Talking Pictures

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Movies with a message

Posted by keith1942 on September 21, 2009

Sam Goldwyn, one of the founding fathers of Hollywood, is frequently quoted on offering messages in films. There are different versions of his axiom; I believe the accurate one is:

“Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.” [in a biography by Arthur Marx].

This seems to sum up the philosophy of the producers in the studio system of the 1920s through to the 1950s.

However, Goldwyn himself occasionally produced films which appeared to have a deliberate message for the audiences. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) follows three servicemen demobbed after World War 2: Al, a bank employee with a wife and two children, [Fredrick March): Fred, a young man who worked in a drugstore pre-war and got married just before leaving for war service, (Dana Andrews); and Homer, a sailor who has lost both his hands in a shipboard fire, (Harold Russell, not a Hollywood star but a real-life disabled vet). Al is promoted and put in charge of loans for ex-servicemen. He has to fight the bank management to provide loans for ordinary working men with no capital. Fred breaks up with his wartime wife, and after some travails finds a good job and a new girl. Homer learns to cope with his disability and people’s responses: the film ends with his marriage to his childhood sweetheart. Goldwyn was quoted regarding the movie,

“I don’t care if it doesn’t make a cent – just as long as every man, woman and child in the country sees it.”

Homer and Al in The Best Years of Our Lives

Homer and Al in The Best Years of Our Lives

This desire was not just due to a sense of civic duty, but a belief that prestige and critical praise were an important part of the business. Hollywood agreed, awarding the film seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And this sort of prestige production, with a high moral or social tone, was a frequent success at Oscar Ceremonies. 1948 saw awards for The Snake Pit, in which Olivia de Havilland suffers callous treatment in an institution for mental illness. In 1958 The Defiant Ones challenged a still potent racism with stars Tony Curtis [white] and Sidney Poitier [black] as convicts on the run and chained together.

That all-time classic of Hollywood Casablanca (1942} was an Academy Award winner with an overt message; abandon isolationism and enter World War 2. Of course the studio, Warner Brothers, were established supporters of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.

The film opens with a map of Africa and a voice-over that talks of the ‘eyes of imprisoned Europeans’ turning ‘ towards the freedom of the Americas. Of the hapless the hapless refugees who journey towards Lisbon, embarkation point for the USA. Newsreel footage drives home the point. And we learn that the gateway to Lisbon is not in occupied Europe but in the nominally French-run colony of Morocco.

Here European refugees wait for an opportunity to make the journey: whilst French administrators work under the watchful eye of the Third Reich. A police message informs the audience that two German couriers have been killed and that important documents have been stolen. These Letters of Transit [effectively exit visas] become an important plot device. Whilst the police are ‘rounding up the usual suspects’, one man dashes for freedom and is shot, falling dead below a poster of Marshal Pétain [who leads the Vichy Government]. In the dead man’s hand is a drawing of the Cross of Loraine, symbol of the ‘Free French’. A further shots tilts down over the doorway of the Palais de Justice, pausing on the stone inscription of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’, presumably an ironic touch.

The route out of Casablanca is by the passenger aircraft to Lisbon. The audience’s first sight of this plane is when it arrives bringing the German Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), who is concerned both about the stolen Letters and also the arrival of an important refugee, Victor Lazlo. The French police commander Captain Renault (Claude Rains), tells him they plan to arrest a suspect for the crime at Rick’s Bar, ‘everybody come to Rick’s’.

Rick turns out to the star of the film, Humphrey Bogart. His character emphasises the aspect of isolationism. He appears hard-bittern, cynical and apolitical. When we first see him he is playing chess, alone. And he never drinks with his customers. But this ‘isolationism’ from events starts to break down during the film. Lazlo’s wife turns put to be his lost love from Paris, Elsa (Ingrid Bergman). And Rick clearly admires Lazlo, who is a committed anti-fascist. In one of the more memorable scenes of the film Lazlo leads the customer of the Bar in singing La Marseillaise, drowning out the singing of the German officers. At the film’s conclusion Lazlo and his wife use the Letters of Transit to escape Casablanca. Abandoning his own calculated indifference, Renault shoots Major Strasser. And he and Rick leave to join the Free French forces. It is difficult to believe that US audiences could have missed the message of the film.

La Maraseillaise in Casablanca

La Marseillaise in Casablanca

There is at least one discrepancy in the plot. The Letters of Transit bear the signature of General de Gaulle. However, he had fled France in 1940 and set up the Free French forces in opposition to the Vichy collaboration. The Free French are clearly present in the film’s plot. This is probably an unnoticed hangover from the original play, [which was apparently never performed]. However, there is a larger discrepancy in the narrative. During World War 2 the United States frequently voiced its belief in freedom and democracy, including for peoples under the control of European Colonialism. But in Casablanca the indigenous people of Morocco are the ‘other’, mainly unnoticed and unheard. The map that appears behind the opening credits is a colonial map of Africa: with French West Africa, the Belgium Congo, … There are frequent Arab characters in the background of scenes, but only couple of times are they allowed dialogue, and then only a brief line of two. The opposition in the film is between the German occupiers and the French, and Casablanca in the film is portrayed as French territory. This is presumably an unthinking representation of the dominant values of the period, including in the USA. And Casablanca clearly has an overt message, and at least one covert or subvert message.

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