10 Things I Hate About Casablanca

Casablanca1Okay, please let me get in a few words first. Starting from the age of 12 or so–between afternoon and late late TV broadcasts, a few screenings in repertoire cinemas (Remember rep theaters? That’s where college students and urban intelligentsia would flock to watch King of Hearts, Harold and Maude, and Reefer Madness before home video essentially drove them out of business) , VHS and DVD viewings, and its once-a-month-or-so appearances on TCM–I estimate that I have seen Casablanca at least 150 times. I love the movie, it’s one of my top three all-time favorites (Marty and the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame, thanks for asking), and Casablanca roundly deserves its three Academy Awards, its generations of fans, and the praise it’s been given since its November 1942 premiere.

That being said, it’s not a perfect movie. No work of art, however moving or skillfully executed, is without flaws (For example, did you ever notice that the Venus de Milo’s arms are missing?). And while “hate” may be an exaggeration, there are certain aspects to Casablanca–some very minor–that may puzzle, irk or even annoy me, but that I’ve learned to put up with over the years. They are (MULTIPLE SPOILER ALERTS!), in ascending order of “irksomeness”:

10. How come when Rick is standing on that rainy Paris railway platform reading the goodbye letter from Ilsa, his hat and trenchcoat are soaking wet, but the minute he climbs onto the train car steps with Sam, he’s perfectly dry (See, I told you some were very minor)?

9. In a similar vein, when Ilsa and Victor are in the Blue Parrot cafe asking Ferrari about black market visas, why does she say that she’ll miss Ferrari’s coffee when they leave Casablanca? She’d been outside talking to Rick, and never so much as picks up a demitasse!

8. The last time I checked, the city of Casablanca was on the Atlantic coast of northern Morocco. That would seem to imply that the town would have a large Arab and African population. Granted, the onset of World War II led to an influx of European refugees, but why in the whole movie does the number of Arabs with speaking roles apparently amount to three: a pair of street vendors and Abdul, the doorman at Rick’s Cafe Americain?

7. Speaking of missing characters, it seems a little odd that there seemingly were no Jewish refugees in Casablanca trying to flee German persecution. This is particularly ironic since more than a few of the film’s players (Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, and Curt Bois, among others) had themselves left Europe following Hitler’s rise to power, and several witnessed the Nazis’ hate campaigns firsthand .

Casablanca26. Even for a movie made in the early ’40s, it does grate a little on the nerves to hear Ilsa, on her and Victor’s first visit to Rick’s, refer to Sam as “the boy who is playing the piano.”  He’s at least 10 years her senior, and I don’t think they talked that way in Sweden.

5. And speaking of poor, loyal Sam: After helping his buddy “Mr. Rick” hightail it out of Paris ahead of the Nazis, sticking with him in the middle of French Morocco for at least a year or two, and being his devoted friend all that time, how does Rick repay him? By selling the club where he works to Ferrari and expecting Sam to stay put and pound the ivories, without so much as a “Thank you”!

4. The Spanish-singing female guitar player in Rick’s. I’ve looked up Corinna Mura, and apparently she was popular enough at the time to have her own radio program, perform three times for F.D.R., and appear on Broadway and in several movies (joining Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Lorre, and director Michael Curtiz in Casablanca’s 1944 pseudo-revamping, Passage to Marseille). That doesn’t mean I don’t find her song in this movie a drag, however.

3. The whole “Play it again, Sam” controversy, where savvy movie buffs trip up neophytes by asking what film the line comes from and then telling them it’s never said in Casablanca. Guess what, know-it-alls? It’s there, but you just don’t hear it. When Ilsa and Victor arrive at the Cafe Americain a second time and Rick tells her he’ll have Sam play “As Time Goes By,” Rick whispers something into Sam’s ear just before he starts…well, playing it again. That’s my theory, anyway.

2. Let’s put our cards on the table: Victor Lazlo is a pretty bland third member of what many call the quintessential movie love triangle. This generally is par for the course in the romance genre (look at Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind, Andrew McCarthy in Pretty in Pink, or nearly every ’30s/’40s Ralph Bellamy character), but Paul Henreid really underplays the part here. And what’s the main thing this supposedly charismatic leader does to impress Ilsa? He leads a bunch of drunken nightclub patrons in a sing-along competition. I’ve seen half-buzzed guys in Philly bars do the same thing with a karoake machine of Supertramp tunes!

1. Finally, there is the movie’s MacGuffin, the travelling papers that everyone wants. You know, “Letters of transit,” “Cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.” There’s a debate between devotees of Casablanca as to who Ugarte says the letters are signed by, Vichy France’s national defense minister Gen. Maxime Weygand (whose authority, quite frankly, the Germans could have very easily overlooked) or Free French leader Gen. Charles DeGaulle (whose signature carried even less weight with the Third Reich). Frankly, I’ve heard Peter Lorre say the line at least 150 times and I can’t tell, but it is clear that those all-purpose papers were really just a gimmick to tie everything together.

That it did tie everything together, and that–after nearly seven decades–the movie works as well as it does and brings in new fans every year, is a tribute to the cast and crew…in spite of my petty squabbles. After all, as Rick says, “Everyone in Casablanca has problems, yours may work out.”

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