Friday, December 31, 2010

It takes a village...

There are some stores that you go into knowing you will make completely unnecessary purchases.  Brookstone, for example, or Papyrus.  For me, that store is Williams-Sonoma.  Yes, I know I can get similar cooking items from Homegoods or Macy's.  And yes, I know this store is outrageously expensive.  But every time (especially when aided and abetted by my mom) I walk into that store I end up purchasing sometime I absolutely don't need.  And this Christmas Eve was no exception.

I bought a village bunt pan.

What is a village bunt pan you ask?  I'll tell you.  It is a mold that makes small, Christmas village-type houses out of cake.

When would one use something like this?  Well, when one was making a Christmas village cake of course!  (So, like, once).

Don't judge me!  These houses were awesome.  After I made them I stood back and stared.  Did I really just make those?  They're beautiful.  Of course next came the inevitable problem.  I slaved all Christmas Day making this cake, put it down on the table, and as we all stared at it said, "Nope, sorry.  We can't eat this today.  Too pretty."  Luckily there was an incredible back-up key lime pie.

We finally ate it (or some of it, anyway) and the village crumbled and died.  I put away the pan for next year, when I may or may not make village bunts again.  Probably not.  Hey, at least I didn't buy the Star Wars pancake molds!  No matter how big my Williams-Sonoma delusion, I know deep in my soul I don't need a Millennium Falcon shaped pancake in my life.

Now I will admit to also purchasing the Brown Sugar Bunt cake mix from WS as well, which I used to make the houses.  But the cake and frosting are all my own.  And yes, I did make the cake chocolate because it was the dirt underneath the white frosting (or snow) of the village.  Ok, you can judge me now.  And I made a tree.

My Village Cake
You'll need:
A Williams and Sonoma Village pan.  Seriously.  There's no way around this unless you are the Cake Boss.
A rectangular or circular cake 9" or larger pan with vertical sides (large enough to fit all the houses, you can test this before you bake)
Parchment paper
Brown Sugar Bunt mix (interchangeable with a different mix or your own recipe, but I recommend bunt mixes for their ability to maintain a shape)
Either a ziplock bag or a pastry bag with decorating tips
Lots of Pam
2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
2 sticks butter
3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons half and half
Green food coloring
Sugar ice cream cones
Candy for decorating (I choose red and white MandMs and snowmen peeps)

For the dirt (cake):
  1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease baking pan.  Place a long rectangular strip of parchment paper along pan so it comes out both sides.  This will be it much easier to lift the cake out of the pan when frosting later. 
  2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and 2 teaspoons vanilla; beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour batter into prepared pan.
  3. Bake 45to 60 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pan to platter using parchment lifts. Cool completely.
For the snow (frosting):
  1. Combine butter, 2 cups powdered sugar, half and half, and remaining vanilla in an electric mixer.  
  2. Beat until fully combined.  The measurements aren't precise, feel free to add more of any ingredient until you create a spreadable, creamy frosting with the right flavor.
For the houses:
  1. Prepare the bunt mix and preheat the oven according to instrutions.
  2. Liberally spray the pan with Pam.
  3. Evenly distribute the battle to each house well.
  4. Bake until toothpick inserted inside comes out clean.  Let stand for 10 minutes to cool.
  5. Slice any extra cake from the tops of the wells so the bottoms of the houses are flat.  Upend and place houses on a platter to cool.
To decorate:

  1. Frost "ground" cake.   Place each house on top, and decorate houses as desired
  2. Pipe green food colored frosting onto cones and decorate with candy.  Place on cake.
  3. Once everything is decorated, sift powdered sugar over the top like snow.

What does this have to do with Going My Way?  Well Bing did love a White Christmas.  Also, he's big on families and neighborhoods in the movie.  Finally, I'm pretty sure one of those houses is a church.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Going My Way

"A golf course is nothing but a poolroom moved outdoors."--Father Fitzgibbon (Going My Way, 1944)
Well it's a lovely movie, especially to watch at Christmas time.  If I close my eyes I can pretend I'm watching White Christmas.  What's it about?  Bing Crosby.  Seriously.  He sings, it's great, and I think he's a priest who helps people and saves a church?  Don't know.  Don't really care.  I enjoyed watching it, I loved the music, and I don't really remember what it was about.  Entertaining film with Bing Crosby?  Absolutely.  Oscar-worthy film?  Eh--probably not.

Fathers O'Malley and Fitzgibbon
The Plot
The film starts in New York City, with mortgage broker Ted Haines Sr. reluctantly telling elderly Irish Father Fitzgibbon, played by Barry Fitzgerald, that if he doesn't make his mortgage payment on St. Dominic's church soon he will have to call in the mortgage.  Ted, Jr. argues with his father to give the church a break, but his father insists.  Father Charles Francis Patrick O'Malley, played by Bing Crosby, arrives in the neighborhood with modern ways that upset the locals.  He greets Father Fitzgibbon in a sweatshirt and slacks and announces he is to be his new curate.

Father O'Malley is the new curate.
Father O'Malley visits with his childhood friend Father Timothy O'Dowd, a local priest and the only one who knows that Father O'Malley was really sent to replace Fitzgibbon at St. Dominic's, which is in financial difficulties as well as in a troubled neighborhood.  When Ted, Jr. is sent to evict Hattie Quimp, who is O'Malley's biggest detractor, O'Malley promises the church will guarantee her rent.  On his walk back to the church, O'Malley notices two young boys stealing turkeys, with which they will later escape into the church garden and then gift to Father Fitzgibbon.  O'Malley mentions the boys are in trouble, and Fitzgibbon refuses to believe it until he discovers the turkeys are stolen.  But instead of punishing the boys, O'Malley takes them to a baseball game instead.  Meanwhile, one of the local policemen brings pretty, eighteen-year-old runaway Carol James to see O'Malley after picking her up on the street.  She turns down O'Malley's offer of a job keeping house at the church, and mentions her desire to become a singer.  O'Malley tries to coach her, and then gives her $10 when she insists on leaving.

Father O'Malley talks to the boys.
Now having earned the trust of the boys in the neighborhood, O'Malley convinces them to train as the church choir.  Fitzgibbon, having had enough, goes to the bishop to ask for O'Malley's transfer, only to learn that O'Malley has been sent as his replacement.  Upset, Fitzgibbon runs away, but O'Malley's policeman friend finds him in a storm and brings him home to O'Malley and the distraught housekeeper.  O'Malley and Fitzgibbon bond over Irish whiskey and songs, and Fitzgibbon mentions his desire to see his ninety-year-old mother, who still lives in Ireland.  A little while later, O'Malley runs into an old friend and flame, Metropolitan Opera star Genevieve "Jenny" Linden, played by real-life opera star Rise Stevens, who is surprised to learn her dear friend has become a priest.

Father O'Malley sees Jenny.
Hattie Quimp, still antagonistic, informs Fitzgibbon that Carol has taken the apartment across from hers, and has no problems "paying" her rent to Ted, Jr.  O'Malley goes over to check on her, and finds that the two are in love and Ted, Jr. has let her live in a vacant apartment without telling his father.  O'Malley plays them a song, and makes them realize how serious they are about each other.  A little later, Jenny and O'Dowd visit St. Dominic's and  see the choir.  O'Dowd mentions that he has been attempting to get O'Malley's latest song, "Going My Way" published by his friend, but it has been rejected as "too schmaltzy."  Meanwhile Ted, Sr. has finally found out about Carol, and bursts into her apartment to find her in her nightgown and Ted, Jr. coming out of the bedroom.  It turns out they're married, and they blissfully ignore Ted, Sr.'s sputtering.  But just when Ted, Sr. has reached his boiling point, his son comes out in a Army Air Force uniform, and bids them both a fond farewell.

Ted, Jr. and Carol fall in love
O'Dowd has convinced his publisher friend to come see Jenny perform "Going My Way" with the St. Dominic's choir.  But while he still feels the song too corny, he accidentally catches the boys singing O'Malley's more upbeat "Swinging on a Star."  The money for the song will be used to save the church, but at O'Malley's suggestion the publishers come to church, and put the money into Fitzgibbon's collection.  Fitzgibbon is so excited, he agrees to go golfing with the other fathers, and surprises everyone with his swing.

The fathers go golfing.
But all this comes to an abrupt end when the church catches fire and burns down.  Father Fitzgibbon falls ill after trying to solicit donations in the rain.  O'Malley tells Fitzgibbon that Ted, Jr. is on his way home after a minor jeep accident, and Jenny, who is touring with the boys' choir, has sent a check for $3,500 from the proceeds.  But just as construction has begun on the new church, O'Malley is transferred to another church that needs his help.  Fitzgibbon is sad to see him go and shocked to discover the irreverent O'Dowd has become his new curate.  As Fitzgibbon gives a sermon thanking O'Malley for all he has done, Jenny brings in Fitzgibbon's elderly mother as O'Malley watches.  As Fitzgibbon tearfully embraces his mother, O'Malley walks away into the snowy night, whistling.

Father O'Malley leaves.

The History
Leo McCarey, Oscar-winning director of The Awful Truth, made the success of his new film, Going My Way, seen unlikely.  It would contain a series of vignettes about a priest, have no female leads, and boast crooner Bing Crosby in the lead.  He was an unusual choice to play a priest but Crosby was already incredibly popular with audiences, especially the troops.  This, however, was the first film in which Crosby would be considered an actor, rather than a singer, and he was named the number one box office star of the year.  Crosby would go on to become one of the top stars of the decade, and he, along with his music, are still popular today.

Leo McCarey and Bing Crosby
The film was a surprising hit with audiences, with the Hollywood Reporter claiming that "it's a good bet that the McCarey-Paramount clicker may even top the Selznick-MGM big grosser [Gone with the Wind]."   Darryl F. Zanuck's pet picture, Wilson, an epic about President Woodrow Wilson,  was much more
elaborate and war conscious than Going My Way.  But while it retained some good critical reviews, Wilson flopped at the box office, and Going My Way beat it in nearly every category at the Awards.  Zanuck was so upset that he ordered his staff to never mention the movie about his favorite historical hero ever again.
Publicity still for Going My Way
Going My Way was nominated for ten awards, and won seven: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Original Story, and Song ("Swinging on a Star").  It is the first film to have both won "Best Song" and "Best Picture."  It is also the first and only film to have a single star (Barry Fitzgerald) be nominated for both actor categories for the same film.  Though he was nominated for both "Best Actor" and "Best Supporting Actor" he would only win "Best Supporting" while the "Best Actor" award would go to Bing Crosby.  Because of this, the Academy changed their rules to ensure actors could only be nominated in one category per film. 
Publicity still for Going My Way
Going My Way was followed by a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's.  There would also be a short lived television show based on the film, starring Gene Kelley in 1962.  This film was the top box office grosser of 1944, and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  Despite its popularity, it has since faded out of significance, in the wake of Crosby's far more popular film, White Christmas.  It is perhaps best remembered for its award-winning song, "Swinging on a Star."

Singing "Swinging on a Star."
The Academy Award Ceremony was slowly changing.  This year at the ceremony producer Mark Sandrich's behest, small clips of each nominated film would be played for each award presentation, so as not to give one award preference over another.  This would also be the first ceremony that would be broadcast nationally on the fledgling network, ABC--on the radio, of course.  Unfortunately, Mark Sandrich would not live to see the ceremony and his many changes.  He died on at the age of 34 of a heart attack, mere days before the show.

Father O'Malley and Father Fitzgibbon play golf.
A little known fact about Bing Crosby is that his favorite pastime was golf, and is now a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Aside from Bobby Jones and Arnold Palmer (the man, not the drink), Crosby may be the person most responsible for popularizing the game of golf.  He was a two handicap who competed in both the British and U.S. Amateur championships.  So when March of 1945 and the Awards ceremony came around, Paramont Pictures' biggest star was to be found on the 12th hole of Lakeside golf course mere hours before the show.  When the publicity crew came to beg him to attend, Crosby shrugged them off and told them to invite his parents in his stead.  They did invite his parents, but instead Crosby's mother called her son and gave him such a scolding that he did, indeed, decide to attend.

Fitzgerald and Crosby with their Oscars
Crosby was not the only golf enthusiast in Going My Way.  Barry Fitzgerald was an avid golfer himself.  When he recieved his award and came home after a night of celebrating, he decided to practice his golf swing and decapitated his plaster Oscar statuette (the statues were made of plaster during wartime).  The studio had to pay $10 to replace the sheepish Fitzgerald's award.  So he did, in fact, win two Oscars that year.

The Verdict
What to say about this film?  It's very warm and fuzzy.  I could listen to Bing Crosby sing forever.  He and Frank Sinatra have those soothing, liquid voices that seem to seep into one's pores.  I also like the way Crosby manages to distribute advice without ever once sounding patronizing.  He makes a speech about giving back to others or following your dreams or something, and I just nod my head and say, "Yes, Bing.  You're right.  I should join a choir to save my church.  And it's normal that you just turned a street gang into a choir with little-to-no effort."  So it's completely understandable he's in almost every scene.  This movie would fall apart without him.

Father O'Malley in his neighborhood.
Not to say that I didn't enjoy the rest of the cast.  It's always fun to watch Barry Fitzgerald of How Green Was My Valley  and The Quiet Man play an irascible old Irishman.  Partially because I think he was an irascible old Irishman.  And Rise Stevens was a real-life opera star, so her voice is very nice to listen to.  But while this movie is fun to watch, it is basically unremarkable.

I find two things interesting about this film.  The first is the original movie poster, replicated again above.  Rise Stevens is a minor character in the film who only appears half-way in.  She is holding hands on the poster with Bing Crosby, whose priest collar has almost disappeared from sight.  This completely downplays the entire plot of the film.  Were the advertisers afraid that by both making the main character a priest and having no female lead the film would do poorly?  Stevens is also in the corner in an Opera costume she never wears in the film.  Barry Fitzgerald and the choir are almost non-existent in the corner.  I don't know quite what to make of this, but it bears noting.

Carol bids Ted, Jr. goodbye.
And lastly, perhaps because of the last few films I've watched, the war element in this film, again, is fascinating to me.  In fact, my favorite subplot was that of Carol and Ted, Jr., especially in the scene when he goes off to war.  Now unlike Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca, there is nothing in this film that is about war.  But this small scene shows how omnipresent war was in the society of 1944.  And how awesome nightgowns were.

Ted, Jr. shakes hands with his father.
No matter what type of film it is, (and the last three films differed greatly) each somehow reflect the realty of war lurking in the background of ordinary lives.  In this film it is a small enough thing, but just seeing Ted, Jr. put on a uniform and leave his young bride sent a chill down my spine.  That would never occur in today's films.  In fact, I would hazard to guess that in no time period since has such a type of film existed.  Because of the nature of World War II, war itself has become a background element to all films during this time period.  This film may be saccharine and childish, but Ted is still going to fight a war.  He even becomes injured, though not badly.  It is the contrast between the smiling, all-American men and women in these films and the constant threat of war that gets to me.  Ted shakes his fathers hand and leaves with a smile on his face.  It is a scene that we will never see since.  Not with Vietnam, and certainly not with 9/11.  With the era of World War II America coming to an end, I find myself struck by how strange it must have felt to live under the constant shadow of a real world war.  I imagine it felt something like this scene.  Only not nearly as nice and smiley. 
Father Fitzgibbon hugs his mother.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On a Magical Journey

Based on my new idea to broaden my posting horizons please enjoy a short vingette based on recent modern movie travails....

The past week or so have contained an epic battle-one of good versus evil; of wrong versus right.  This is a battle where truth, justice, and an indomitable will combined to--okay, fine, this week was a battle to get one of my friends to go with me to see Tangled.

Now before you judge me too harshly let me point out a few important facts.  First of all, digitally animated moves are very in right now.  Toy Story 3 got a 99% on the meter (personally, though the movie was great, I think that rating is a little too high).  Secondly, I have to say I have an uncanny ability to pick entertaining movies based solely on previews.  I knew it would be awesome.  And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I have never outgrown my love of princesses, animated or otherwise.

Rapuzel and her magic hair
It's true!  I know all the lyrics to all the Disney princess songs.
Unfortunately, I am now considered to be an adult.  So if I were to go see the movie alone, I would be the creepy person in the back of the theater.  None of my friends or close relatives have children, and I am not currently babysitting any suitable little children that I can drag to the movie as an excuse.  Therefore, one of my friends has to go with me.

Rapunzel's castle and some Disney magic.
I informed them of this, and received only eye-rolling.  But I persevered.  It only took several impassioned speeches, five threatening emails, one incidence of blackmail, and a pointed facebook post before finally one of them agreed to come along.  And I promised to buy her margaritas.

Tangled early story sketch

Terrifying Mother Gothel probably appreciated the margs...

So--a pitcher of fabulous frozen raspberry margaritas later (was it inappropriate to drink before a children's film?) and we were off to a 3D adventure.

A side note about 3D.  Is it really all that necessary?  Kind of gives me a headache...

My verdict?  I enjoyed the film, though perhaps not the best princess story I've seen.

Rapunzel and her magic hair
Tangled is the story of a princess named Rapunzel, played by Mandy Moore.  Right before her mother is about to give birth, the queen becomes ill, and the only thing that can cure her is a magical flower hidden in the kingdom.  The flower is watched over by an evil witch, Mother Gothel, played by Donna Murphey, who sings a magic song and therefore uses its powers to remain young forever.  But one day Mother Gothel is careless, the guards find the flower and feed it to the queen.  She gets better and gives birth to Rapunzel, who has the power to heal in her shiny golden hair.  Mother Gothel sneaks into the castle and attempts to snip her hair, but when cut, Rapunzel's hair turns brown and looses its power.  So the evil witch steals her away, hides her in a tower and pretends to be her mother.  Heartbroken, the king and queen release golden lanterns into the air on her birthday every year, hoping that the lanterns will reach their daughter and bring her home.

Magic lanterns around the castle.
Eighteen years later, Rapuzel is determined to set out on her own to seek the lanterns, which have become special to her though she doesn't know why.  Mother Gothel refuses to let her leave, claiming the outside world too dangerous.  Enter Flynn Ryder, played by Zachary Levi, a notorious theif who has stolen the missing princess's tiara from the castle.  But in his haste to get away, he ends up hiding in Rapunzel's tower.  She kidnaps him and refuses to return the tiara until he takes her (and her trusty sidekick, Pascal the chamelion) with him to see the lanterns before Mother Gothel returns.  What follows is a typical chase through the forrest, avoiding both Flynn's pursuers and Mother Gothel's machinations.  Rapunzel learns to grow up and face the world, and Flynn finds himself falling in love with the intrepid princess.  But when Mother Gothel becomes determined to keep Rapunzel at all costs, Flynn must step in to save the day by being true to himself and the one he loves.

They just can't get his nose right.
What did I love?
Zachary Levi.  You probably know him as the title character in the TV series, Chuck.  This film is an entirely new side of him as an actor.  Flynn is the best character in this film, by far.  He is funny, charming, witty, and vulnerable.  Actually, I think I'd rank him up there with Aladdin, another thief with a heart of gold.  Levi manages to make the audience actually care about this Disney prince, when the princess is usually the scene stealer.  And this is supposed to be Rapunzel's story. 

Rapunzel's tower
Another great thing was the scenery.  I saw an interview in which the animators mentioned they were inspired by old Disney films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.  I can definitely sense the older, more magical vibe of those films.  In many ways the animation harkens back to the golden age of animation, which, with The Princess and the Frog, Disney has been attempting to return to.

Flynn with one of the villians-with-a-heart-of-gold
Less thrilled about... Suprisingly, the music.  This film was scored by Oscar-winning composer, Alan Menken, he of such famous films as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Enchanted.  I cannot tell you a single song from this movie.  The songs were unmemorable, all realtively similar, and did not help to progress the story line.  The best one is probably the song sung by all the villians in the pub into witch Rapunzel stumbles, and there's also "Mother Knows Best" sung by the evil Mother Gothel.  But when you have a noted singer in your aray of actors, it is suprising when her songs are so completley unmemorable.

Rapunzel with the villians.
Which brings me to Rapunzel...
I've never hated Mandy Moore, though her combination whiney/impassioned little girl acting has recently begun to grate.  But I at least appreciate the effort to be different, instead of routinely banging out syrupy half-baked romantic comedies like so many other actresses these days.  I actually like it when she plays a mean girl.  Much more fun.

Rapunzel and Flynn
But I think her Rapunzel never really gets off the ground.  She has a voice perfectly suited to princessdom (sweet, innocent, and a good singer without being too good) but there are moments where she just becomes too cliqued of a character.  She's just so darn earnest..with everything.  I don't need another five heartwarming "I get achieve my dream if only I try" songs.  Just one or too would have been okay.  She's not bad, but when the prince is much better, you know you have some problems.  Also if your personality is eclipsed by your hair...again...problems.  Look to Aladdin and Jasmine.  They have a partnership that actually seems to snap and crackle and work.

Flynn finds Rapunzel
All in all, not a bad film, although I do think Disney has the potential to create bigger and better films a la The Little Mermaid and AladdinThe Princess and the Frog was definitely a step in the right direction.  This film feels close--but not quite there (Treasure Planet, anyone?).  I look forward to their next attempt...Winnie the Pooh!
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eat Morrocan...Eat with your hands?

I wanted to make a kind of Moroccan salad: light, refreshing, and easy to share.  Crazy is it is to imagine now, the first time I made this recipe it was 95 degrees and humid.  The last thing I wanted was anything to make me feel hotter.  This salad is perfect, and lasted us for over a week.  We ate it with hummus in a pita pocket, as a wrap, as a salad itself, or just as a side dish.  It's easy to make, and utterly delicious. 

Moroccan Chickpea Salad

You'll need:
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 small green bell pepper, diced
1 cup cucumber, diced
1 large tomato, diced
1 medium red onion, diced
1/2 cup feta cheese
1 tbsp fresh mint, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp tsp ground cumin
Salt & pepper, to taste
Pita Bread

  1. Toss all ingredients together, added more or less of each to taste.
  2. Serve with pita bread and hummus.  Enjoy!

As mentioned before, this salad lasts a long time.  So keep the remainder in Tupperware and bring to lunch!  My favorite way to eat this salad is in a pita picket with red pepper hummus, chicken strips, and tabouli.  Mmmmm...

Back on track!  Stay tuned for future Oscar films.  Pay attention too--I may decide to switch things up soon.  In the interest of keeping up my commentary, I may expand my posts to any film I happen to take in during the coming months.  This doesn't mean I'm abandoning my quest, but I just thought to include my thoughts on other films as well.  We'll see...
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"How can you close me up? On what grounds?"
"I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
"Your winnings, sir."
"[sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much. [aloud] Everybody out at once!"
--Captain Renault upon being ordered to close Rick's Café (Casablanca, 1942)
Rick and Captain Renault

It is difficult to write objectively about a film I love so much.  Every line in this film is incredible--as evidenced by the fact that they have all become famous clichés in modern popular culture.  I had a hard time picking the quote that I put above, as there are so many famous lines like "Play it, Sam." or "Here's looking at you, kid."  I couldn't choose, so I picked a less famous few lines that I’ve always loved, that are so indicative of the witty repartee of this script.
Famous still of Ilsa and Rick

With so many beloved famous films and novels, it is easy to pretend we appreciate them.  How often have you heard someone say that their favorite book is Crime and Punishment, when you know it's probably The Notebook?  I am just as guilty of that flaw, and I am more likely to attempt to like something just because it is popular.  But with Casablanca I can honestly say that I love every moment of this movie.  Every actor is superb, every line is witty and sharp.  I love this movie, but why does she have to get on the plane at the end?  Oops...did I ruin it?
Rick and his Cafe

The Plot
It's 1941, and French colonial town of Casablanca, Morocco, is filled with desperate European refugees attempting to flee World War II and the Germans.  Unfortunately, one cannot leave Casablanca without an exit visa, so a vicious black market trade for the visas thrives in the back alleys.  This reaches a head when two German couriers are killed carrying unquestionable letters of transit.  Captain Louis Renault,  the French prefecture of police, played by Claude Rains, and the newly arrived German Major Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt, are desperate to find those letters.  They are particularly desperate that these letters not reach Victor Lazlo, played by Paul Henreid, a Czech resistance leader who is rumored to be fleeing to Casablanca with a woman in tow.

Ugarte tells Rick about the letters.
Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, is an ex-patriot American misanthrope who runs a popular nightclub and gambling den called Rick's Café Americain.  Ugarte, played by Peter Lorre, a shifty dealer in exit visas, mentions to Rick that he has those visas and plans to sell them at a high price and finally leave Casablanca.  He gives them to Rick for safe keeping, and Rick agrees.  But though Rick once fought on the side of the loyalists in Spain, he has grown cynical, and when Renault tells him not to interfere with Ugarte's arrest, Rick replies "I stick my neck out for nobody."  He does, however, bet that the heroic Lazlo will somehow make it out of Casablanca and past the Germans.  Ugarte is carried away (but without the letters) and a few minutes later Lazlo walks in with his companion, Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Ugarte is carried away.
While Lazlo is busy making contacts with the underground resistance, Ilsa recognizes Sam, the piano player and Rick's best friend, played by Dooley Wilson.  She insists he play the song "As Time Goes By" and reluctantly, Sam agrees.  Rick furiously emerges from his office, yelling that he told Sam never to play that song again, when he becomes poleaxed by the sight of Ilsa, who is sitting next to Sam with tears in her eyes.  Rick breaks protocol and has a drink with his customers, Ilsa and Lazlo, and Ilsa and Rick exchange guarded words.

Sam plays for Ilsa.
Later, after the café is closed, Rick gets drunk on gin and flashes back to his love affair with Ilsa in Paris: After meeting and falling in love, the Nazis invade Paris and Ilsa urges Rick to leave, worried because of his reputation as a freedom-fighter.  But Rick refuses to go without her, and insists she leave Paris with him. At the last minute, however, Ilsa abandons him with a farewell note and Sam must pulled a dazed Rick onto the train.  Rick is interrupted from his memories by Ilsa herself, who has come to explain her actions.  But Rick is drunk and offends Ilsa, who walks out without fully explaining.

"Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine."
The next day Lazlo and Ilsa learn that not only is Ugarte dead, but that those letters are their only means of leaving the city.  They also learn that popular opinion has it that Rick knows where those letters are.  Rick attempts to speak to Ilsa again, sober, and though she brushes him off, she admits that Lazlo is her husband, and was, even in Paris.  That night, Rick helps a young Bulgarian couple win enough roulette money to leave the country, thus depriving Renault of having the young woman pay for the visa another way.  Lazlo asks to buy the letters from Rick, or even just one for Ilsa, but he refuses.  When Lazlo asks his reasons, Rick tells him to ask his wife.  Rick then allows Lazlo to tell his orchestra to play "La Marseillaise," and Strasser, irritated, orders Renault to close the Café.  Though Lazlo suspects something may have occurred between Ilsa and Rick, he loves her, and tries to insist she leave Casablanca without him.  He then leaves to attend an underground resistance meeting.

Lazlo tries to reason with Rick.
Ilsa decides to go back to Rick's and hold Rick at gunpoint until he gives her the letters.  But instead she falls into his arms and confesses.  On the day Rick left Paris Ilsa learned that Lazlo, her husband, whom she had thought dead, was actually alive and in pain, having escaped a concentration camp.  But they both still love each other and Ilsa decides she cannot leave Rick again, and he must make the hard decisions for the both of them.  Later, the police break up the resistance meeting, and Lazlo hides out at Rick's.  Before the police come and arrest him, he begs Rick to use the letters to take Ilsa away from Casablanca.

Ilsa and Rick.

The next day Rick sells his Café to his competitor Ferare and tricks Renault into releasing Lazlo from prison.  Ilsa, Lazlo, Rick and Renault (who is held at gunpoint) head to the airport, but Renault has still managed to alert Strasser, who isn't far behind.  Ilsa thinks she is staying with Rick, but Rick tells her she must get on the plane with her husband, as she gives meaning to his work and Rick believes she would regret not going eventually.  He tells Lazlo that though they loved each other in Paris, Ilsa only pretended to love him now to get the letters.  Lazlo, who understands what really happened, welcomes Rick back to the fight before he and Ilsa board the plane.  Strasser arrives to stop the plane just as it is about to take off, but is shot and killed by Rick before he can stop it.  Renault calls the police, but instead of turning in Rick, he tells them to "round up the usual suspects," and the two men leave Casablanca for the Free French garrison at Brassaville.  Rick puts his arm around him as they walk off into the fog and says "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

"We'll always have Paris."
The History  
The history of Casablanca has been researched over the years and there are several books and documentaries detailing the creation of this classic film.  But it is interesting to note that this film became what it is today almost in spite of itself.  The film was based on the then-unproduced manuscript of a play called Everybody Goes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.  Warner Bros. bought the rights for $20,000 the most anyone had spent on an unproduced manuscript.  But that didn't stop them from bringing in as many writers as they could; at least four screenwriters would adjust the script over time, although Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, would receive the actual credit.  Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis hired Michael Curtiz as director, a Hungarian Jewish émigré who had European refugee family members.  In fact, only three of the credited actors were American, and a large percentage of the extras were actual European refugees.  During the  "La Marseillaise" scene many of those actors were truly overcome with grief as they realized how many refugees were in the film.

Publicity still for Casablanca
Despite the authenticity of the actors, this film suffered from several major problems.  The script was constantly being rewritten, to the point that the movie had to be shot in sequence because only half the script was completed at the time of filming.  Neither Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman were particularly thrilled about the film, and both looked for ways to get out of a film they considered "shmaltzy."  Ingrid Bergman in particular was incensed to discover that no one could give her tips on Ilsa.  When she asked Curtiz who Ilsa was really in love with, he said, "Play it both ways," because he did not, in fact, know.  While this lends a perfect ambiguity to her character, it was understandably frustrating for the actress.  Though this would become her most iconic film, Bergman would always become embarrassed when fans commented on it, as it was not her favorite performance.  She was also taller than her leading man, a fact that forced Bogart to wear higher shoes and for her to sit in most scenes.  And despite their intense chemistry, Bogart and Bergman were little more than acquaintances throughout the film, although legend has it that he helped teach her how to play poker with the crew in between shooting.  One of the most famous lines of the film, "Here's looking at you, kid," was not in the original script, but was actually improvised by Bogart; he starting saying that to Bergman during their poker lessons and it stuck.

"Here's looking at you, kid."
The famous song of the film, "As Time Goes By," was almost taken out at the last minute, as music director Max Steiner wanted to replace it with one of his own songs.  But Ingrid Bergman had already cut her hair very short for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Steiner instead decided to design all the musical themes around "As Time Goes By," and "La Marseillaise."  At the end of the film, in order to make the fake miniature plane seem more life-like, the director hired midgets to walk around the plane like mechanics.  And the final, famous line of the film was dubbed in a month after filming by Bogart after it was suggested by producer Hal Wallis.  The title was changed to Casablanca, though some thought the new name sounded like a Mexican beer.  Luckily for them, Casablanca premiered in the same month that Eisenhower led Allied troops in an invasion of...Casablanca.  And right after the movie opened to theaters worldwide in January, Roosevelt and Churchill met in that same city to pledge to end the Nazi regime.  Suddenly this relatively unimportant city had become a household name.  And Jack Warner had another hit on his hands.

Bogart and Bergman being filmed on set.

Casablanca was nominated for eight awards, of which it won three: Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing, Original Screenplay.  When it won for Best Picture, producer Hal Wallis got up to accept his award, only to watch studio head Jack Warner beat him to the podium.  Though he would go on to win the Irving G. Thalberg award for the second time, many sited Warner's usurpation of the Oscar as Wallis's reason for leaving Warner later that year. 

While Casablanca was certainly well received and entertaining, it did not achieve its fame until the 1950s, when revivals in independent movie houses caused the "cult of Bogart" to rise again.  Citizen Kane may be considered the better film technically, Casablanca is certainly the more beloved.  In 1989, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2005 it was also named one of the 100 greatest films of the last 80 years by Time Magazine. In 2006, the Writers Guild of America voted the screenplay of Casablanca the best of all time in its list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays. The film has been recognized by the American Film Institute in eight of their lists and in AFI's 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes Casablanca has six quotes, the most number of any film by far.  There have also been numerous parodies, including several by the Marx brothers, one by the Muppets, and Carrotblanca, featuring Bugs Bunny.  The film has grown in popularity over the years, until almost despite itself, it has become one of the best films of all time.

Director Curtiz watches Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart on the opening night 1942 Warner Bros.

This year, the Academy decided to do the unthinkable: follow Betty Davis's plan from two years previous.  This year, they decreed, there would be no dinner.  Instead, the Awards would be held in a public setting: Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.  They choose to implement another one of Bette Davis's ridiculed ideas and gave free passes to two hundred members of the armed forces.  And mindful of Greer Garson's public gaff in 1943, the Academy decided to "streamline" by eradicating all "outside speeches" and requesting winners to speak for only 30 seconds.  Instead of speakers, the Academy promised a variety show of famous entertainers.  While the Awards did have a few issues (they forgot to include parking) the show was a lot more entertaining than years previous.  The Hollywood Reporter claimed that even though attendees could no longer drink through the ceremony, "All in all, it was a swell affair, finely handled and one that will now set a precedent that will most certainly eliminate the junk usually attendant at such affairs in the past."

Grauman's Chinese Theater at the 1943 Academy Awards

The Verdict?
There are so many wonderful things about this movie.  I don't watch it often, as I always feel filled with a kind of longing nostalgia when it is over.  The expressions in this movie are what I remember.  Ilsa's tearful, brave face that she turns up to Rick, as though she has finally lost the battle within herself.  When you look at her, and that scene before she sees Rick for the first time after leaving him, the internal struggle is written in her expression.  She can't see Rick, knows it will only end badly, and yet cannot seem to stop herself.  She loves him so much and hates herself for it, just as she feels guilty.

Ilsa, before she leaves Rick.
 Rick's reaction in the scene is less complex.  He looks like a man who has been kicked in the throat.  A better moment for him is when the patrons of his club begin to sign La Marseillaise in defiance to the Germans.  He looks as though he wishes to join but can't.  Just as Ilsa shakes her head in the admiration she can't help but feel for Lazlo.  Lazlo himself is the only one who never has a doubt as to his actions.

Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund
Roger Ebert says, 
"After seeing this film many times, I think I finally understand why I love it so much. It's not because of the romance, or the humor, or the intrigue, although those elements are masterful. It's because it makes me proud of the characters. These are not heroes -- not except for Paul Heinreid's resistance fighter, who in some ways is the most predictable character in the film. These are realists, pragmatists, survivors: Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, who sticks his neck out for nobody, and Claude Rains' police inspector, who follows rules and tries to stay out of trouble. At the end of the film, when they rise to heroism, it is so moving because heroism is not in their makeup. Their better nature simply informs them what they must do."
Rick lets the Hungarian couple win at roulette.
I like his reading of the film.  These people are flawed and human.  Not even the beautiful heroine is perfect.  They are all simply muddling through, trying to make the best of their entangled lives.  I see parts of myself in Rick, in Ilsa, perhaps even in Lazlo and Renault.  This film is filled with believable humanity and the heroism that can sometimes rise from it.  It is charming, witty, and wrenching.  Rick tells Ilsa in the end that "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."  But what makes this film so lovable is our interest in these three little people.  Casablanca reminds us that the little people do matter, and that our world is filled with such little problems.  It is what makes it so easy to connect to this film even now.

Publicity still for Casablanca
Though I've seen Casablanca many times, watching it now made me realize this film is like Mrs. Miniver.  The audience did not know the ending.  "Who do you think will win the war?" Major Strasser asks Rick.  He doesn't know.  And neither did the audience.  It makes the entire tone of the film far more chilling.  Rick walks off to fight at the end, but he is walking into an unknown future.  We may be assured of his victory, but how terrifying to be in the theater and be unsure.

End of the film...but the beginning of a beautiful friendship...
P.S. Want to hear the original ceremony?  Click here!
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