Here's a poser: Which movies are the best or most beloved or most popular of all time?
OK, trick question. No answer can be definitive because it's so subjective — including the term "most popular."
If you measure popularity by actual number of theater tickets sold, "Gone With the Wind" is still on top (in adjusted-for-inflation dollars), according to Box Office Mojo and many other sources. But the original "Star Wars" is a close second, and how well video rentals and TV/streaming viewings are measured — for these and other films — is up for debate.
It's even more difficult to quantify how "beloved" a movie is, given the personal nature of the category. I've heard from people whose favorite movies, to which they return again and again, are "Caddyshack" and "Dumb and Dumber." Not to sound snobbish, but those aren't even on my radar as guilty pleasures.
And most difficult of all, which movies are the "best"? Going by critics, for many years "Citizen Kane" reigned as king on most lists, then "Vertigo" moved to the top spot a few years ago, but "The Godfather" has also gained traction. These days, with everyone and their cousin making lists online, there's a much wider range of titles out there, though most still include all of the golden oldies named above, along with "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Wizard of Oz," "Singin' in the Rain," "It's a Wonderful Life," etc.
Another film that is inching up toward the top spot is "Casablanca," which has earned a boost this year from ballyhoo for its 75th anniversary, along with a recent 100-page photo-filled magazine on newsstands, "Casablanca: 75 Years Later," and a 334-page volume in bookstores, "We'll Always Have Casablanca," by Noah Isenberg.
Being swept away by a great movie in a darkened theater is always fun, but being swept away by a movie this great is a rare opportunity.
For the uninitiated, "Casablanca" — filmed and released in 1942 as World War II was raging — is set in the titular Moroccan city, depicted in the film as packed with Europeans desperate to find refuge in America via a fictional device called "letters of transit."
The film's primary story thread has to do with American café owner Rick and a young Norwegian woman named Ilsa, whose ill-fated romance in Paris we see in a flashback midway through the film. Now operating a club in Casablanca, Rick has become embittered and cynical, commiserating with his friend Sam, who sings and plays piano. Then, one evening, out of the blue, Ilsa walks in, married to a famous Czech freedom fighter, and Rick's world is turned upside down.
And that's just the beginning of a film that's romantic and suspenseful, warm and funny, and with something to say about standing up for your convictions in the face of great danger.
Hot off of "The Maltese Falcon" and just beginning to embrace stardom, Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, and a young, fresh, still new-to-America Ingrid Bergman is Ilsa. Dooley Wilson, in an unusually rich role for a black actor at the time, is Sam, whose music and loyalty to Rick hovers throughout the film (along with the song, "As Time Goes By").
In addition, "Casablanca" is packed with rich characters played by talented actors, including Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, and, in a small but pivotal role, Peter Lorre. Some of these players — along with director Michael Curtiz and many of the extras in the cast — were European exiles, which lends an emotional depth to the proceedings.
"Casablanca" is also one of the most quoted films in history. When the American Film Institute celebrated its 100th year in 2005, the organization came up with a list of the "100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time."
The 100 here are personal, of course, reflecting the favorites of AFI members that voted on a ballot of 400 choices. Most of the familiar quotes you would expect to see are listed, including "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" ("Gone With the Wind"), "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" ("The Godfather") and "Go ahead, make my day" (the Dirty Harry film "Sudden Impact").
Most of the films listed are represented by a single quote, although a few have two or three — but none come close to "Casablanca," with a total of six:
"Here's looking at you, kid." (No. 5)
"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." (No. 20)
"Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.'" (No. 28)
"Round up the usual suspects." (No. 32)
"We'll always have Paris." (No. 43)
"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." (No. 67)
And I would add: "The Germans wore gray, you wore blue," "Kiss me as if it were the last time" and "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
People often incorrectly think "Casablanca" was one of those movies that went unrecognized in its own time, but in truth, it resonated strongly with audiences and critics of 1942. It was the seventh-biggest moneymaker of the year and won Oscars for best picture, best director and best screenplay.
Years ago, a Hollywood director told me that a good film is usually an accident, and a great film is a really happy accident.
That's certainly true of "Casablanca."
Considering all of the things that went haywire during the development of the film — a script that was undergoing revisions all through the shoot (no one knew how it would end until the final days of production) and a director and producer at odds about whether the emphasis should be on romance or politics — it really has no right to be as good as it is.
On the other hand, there were so many talented people involved, all at the peak of their powers, that maybe it was meant to be.
On that score, we'll let Bergman have the final word. Isenberg quotes her as saying late in her life, "I feel about 'Casablanca' that it has a life of its own. There is something mystical about it. It seems to have filled a need, a need that was there before the film, a need that the film filled."