E-C-Dub! E-C-Dub! E-C-Dub!

20. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

So I was reading the autobiography of 1930’s film star Myrna Loy (who is not merely ballin’, but straight ballin’), and she was talking about the Hollywood studio system. She noted it was essentially a factory where films were made by fitting each piece together. You would have a script written, they would find a director and then start casting. You would say try and get a Clark Gable-type(strong, macho, fast-talker) and maybe a Claudette Colbert-type(glamorous, but tough, and funny), but failing that you find two other name actors who fit into that kind of archetype. It was essentially a puzzle and the studio execs would just fit every part together in hopes of making a popular film.

Loy noted that such a system was flawed in that it gave actors and actresses little chance to take risks, and performers were simply at the mercy of the studios who picked there roles for them. But on the other hand she noted, that if an actor was really good in a certain role, studios would try and replicate those kind of roles for that actor. This often ensured the repeated success of many actors, and protected them from the risk of failure that might come from taking a risk. It’s not a great system, but in some ways it is advantageous because if a studio found what worked it would stick with it and protect the star from the possibility of being exposed as being terrible or really limited. Comedians did comedies, serious actors acted serious, etc. It was all very workmanlike and efficient.

This whole attitude reminds of Paul Heyman‘s abilities as a wrestling promoter. Heyman famously started up a renegade independent wrestling company called Extreme Championship Wrestling in 1993. Now Heyman as a businessman has proven to be an abject failure, ECW went bankrupt in 2001 amid numerous allegations of not paying his wrestlers, and a massive debt load. Conversely, Heyman is lauded for his booking(creating matches and storylines and wrestling gimmicks) prowess in which he often hired and promoted cast-offs from major feds, or guys who had never done anything of note, and turned them into big stars.

ECW became a successful cult promotion that eventually threatened the mainstream. For a lot of fans it became a way of life, something special and meaningful and transcendent. If you were to simply see the list of names in the promotion, you would hardly be impressed, but they created something that far outlasts the company. It was a spirit, and an attitude that was created in spite of the limitation of the talent. ECW became greater than the sum of its parts.

Heyman’s greatest talent was being able to see the strengths and the weaknesses of a wrestler, and promote them accordingly. Most of Heyman’s biggest stars were guys who were very limited in there abilities or had other significant flaws. Taz became Heyman’s biggest star despite being about 5″5. The Sandman had no wrestling ability to speak of so he became a violent, brawling, alcoholic who could take a beating. The Public Enemy where to fat middle-aged white guys, yet became big stars because they put people through tables and had catchy theme music. Mikey Whipwreck and Tommy Dreamer likewise were two unathletic looking white dudes who had heart, so they would take beatings but never give up. 911, was a 6 ft 8. monster who couldn’t do anything but chokeslam people, so he would simply enter the ring during other people’s matches and chokeslam them.

ECW was filled with these misfits, and all of them ended up going to either WWF or WCW, and failing miserably because they were exposed as being talents with significant limitations. Paul Heyman made them look better than they were achieved remarkable success for such a small promotion. He took what resources he had and made something great with it. Not only that but he did it repeatedly, despite suffering from continual raids of his talent. He could take almost anyone and get something out of them.

Now “Casablanca” is not ECW, but it was a factory film, designed in effect to capitalize on the strengths of the people involved, but not in fact dependent on any single part. The film would have been made regardless of who starred in it. It wasn’t an art film, it wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, it was simply the product of a studio trying to make some money.

Michael Curtiz who directed the film wasn’t the first choice, Ingrid Bergman wasn’t the first choice to play Ilsa, and Humphrey Bogart was a moderately successful leading actor. Nothing about the making of the film suggested it would go on to have such a cultural impact. It was simply another studio film. Everyone was picked for the film simply to fill a type or because they were available. The fact that it worked is just one of those cases where the sum is greater than the parts. Much like ECW.

On filmaffinity.com, I initially had the film as a 7/10 based on my watching it about 4 years ago and being underwhelmed. I re-watched on the weekend which brought it up to 8/10, but in the last day or two I have been thinking that it’s really a 9/10. It has a couple parts that drag, but there is enough stuff that had going pretty good, and the ending in spite of being so deeply ingrained in popular culture still got to me.

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