Both of these films have to do with World War II, encompassing themes of morality, patriotism, profiteering, and the role of the everyday civilian. I’ve found myself thinking hard about both, and in the end I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to explore and think about regarding MRS. MINIVER and CASABLANCA.
Mrs. Miniver (Best Picture, 1942)
I have to say, I enjoyed MRS. MINIVER far more than I expected. It is a propaganda film, a look-how-the-brave-British-are-standing-firm-during-the-Blitz film, so I was expecting something far more predictable and saccharine than the unexpectedly gripping MRS. MINIVER.
Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) and her husband (Walter Pidgeon) lead their family of three children in a picture that goes from just before the declaration of war against Germany by Britain to well into the worst days of the Blitz. The Minivers live in a small village that seems to be near Canterbury, so they don’t get hit by bombing quite as vigorously as the East End of London, but the damage is bad enough. Their eldest son, Vin, enlists into the Royal Air Force almost as soon as war is declared, but he has fallen in love with the granddaughter of local aristocrat Lady Beldon. After the obligatory hemming and hawing and adorable 1940s-film teenage flirting, they are allowed to marry in spite of their youth.
And this is where the story takes a completely unexpected left turn, so if you want to avoid spoilers, skip ahead now. The predictable version of the story would be that youthful pilot Vin gets shot down or fatally wounded, leaving his teenage bride a widow after only a few weeks of marriage and his family, now living in a partially bombed-out house, devastated.
The house does indeed get badly damaged in the bombings, as does the village, and there are casualties amongst favorite characters. The sweet, elderly stationmaster who quickly becomes beloved of the audience for naming his new rose after Mrs. Miniver, dies in the bombing, as does a local choirboy. The shocker for the film is that Vin does not die. He is not physically injured in any way.
The shocker is that Vin’s wife, Carol, the teenaged bride of only a few weeks, is the one who gets hit by a bullet from an airplane machine gun as she and Mrs. Miniver try to drive home during the bombing of the village. Unable to get medical attention to her out-of-the-way house due to the emergency in the village, Carol dies on the floor of the Miniver home, leaving her new and old families shocked and grieved.
MRS. MINIVER is a propaganda film. As such, it is about as subtle as a sledghammer, but this film is far more than I ever expected. If it had taken the predictable route of Vin’s death, leaving those at home (too old, too young, or too female to join up as soldiers) to grieve and put on brave faces while helping out on the home front, it would have been touching but nothing out of the ordinary. The three deaths in the village are a child, a young bride, and an old man. The final scene is a Sunday service in what remains of the village church, the walls of which are held up by beams of wood conveniently constructed in the shape of crosses. It’s not subtle. But it is extremely effective. It shows that civilians are not safe, that the war is as much at home as it is in the traditional battlefield, and that everyone – man, woman, child, old, and young, must fight. Everyone is a soldier, and everyone faces the ultimate sacrifice as a real possibility. It is stirring stuff, even seventy years later.
One of my favorite aspects of MRS. MINIVER has nothing to do with the war. It is the relationship between Mrs. Miniver and her husband. For the first time in this project, I see what is to my 2012 mind a realistic married couple. They love each other, they tease each other, and they take care of each other on what appears to be a relatively equal level. Both Mr. and Mrs. Miniver do their part in the war effort – while he is off helping with the evacuation of Dunkirk, she finds a downed German pilot in her garden and manages to turn him over to the village police. She is strong without requiring him to be weak. They are a pleasant pair to watch, and their faith in each others’ abilities help to make the film believable.
Casablanca (Best Picture, 1943)
I can guarantee you that if you haven’t seen this movie you probably feel as though you have. It is so heavily quoted, excerpted, spoofed, and referenced that I actually thought I’d seen it about 10 years ago and failed to appreciate it as cultural convention dictates I ought. I’m now thinking that tonight may have been the first time I actually sat down and watched it, and I feel as though my head is very full.
Because the film is so well known, I feel no need to summarize the plot or premise. I do feel strongly that the film, which is remarkable on every level – acting, cinematography, directing, script, and even down to the lighting and costumes – is fundamentally crippled by its reputation. Like GONE WITH THE WIND it is assumed that everyone loves this movie, that it is life-changing and possibly the best movie ever made. And I can see why it might be that for some of the audience. However, there is a portion of the audience to which I belong that resents the seeming cultural requirement to love this film simply because it is so widely beloved.
I do not dislike CASABLANCA. I think Bergman, Bogart, Henreid, and all the other members of the cast turn in astoundingly good performances. I think the story and script, if a touch melodramatic at times (but if one can’t be melodramatic in this story, when can one be melodramatic?), are engrossing and free of extraneous material. I especially appreciate the generous sprinkling of humor in the asides and quips of the characters. I simply cannot in honesty say that I loved it or that it ranks among one of my favorite films. Perhaps I’m too young for it, or perhaps I haven’t “lived” enough.
We’re told that it’s life-changing and fundamental to our culture by its continual presence in the images and language we use today. My family constantly quotes from it (a favorite is “I’m shocked! SHOCKED to discover there’s gambling going on here!), it’s spoofed by shows like RED DWARF (episode 4×01, “Camille”), and clips are even used to create an anti-piracy ad for the beginning of DVDs. And, of course, the greatest cultural reference of all, that famous debate between Meg Ryan’s Sally and Billy Crystal’s Harry in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY about the nature of love and why Ingrid Bergman’s character makes the decision that she does.
We are bombarded with messages that tell us knowing and loving CASABLANCA is a fundamental part of our culture. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. It is certainly an interesting picture of personal choices and morality in the face of great strife. The characters are flawed, not saints or demons, and the choices they make are bittersweet. The sacrifices are clear to the audience and as a result the characters are eminently real.
I suppose I will continue to puzzle over CASABLANCA, for at this point I do not love it and it has not changed my life. It is a strong film, a classic by any measure, and I enjoyed watching it. But I do not love it.
Next Up: Going My Way (Best Picture, 1944) and The Lost Weekend (Best Picture, 1945)