Looking Over the Oscars


WHEN Warner Brothers’ Casablanca received the Academy Award as the best picture of the year 1943, I was reminded of what Léon Blum said after Munich.

Je me trouve entre la honte et un grave soidagement (I find myself between shame and solemn relief),” the scholarly former premier remarked.

That was the way I felt when the Oscars were announced. I knew what tremendous ballyhoo had been trumped up behind For Whom the Bell Tolls, for Paramount; Madame Curie, for Metro-Gold wynMayer; and, worse yet, The Song of Bernadette, for Twentieth Century-Fox. My own choice, Holy Matrimony by Xinitially Johnson for Fox, had already been announced and that fact had cut down what small chances that excellent film had had before.

When the master of ceremonies, Jack Benny, handed the envelope to Sidney Franklin (last year’s prize-winning producer for MGM with Mrs. Miniver) and Sidney did not smile when he glanced at the “secret” slip, I knew the choice could not be Madame Curie, his own production. That was something. MGM had made of the life of a fascinating woman scientist a sort of kittenish and stodgy narrative that was shallow, unconvincing, and that missed all its climaxes. Greer-Garson broke all records for the silent sit, when told of Walter Pidgeon’s having been run over by a horse and wagon.

Then a little later, before a caricature of the French Academy, she made the inevitable long speech which seems to have become a drab convention with which to end long films, and sashayed out like Gary Cooper ns Lou Gehrig leaving the Yankee Stadium.

The scientific work of the Curies was poorly dramatized, if at all; their love life was about as stimulating as Whittier’s with Phoebe Cary; and the tempo of the picture — one long, steady, unrelieved drag from beginning to end — was out rageous. Still, it might have received the award. Sadder things had happened.

For II hom the Bell Tolls, Paramount’s entry, was a colossal frost, bad casting, uneven acting, atrocious technicolor, and inept directing. But it did have a streak of gold, which carried along the worthless bulk, and this good metal was properly assayed when Katina Paxinou received the acting award and the rest of the performance got nothing at all.

It may be that Paxinou’s performance, being the only part of the picture that was not in some way phony, will linger longer in the public’s memory and finally supplant the rest and leave Americans with an impression of a noble Spaniard, a suffering Spain with unquenchable spirit, and the feeling that acting is not yet a lost art.

The Song of Bernadette, which, to my mind, is the most stupid of them all, pandering as it does, in a dangerous epoch, to the maudlin and unreliable centers of the human mind, makes it harder, when clear thinking is most necessary, for people to think at all. This probably has never occurred to Twentieth Century-Fox, and never will, but let it be said once, anyway.

However, the acting award went to Jennifer Jones, which, in its way, was a wonderful thing. It

demonstrates that many girls in their late teens are good natural actresses before they have had too much movie experience. Miss Jones’s first film was The Sony of Bernadette, and probably she is too young to feel its philosophical implications. Whether she can survive professional direction over a long period of time remains to be seen. My guess is emphatically in the negative.

The poet who said that the saddest words of tongue or pen are “It might have been!” was thinking more of rhyme than sense. Actually, this year, what “might have been" (and 1 have only touched on the frightful possibilities) threatened to be disastrous, and the way things turned out, no one was hurt.

I am referring to the prize winner, Casablanca, the one with that dreadful pre-“Mairzy” song, “As Time Goes By,” which begins: —

You must remember this ....

From Ilsa’s point of view (Ingrid Bergman) the story runs like this: when young she frequented underground places and met a man (Paul Henreid) who influenced her thinking losuch an extent that she married him. Then, when he was in the various kinds of hot water that engulf anti-Nazis, Ilsa, alone in Paris, met Rick (Humphrey Bogan and fell in love with him: also he with her. Previously Rick had been a cynic and a mercenary. Meeting Elsa on the banks of the Seine made him, for a while, just wholesome folks.

The screen play was by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. It looks and sounds as if the Epsteins had the last crack at it and gave it their characteristic sharp situations, briltle people, and clever dialogue. What I wish to analyze just now is the love interest in the piece, because it is a new kind of amatory development which has sprung up lately (since World War I) as a result of the speed (90 feet per minute) at which images on a motion-picture screen pass the eyes of 120 million persons, more or less.

In the days when love songs were sung by drunken minstrels or knights or Vikings, to I he twanging of a harp, the northern nights were long and time was of no consequence. Hence the length and leisurely pace of the sagas. When the Victorian novelists furnished frustrated love-seekers their thrills and, after three or four hundred pages, the mail could declare that he would “hate himself in the morning,” or the novelist himself could step in and warn the reader that there are moments too intimate and sacred for an author to share, even with his clients who bought the book — then, in those long-lost days, writers and readers alike could take their time. Not so on the screen. This cannot be pointed out too often.

Ket us take Rick and Ilsa, as presented by the facile Epsteins. And/or Koch.

Rick is driving a small open car along the Champs Ely sees on a spring day. Close beside him, with her arm linked in his, sits Jlsa.

On an excursion boat on the Seine at night, an orchestra is playing French music (which is an event, in itself, ihe usual fare being bad American tin-pan alley or ragtime). By themselves, at the rail, stand Rick and Ilsa. They are transported (a) by the night, (b) by the music, and (c) by each other.

In Rick’s apartment, Ilsa, at the window, fixes flowers. Rick opens champagne. Ilsa joins him.

RICK: Who are you really? What were you before? W hat did you do?

What did you think?

ILSA: We said “no questions.”

(They drink.)

RICK: Why was I so lucky — why should I find you waiting for me to come along?

ILSA: Why there is no other man in my life?

(Rick nods.)

ILSA: Well, that’s easy. There was. He is dead.

(She kisses him.)

The Germans come to Paris. They have caused untold woe and inconvenience from one end of the world to another, but countless times now they have showed up in Paris just in time to move a screen story along. Ilsa tells Rick he is in danger and must go. She promises to go with him. She fails to meet the train, but sends a note: “ ! cannot go with you or ever see you again. You must not ask why. Just believe that I love you. Go, iny darling, and God bless you.”

What ensues is most distressing, not only for the. characters of the play but the sentimentalists in the audience. It strikes at the fundamentals of our modern human relationships. It sounds the death knell of all the old stuff like loyalty, faith, the benefit of the doubt, and so on. The moral, I suppose, is that one should be careful with strangers and not take too much stock in what they say. Or “take the cash and let the credit go.” Something of that kind.

For, when Rick, now a cynical and shady cafe proprietor in Casablanca, next sees Ilsa, she is entering his joint in company with Paul Henreid. With not: a word of explanation, no glance, no reflection, no reassuring memory of that idyl of the Champs Élysées with French music (and that, wretched song about a long string of nouns being still what they seem as time passes), Bogart frowns and drinks a whole bottle of whiskey.

To me, that was the high point in Casablanca, and it deserves any award that has or may come along. Man and boy, for more than half a century, I have been associating with, or admiring at fairly close range, the drinkers of America and the civilized world. Many have been kind enough to speak, not too slightingly, of mv own capacity. But Humphrey Bogart, or the Epsteins, or whoever was responsible, did a job on that quart in Casablanca that was more than historic, or even epic. It disappeared in less than 100 feet of film, or about fifty seconds flat.

Drinking, as I have said, is the screen convention for disillusionment. The faster the drinking, the deeper the disillusionment. Hick had revised his idea of Ilsa in a few short seconds, on purely circumstantial evidence. He reviles her, insults her, snarls, guzzles, and all in all makes an exhibition of himself. She is patient at first, then offended. She merely had found that her husband, who she had thought was dead, was still alive. He had glorious work to do.

Ilsa tries, in the cause of liberty, to wheedle sailing papers from Hick for Paul Henreid. No soap. She pulls a gun, but instead of shooting Kick, she kisses him. That jolly well changes everything around again. Rick heroically forces Henreid and Ilsa into a Hays Office plane and himself joins Claude Rains (who also sees the light about that time) to fight for the Free French.

What a relief was the “Marseillaise” after that dratted song about sighs and time and all.

The Academy could have done a whole lot worse than Casablanca. The film was trite and harsh and shallow, but how it did move. There was no lost, word or action, every participant was competent, and the public loved it. I am only hoping that, with the same generous display of their talents as writers and producers, the Epstein twins will some day go a little deeper beneath the surface of human emot ions, and human speech, and giv e us a picture that does not depend on quick action and quicker drinking for its impact and effect. They have the gift; they are phenomenally and deservedly successful. The public has done everything for It is their turn now.