Casablanca (1942)

Recently someone asked me if I had a favorite movie, and I didn’t hesitate to reply, “Casablanca.” I. Love. This. Movie. So much so, that a student bought me the movie poster, which I framed, and when I look up from my desk where I do most of my writing, it’s the only thing I see.

The view from my desk at home.

Plot: Two German couriers have been killed, their letters of transit stolen. Rick, an apolitical nightclub owner, allows the thief/murderer to hide the letters in his club. Victor Laszlo has arrived in Casablanca with his wife, recently escaped from a concentration camp, hoping to use the letters as passage to the U.S.


Worst Moment: I can’t even say “when the credits roll,” because the last line is so iconic.

Fun Facts: I once dated a guy who said “They say you never forget who you saw Casablanca with for the first time.” I don’t know who the “they” are, but he was right–every time I watch this movie, I think about him.

This movie is part of my Popular Culture Studies class curriculum. I show it for two reasons: to make sure my students see a film considered one of the greatest in American cinema, but also to dissect its role in supporting U.S. involvement in World War II. There’s a fair chunk of propaganda in Casablanca, and while the love story is lovey and Humphrey Bogart never fails to make me swoon in that white dinner jacket and bow tie, all that is window dressing.

Also, because this film is in my curriculum, I have seen this movie probably 20 times, minimum. I used to think I’d catch up on grading or lesson planning while the kids watch it, but I eventually gave up on that, because I just end up watching it every single semester. Some semesters, twice a day. And since I watched it today, that means by the end of 2019, I’ll have watched this movie four times. (If my class numbers hold, that is.)

Want more fun facts? Read this. So interesting.

Oh, and one more fun fact: no one ever says “Play it again, Sam.” The line is “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'”

Recommendation: Um. SEE IT.

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Plot: It’s 1939 and life is grand for the upper class Miniver family, who live in a village called Belham, in England. Except they hear rumblings that the German army is marching on Poland, and suspect it’s not too long before war visits their shores. The film covers, from what I can surmise, the first year or two of the war, including the dramatic rescue at Dunkirk (though we don’t see any of it). This is a war film told through the eyes of a woman, and how everyday life continued in spite of daily tragedy.

Best Moment: The best moment is, well, a bit of a spoiler so I’m not going to give specifics, except to say that it happens at the flower show. I will share related moment, though. Local church bell-ringer James Ballard is so excited to enter his rose in the flower show. When a fellow bell-ringer suggests Ballard shouldn’t trifle with such frivolous contests in times of war, Ballard responds, “There will always be roses.” And if that line wasn’t on the nose for how I should handle my life as of late, then I don’t know what is.

Worst Moment: You know, I’m not sure there was one. This film was compelling from start to finish.

Fun facts: The film was in pre-production prior to Pearl Harbor, but some scenes were reshot after the U.S. entered World War II, to reflect a tougher line against the Axis powers. The film is definitely an effective propaganda piece, especially the scene where Mrs. Miniver encounters a downed German pilot–he tells her “We will come, we will bomb your cities,” and describes the carnage he hopes the German army will create. And the final title screen reminds the viewer “America needs your money. Buy defense bonds and stamps every pay day.”

Greer Garson won the Oscar for Best Actress, and her acceptance speech was over 5 minutes (here’s 53 seconds of it). After her, the Academy started to impose time limits on acceptance speeches. On the DVD, MGM includes a piece of accompanying propaganda–a 19-minute short called “Mr. Blabbermouth,” reminding Americans to not spread rumors about the war effort.

Epiphany: The juxtaposition of the war against the daily life at home was a nice reminder that no matter how bleak things might be (or seem), life goes on. And not only does life go on, but there’s still joy to be found. As Carol, the Miniver’s daughter-in-law says, “We mustn’t waste time in fear.”

Recommendation: See it. It’s another film on the National Film Registry, and Garson’s performance really is impressive.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Plot: George M. Cohan (James Cagney) has been summoned to FDR’s office. He is concerned, as he’s currently playing the president in a show, but he goes to the office anyway and recounts his life in show business. At the end, FDR hands Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to the arts.

Best Moment: I watched this movie years ago, so I knew it was coming, but dangit if I didn’t tear up at the end when Cohan shakes FDR’s hand and says, “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.” And then Cagney tap dances down the stairs. So sweet and genuine that it’s hard to be cynical.

Worst Moment: I know that Cagney had to be cast for a reason, but it really is a shame they didn’t get someone who could sing the part of Cohan.

Fun Facts: Courtesy of Wikipedia…Cagney was named as a Communist in the first round of HUAC hearings. Rumor has it the hyper-patriotism in the film is a result of the allegation. Also, Cagney didn’t like Cohan, as in an actor’s strike, Cohan sided with the producers and not the actors. Cagney won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Epiphany: I watched this with a similar lens that I watch Casablanca with–the film was clearly set up to help with the war effort. I missed that connection the first time I watched it. Fun reading for you, if you’re interested–here’s the manual for the Motion Picture Industry from the Office of War Information.

Recommendation: See it. It’s on the National Film Registry, and that alone makes it worthwhile. My only quibble–and this was common of many musicals of that time–the songs aren’t plot points. I much prefer the musicals where the songs help tell the story. Here, the songs are simply taken from a smattering of shows Cohan wrote. I understand why that is, but I’m still not a fan of that mode of storytelling in something billed as a musical.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Published by The Minneapolis Tribune-photo from Warner Bros. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dear Maltese Falcon,

I tried.

I tried twice.

The first time, I fell asleep and missed 45 minutes of you, but woke up to see the “who” in this whodunit. And I wanted to give you the respect I’d heard you might deserve, so I tried again.

This time, I had a Diet Coke and planned to type notes constantly; record my stream of thought in an attempt to stay awake.

And yet.

Twenty minutes in, my eyelids grew heavy and I couldn’t stay awake. Again.

Here’s what I loved about you: Humphrey Bogart. Oh, how I love him. His smarmy smile and nasally voice and the way he puts on a hat…I love all of it. And it was fun to see Bogart with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet: harbingers of the magic that would happen one year later on the Warner Brothers lot.

I think we might be too different, you and I, and despite Arthur Edeson’s brilliant cinematography, you simply weren’t enough to keep me with you. I appreciate you for the movie you are, and I trust that cinephiles will take plenty good care of you.

I just won’t be one of them.

With affection,


Citizen Kane (1941)

Plot: Charles Foster Kane has died, and his final word was “Rosebud.” Everyone clamors to know if this word held the key to understanding the former media-mogul-turned-recluse. So we get a series of flashbacks that explain Kane’s life.

Best Moment: I mean, with Gregg Toland as cinematographer, the entire movie is a best moment. There’s not a frame that doesn’t appear to be shot and lit with painstaking thought and detail. There’s a reason why Citizen Kane repeatedly shows up as the best film ever made. It really is a piece of art.

Worst Moment: Every single time I watch this movie, I fall asleep, and that includes the time that I took a small group of students to the local non-profit cinema for a free screening. I don’t know what it is about this movie that puts me to sleep, but it doesn’t matter where I see it or whether I feel rested: this film is chloroform to me at any given moment.

Epiphanies: For all the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching we all do about “journalists these days” or “capitalism is destroying our democracy” or any number of connections between media, politics, and everyday life, we sure have short memories. Perhaps this is also part of what makes the film so good–its themes are timeless.

Fun Facts: This film was edited by Robert Wise, who 20 years later would direct West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Also, spoiler, if you didn’t know, Rosebud was his childhood sled. And if you haven’t seen Season 5, Episode 4 of The Simpsons, well, it’s a direct parody of Citizen Kane. Worth your time.

Recommendation: See it. Every time I watch it, I am blown away by the precision of every shot and that alone is worth your time, even if you fall asleep at some point.