Watching Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman on screen is like watching two relics of American cultural life, rather than just two actors. They are both not only beautiful but also magnetic — a combination that makes “Casablanca” one of the greatest examples of classical Hollywood film, right up there with “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With the Wind.”
Every Valentine’s Day for the past 20 years, couples would make their way to the Brattle Street Theater hand-in-hand, maybe a little wine-drunk — or just drunk on love — to experience this classic in the historic Cambridge movie theater. It’s Brattle’s thing — they’ve been screening the film annually since the 1960s and on Valentine’s Day since the 2000s. But this year, due to a special Turner Classic Movie and Warner Bros. 80th anniversary screening of the film, Brattle couldn’t screen it for the special holiday. The Turner screening took place on January 23 and 26, and distributors have restricted the film’s access for the next month. So instead, Brattle screened “The Princess Bride.”
In the ’60s, Brattle would do a marathon screening of Bogart films during reading week, and Harvard students loved it. Friends would come in costume, pop champagne corks at iconic scenes, and recite lines in unison as if they were singing along to an old favorite song. It was a sensation.
“It was like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ before ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ existed,” says Ned R. Hinkle, the creative director at Brattle, who’s been with the theater since 1997.
But people also love “Casablanca” because it represents a time in Hollywood when film was magical, and film stars were more than just the faces on tabloids. They were icons. The cast is acclaimed — besides Bogart and Bergman, some of the supporting actors like Claude Rains and Peter Lorre have had long-spanning careers. The film coalesced from a play script that was never produced. On set, the Epstein brothers edited lines on the fly.
“The director, Michael Curtiz, was really adept to all kinds of genres,” Hinkle adds.
For many viewers, “Casablanca”’s strong romantic thread is the main appeal — but it’s also a film about war, politics, and public responsibility versus personal desire. It is rare today to find a film that seriously addresses those themes without making them a glazed-over backdrop to a sappy love story. “Casablanca” does both. To top it off, the guy doesn’t get the girl, and no one rides off into the sunset on white horses.
“It defies your expectation of what romance can be,” says Hinkle.
In “The Princess Bride,” on the other hand, Westley and Princess Buttercup actually do ride off into the sunset at the end. Based on William Goldman’s novel of the same name, this film was released over 40 years after “Casablanca.” It actually flopped when it first hit the box offices in ’87, but became an enduring cult classic soon after for its over-the-top characters and quotable lines.
Opera music plays as couples take their seats in Brattle Theater at 9:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. The screen — which is actually on a stage — rolls through classic film posters reminding viewers to shut off their phones, what to do in a medical emergency, etc. This place is a relic just like the films it shows, and as I sit down, I know I am about to watch a performance.
And of course, love is in the air. Never have I watched “The Princess Bride” in the company of so many who love the film as much as I do. No one was shy about quoting Vizzini’s “inconceivable!”, and there were claps after Inigo Montoya’s first “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.”
“The Princess Bride” is a love story that satirizes all of the absurd obstacles that get in the way of happiness. Rodents of unusual size, half-giants, Swiss geniuses, six-fingered swordsmen, pirates. But there are also more worldly and less fantastical elements to the film: vengeance, the hope of a miracle, heartbreak. In this way, “The Princess Bride,” too, transcends genre. What “Princess Bride” does that “Casablanca” does not, though, is remind us that sometimes love can work out, even when, at every turn, there is something in the way — while poking fun at the insurmountable difficulties of it all.
“Valentine’s Day is still a special day for people, and people want to go out and do something,” says Hinkle. “Going to the movies right now presents an option that is safe and fun, where we can come together and sit in a room with strangers and experience something as an audience. It’s something a lot of us have been missing over the past two years.”
Viewers didn’t seem to mind all that much that “Casablanca” wasn’t on the table for this year’s Valentine’s Day. Whether it’s Bogart and Bergman or Buttercup and Westley, viewers at the Brattle will be guaranteed a film that salutes the triumph of love in its own unique way. Some may prefer the more serious political relevance of a WWII film, while others revel in the refreshing wit of “The Princess Bride.” But it really doesn’t matter, because on Valentine’s Day, both films remind us that love is hard, but it is possible.
— Magazine writer Isabel T. Mehta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.