If you’re going to view a cinema classic like Casablanca, what kind of short can go with it? Phong’s answer was the 1982 Czech short Zaniklý svet rukavic (“The Vanished World of Gloves”) by Jirí Barta, which is a bizarre little stop-action that supposes that a film canister is found at a construction site wherein several classics of cinema (sometimes by genre, sometimes referencing particular works) are re-enacted (or perhaps in the conceit of the story, originally enacted) by gloves in lieu of human actors.
In addition to seeing a glove seep out of the famous sliced eye of Buñuel’s surrealist Un Chien Andalou, we also get to see silent films, slapstick, romance, sci-fi, monster flicks, Fellini (called “Bellini” for some odd reason), and probably some more I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s a unique romp through the history of cinema, to say the least.
Casablanca, on the other hand, is itself a piece of cinematic history. As great as it is, I think director Michael Curtiz can be blamed for at least two things.
First, he probably should have gone with a more accurate title for the film. Sure, it takes place in Casablanca, that’s true. But really, I think something more along the lines of “100 Minutes of Staring at Ingrid Bergman” would have given the audience a better idea of what they were in for. Second, he probably could have arranged it so that Ingrid Bergman, the raison d’etre of the film (cleverly going by the alias “Ilsa Lund”, though we were not fooled!) appeared from the first scene of the movie rather than waiting for some 20 minutes to show up.
Instead, we are treated to an exposition of all of the film’s major characters (including Major Strasser) before Ingrid graces the screen. We hear over the strains of La Marseillaise about the troubles of Europeans trying to escape Hitler’s onslaught in 1941 – how they have to travel from the occupied France across the Mediterranean to the unoccupied Morocco, from there to Lisbon and finally on to the new world. We see the expatriate American Rick Blaine, who runs a gin joint in Casablanca and his sidekick piano player Sam, who follows Rick around almost as if he’s on a raft.
We meet the soon-destined-to-die Ugarte, who has killed some German officers on a train and stolen some “irrevocable” travel documents from them. Ugarte conveniently leaves them with Mr. Blaine before getting nipped, and taking a cue from his second cousin David, Rick makes them disappear practically into thin air. Even the police inspector, Captain Renault, who astutely sniffs out Rick’s illegal casino operation is unable to find the travel documents.
But when two presumed strangers show up hoping to acquire the stolen travel documents, things get complicated. See, the problem is that we’ve got a bit of a love triangle going on. To make a long story short, Ilsa was Rick’s girlfriend in Paris while she was secretly married to a dead leader of the underground named Laszlo. When she found out that the dead guy wasn’t dead after all, she jilted Rick so she could show up on his doorstep a few years later with her hubby like nothing ever happened. Rick doesn’t like any of this.
There’s a lot of drinking and nastiness and Sam doesn’t know whether he should play “As Time Goes By” or not, but eventually Rick decides that he’s going to have to get Ilsa out of Casablanca, and since there are only two non-revocable travel documents, it’s either him or Laszlo getting out. So naturally, when faced with the choice of selflessly helping the underground in its fight against Hitler and flying off into the sunset with Ingrid Bergman (who by the way, prefers you to the underground leader dude)…I mean, Hitler couldn’t have been all THAT bad, right?
Rick, however, tragically overestimates Hitler and sends the most beautiful woman in the world who also happens to be the love of his life off with some guy she happened to marry because she kind of admired him when she was a kid. And it’s a great movie anyway.
I’d like to end with a plot quibble and a little-known fact about the film. The plot quibble is this. The travel papers are supposed to be irrevocable because they’re blank and signed by some important Nazi dude. First, why would important Nazi dude sign blank travel papers so as to make them theft targets in the first place? And second, every single authority figure in Morocco knew that the documents were stolen, they just didn’t know where they were. And every single authority figure in Morocco knew that the leader of the underground was in Morocco, was trying to get his hands on the travel documents, and they were in fact regularly bringing him in for questioning. But he happens to get his hands on the stolen travel documents and write his name on them, so “game over”? He wins? Obviously they try to make it a bit more complicated in the film, but the whole plot revolves around Laszlo getting the travel documents yet the travel documents mean diddly-squat. Renault knows the whole plan, and Laszlo isn’t going anywhere with Renault having a change of heart, documents or no. The travel documents kind of remind me of the Emancipation Proclamation in that sense – 100% law, and 100% ineffective. But without holding control of them, there’s no real drama for Rick, so I guess we have to suspend disbelief on that issue.
The little-known fact about Casablanca is this: The line “The Germans wore gray, you wore a lighter shade of gray” was changed to “The Germans wore gray, you wore blue” after test audiences found it stupid, despite the fact that the film was in black-and-white so it was technically more accurate in the original.