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Did 'Casablanca' deserve to win best picture at the Oscars?

March 2, 2009 | 11:11 am

In 1943, there was such fierce disagreement over the year's best picture that the four top film awards went to four pictures: the Oscars ("Casablanca"), National Board of Review ("The Ox-Bow Incident"), New York Film Critics Circle ("Watch on the Rhine") and the brand-new Golden Globe ("The Song of Bernadette"). The latter award was so fledging and low-key that it didn't have a statuette to hand out. Winners were given scrolls on the studio lot.

Variety declared "Watch on the Rhine" even better than Lillian Hellman's Broadway production, which had won best play from the New York Drama Critics Circle, but it had a hard time prevailing as best picture within the New York Film Critics Circle. On the first ballot, it tied director Clarence Brown's "The Human Comedy" and didn't amass enough votes to break away to win until the sixth ballot. "Casablanca" was not a significant contender.

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At the Oscars, "The Song of Bernadette" led with the most nominations (12), followed by "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (nine). Both had been big Christmas releases ballyhooed as the Oscars front-runners. After they lost to "Casablanca," Variety credited the upset to the front-runners operating snobbish, greedy campaigns. Tickets to see "Bernadette" and "Bell" were too expensive, and the films were shown too infrequently at exclusive screenings. As a result, they weren't seen by 75% of film extras who constituted a vast portion of the academy membership back then. Extras — those spear carriers, crowd members, sidewalk passersby in films — were once such a powerful voting bloc that they gave the most acting awards in history to one of their own, Walter Brennan — "Come and Get It" (1936), "Kentucky" (1938), "The Westerner" (1940). That record of three wins still stands among male actors, shared with Jack Nicholson.

By contrast, "Casablanca" had been seen by virtually everybody as of Oscars night on March 2, 1944. It had opened more than a year earlier — in New York City in November 1942, timed with the U.S. invasion of Casablanca during World War II. "Casablanca" didn't qualify for the next Oscars because it didn't open in Los Angeles until January 1943.

In addition to "The Song of Bernadette" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Casablanca" squared off against seven other nominees for best picture at the Oscars for 1943: "Heaven Can Wait," "The Human Comedy," "In Which We Serve," "Madame Curie," "The More the Merrier," "The Ox-Bow Incident" and "Watch on the Rhine."

Newsweek called "Casablanca" "absorbing, escapist entertainment," and Variety gave it a respectful review that didn't decree it to be either good or bad, but its critic seemed to like the performances and got a kick out of seeing Humphrey Bogart cast as "a tender heart" instead of grizzled gangster.

The New York World-Telegram said "Casablanca" was "not the best of the recent Bogarts."

A film critic widely ridiculed by modern-day film critics — Bosley Crowther of the New York Times — loved "Casablanca": "Indeed the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and heart take a leap . . . . They have so combined sentiment, humor and pathos with taut melodrama and bristling intrigue that the result is a highly entertaining and even inspiring film."

However, a critic who is worshiped by today's critical hipsters — Manny Farber — lambasted "Casablanca" in the New Republic: "Hollywood often uses its best players, writers and directors for its epic phonies…. Each studio has its preference ….  Warner's is 'Casablanca.' The 'Casablanca' kind of hokum was good in its original context in other movies, but, lifted into Casablanca for the sake of its glitter and not incorporated into it, loses its meaning … Bogart's humanitarian killer, who was disillusioned apparently at his mother's breast, has to say some silly things and play God too often to be as believably tough as he was in his last eight pictures."

Today the American Film Institute ranks "Casablanca" as the third greatest movie ever made behind "Citizen Kane" (tops) and "The Godfather" (second place).

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Photos: Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros.

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