Casablanca (1942) “I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.” There are some rare occasions in Hollywood when films seem to magically come together; when everything–directing, acting, writing–just fits seamlessly and makes a superb film, almost as if by accident. Casablanca is the best example of this. It was technically a “B” movie–its greatness wasn’t at all expected. But great it really is, and I think its largely because of the memorable characters and the excellent acting by everyone involved–even side actors. The stars–Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman–have had their roles lauded enough, but my personal fave in this movie is Claude Rains as the “poor corrupt official,” giving what I think is possibly the best performance in the film. He’s a totally despicable character–but somehow you just love him. He evinces charm and evil at the same time–and just enough goodness to be redeemed at the end. His back-and-forth repartee with Rick is unforgettable and among the best ever filmed. Other characters of note: an excellent Paul Heinreid as the idealistic Resistance leader, the unctuous Peter Lorre (frequently cast alongside Bogart) as a “cut-rate parasite” in the beginning, and the imperturbable Sydney Greenstreet (also a frequent Bogart side-kick) as a rival cafe-owner.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!“ This is the best performance of Jimmy Stewart’s life, and the more times I watch it, the better it gets. An innocent young idealist on fire with patriotism but without any working knowledge of politics is made a Senator by a political graft machine, because they think he will harmlessly fill the empty seat with a positive image until they have time to find one of their own men to do the job. But when he gets a sense of what’s really going on in Congress, he turns the tables on them and fights–desperately–for the “lost cause” of honesty in politics. Everyone involved does a great job. For instance, the villain James Taylor, played by Edward Arnold, could have been blustery and obnoxious, but instead he’s subtly intimidating, threatening without showiness. Claude Rains’ character is also beautifully complex: a man who once had ideals, but consciously let them slip as he became entangled in the nuances of Washington politics. The message of the movie is a call for the re-awakening of the American political conscience.
King Solomon’s Mines (1950) “Stupid waste, this safari. All of it! Half our supplies gone after that all-night stampede. Wasted! Waste of time, supplies, and lives.“ Ready for a change of pace? Here’s a wild adventure of the most exciting kind. Stewart Granger (the dashing fellow on the right) plays a fearless hunter/guide/explorer in Africa; the lovely, red-headed Deborah Kerr plays a woman determined to find her long-lost (good-for-nothing) husband, who disappeared into the heart of Africa to find the legendary diamond mines of King Solomon. Fantastic African escapades ensue. It’s quite a thriller, and very good. It was filmed in Africa, so the scenery is beautiful, the extras are authentic, and some of the tribal music is fascinating.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) “My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102, and when she had been dead three days, she looked better than you do now.“ This has to be the most bizarre “Christmas” movie ever made. When a famous writer and radio celebrity breaks his hip in a small Midwestern town, he and his assistants must stay in one family’s home and wreak havoc in their lives–because he turns out to be a selfish, cynical, and eccentric man. The story is unforgettable, the dialogue witty; Monty Wooley is brilliant as the curt and obnoxious writer, and Ann Baxter is also hilarious as one of his friends, a gold-digging, back-stabbing actress. The one rough spot is Bette Davis–who usually played fierce, troubled women–playing the antithesis of her usual roles. I’m not a Davis fan, and I feel like this movie could have been better without her–but it’s certainly worth the watch.