hart (one of my favourite Wellmans), In This Our Life, Holiday Inn (‘method dancing’ from Fred Astaire with his amazing drunken dance where he actually got drunk to do it!), Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Spoilers and Moontide, which I just saw recently, a rare English language film for Jean Gabin with a creepy performance by Thomas Mitchell.

    • In This Our Life Came Close to making this list. I really enjoyed that picture and loved the unlikely pairing of Olivia de Haviland and Bette Davis in soap opera material. In the end, though I simply enjoyed it without really loving it.

      Moontide is another decent movie. Mitchell really steals the movie though from Gabin, something I don’t think anyone would have predicted at the time.

      I don’t know why I’ve never connected with Yankee Doodle Dandy or Cagney’s performance. They aren’t bad, I guess, just uninteresting to me.

  4. Ah, I did expect this as per my last comment several days back. And needless to say it’s a great choice for all kinds of reasons. But your elaboration in this excellent analysis makes it all clear. One of the greatest scripts ever written, legendary performances, a love story for the ages, and perhaps the most entertaining film ever made, or at least one of the extreme short list. Yeah I did figure the mutilation of Welles’ film was what ultimately took it out of contention for you, and I quite understand it.

    • Yes, the hatchet job on Ambersons pulls it out of contention for me. Like I said, there are scenes. sequences and performances I love, but all together it’s something of a mess. (Maybe that’s a little harsh, but it isn’t particularly good either.)

  5. jeffrey

    my top ten movies for 1942 are:
    casablanca
    the magnificent ambersons
    woman of the year
    to be or not to be
    palm beach story
    in this our life
    the male animal
    tales of manhatten
    this above all
    my sister eileen

    • Some good choices there Jeffery. I would have especially liked to find room for Woman of the Year and In This Our Life, but they didn’t quite make the cut. Thanks for commenting and I hope to see you here again.

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