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How 'Casablanca' beat nine other nominees to win best picture at the 1943 Oscars

March 11, 2010 | 11:11 am

Before this year, the last time there were 10 best picture nominees at the Oscars was in 1943, when "Casablanca" won. On the Rotten Tomatoes ranking of all of the best picture winners at the Oscars, this year's champ, "The Hurt Locker," sits at No. 13 just above "Casablanca."

In the run-up to the Oscars, "The Hurt Locker" won over the New York Film Critics Circle while "Up in the Air" was the choice of the National Board of Review and "Avatar" was the Golden Globe pick for best drama pic. Back in 1943, there was also disagreement over the year's best picture as three films took the precursor awards: "Watch on the Rhine" won with the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review went with "The Ox-Bow Incident," and "The Song of Bernadette" triumphed at the brand-new Golden Globes. Those kudos were so fledgling that there was no actual award but scrolls were presented to the winners on the various studio lots.

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Even though Variety declared the film version of "Watch on the Rhine" even better than Lillian Hellman's 1941 Broadway production -- which had won best play from the New York Drama Critics Circle -- it had a hard time winning over 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.

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 a grizzled gangster. However, 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."

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."

Going into the March 2, 1944, Oscars, "The Song of Bernadette" led with the most nominations (12), followed by "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (nine). Both had been the big Christmas 1943 releases from their respective studios -- Fox and Paramount -- and ballyhooed as the Oscars front-runners. Warners had opened "Casablanca" more than a year earlier -- first in New York City in November 1942, timed with the U.S. invasion of Casablanca during World War II, and then in Los Angeles in January 1943, thereby qualifying for the 1943 Oscars. It earned eight nominations, including the first best actor bid for Bogart. 

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: "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."

After "Bernadette" and "Bell" lost to "Casablanca," Variety credited the upset to the front-runners operating snobbish, greedy campaigns. Tickets to see these pictures 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 such a powerful voting bloc that they boosted one of their own, Walter Brennan, to three supporting wins for "Come and Get It" (1936), "Kentucky" (1938) and "The Westerner" (1940). That record still stands among male actors, shared with Jack Nicholson.

Besides that best picture win, "Casablanca" also took home best director (Michael Curtiz) and adapted screenplay for Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Today, the American Film Institute ranks "Casablanca" as the third greatest movie ever made behind "Citizen Kane" (tops) and "The Godfather" (second place).

"The Song of Bernadette" won four Oscars -- best actress (Jennifer Jones), art direction (B&W), cinematography (B&W) and score. Oscar rung only once for "Bell" with a supporting actress win for Katina Paxinou. Lead actor Paul Lukas won the only Oscar out of four bids for "Watch on the Rhine," while supporting actor champ Charles Coburn was the only winner out of the six nominations for "The More the Merrier." And "The Human Comedy" won just one of its five races with the original story Oscar going to William Saroyan.

"In Which We Serve" -- which had won best film from the Gotham critics in 1942 -- lost its bids for best picture and screenplay, but writer and co-director Noel Coward was given an honorary Oscar for "his outstanding production achievement." "Madame Curie" lost all seven of its races, while "Heaven Can Wait" went 0 for 3 and "The Ox-Bow Incident" lost its sole bid.

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Top photo: "Casablanca" still. Credit: Warners

Bottom left photo: "For Whom the Bell Tolls" still. Credit: Paramount

Bottom right photo: "The Song of Bernadette" still. Credit: Fox

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Comments

A solid and interesting analysis Tom.

A couple of additions:

1) Casablanca was not eligible for the NYFC in 1943. It opened in NY in Dec 42, but in LA in Jan 43. Not that it would have won from them in 43, but it couldn't (and of course didn't for 42).

2) Casablanca had been a successful release for WB. What elevated it was an unusual re-release after the Allies' North African campaign began, during which Casablanca was liberated. That re-release was more successful than the initial one. Also, Ingrid Bergman had become a bigger star after the release of For Whom the Bell Tolls (which made her a strong best actress candidate until Song of Bernadette opened at the end of the year.)


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