Valentine's Day is one of those difficult holidays that seem brimming with possibility and yet somehow more often than not prove to be disappointing. It’s a day that puts pressure on couples to live up to their partner’s expectations and completely ignores singles. In short, the holiday is a twenty four hour recipe for either magic moments or utter disaster. This year I’ll avoid the romance rush and leave the lovin’ to the on-screen couples that do it best. For anyone else hoping to indulge in the holiday spirit without the hassle, here are my top Valentine's flicks.
|Here's lookin' at you, kid|
CASABLANCA: Between Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, war-time intrigue, and enough quotable moments to fill an entire game of trivia this one is an absolute must see for movie buffs and true romantics alike. The plot focuses upon the love triangle between world weary American bar owner Rick Blaine, Rick’s former flame Ilsa, and Ilsa’s resistance fighter husband Victor Lazlo as they struggle to outwit the occupying Nazis in World War II Morocco. While Hollywood is no stranger to love triangles, Casablanca proves itself to be about far more than the typical themes of love, loss, and fidelity. Instead, the film’s central romance serves to show the ways in which the lives of average people are turned upside down by war, as well as the importance of holding onto our ideals and beliefs in the face of adversity. In many ways the characters also serve as metaphors for the various nations involved in World War II with Ilsa and Victor standing in for resistance fighters in occupied Europe, criminals Ugarte and Ferrari representing fascist Italy, corrupt official Louis serving as a metaphor for Vichy France, and finally the reluctant Rick standing in for isolationist America. Even without the film’s iconic status and political undertones, Casablanca is a film that captures the excitement, confusion, pain, longing and ultimately the sacrifice of love in a way that few films have. The film contains enough realism to be considered a sobering look at the effects of political unrest upon individual lives, and enough sweeping romance to soften even a hardened cynic like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick. Seventy three years on this same old story of love and glory still applies as time goes by.
|The best things in life are...for an hourly fee?!|
CAMILLE: Originally an 1848 novel entitled La Dame Aux Camellias, the tale of the doomed love between a struggling lawyer and a debt ridden courtesan has since gone on to become the subject of stage plays, operas, and numerous films. Critics and audiences agree that the definitive film version of the tale is the 1936 production starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. While the plot’s reliance upon the standards and social norms of its period setting could have left the story outdated and stuffy, the excellent acting and script bring out the story’s emotional core. Rather than a frivolous flirt or fallen woman in need of rescuing, in Garbo’s hands Marguerite is a complex woman who is every bit as capable as the men around her. Generous to a fault and always ready to laugh at her own expense, she hardly fits the stereotypes of film prostitutes and is instead a testament to the power of resilience as she forces herself to focus upon any bit of beauty or goodness in her sordid world. Similarly, Robert Taylor’s Armand is a man who is in many ways ahead of his time as he accepts Marguerite’s past and loves her for who she is rather than who he would like her to become. The romance between the two is surprisingly realistic with jealousy, insecurity, and finances regularly coming between them just as they continue to strain relationships today. The distinguishing factor in this love story lies in the way that the film shows the redemptive power of love without pretending that it is a cure-all for life. Through their relationship, Marguerite is offered a chance to begin anew and leave her painful past behind her and Armand finds direction and purpose in his formerly aimless life. Despite the good that their relationship does for each of them, however, the couple is soon faced with the reality of the difficult era in which they live as social pressures and physical illness threaten to tear them apart. Even though tragedy awaits, both Marguerite and Armand have truly been changed for the better, proving that while love may not conquer all it is still worth living, fighting, and even dying for.
|It's the 1590's: do you know where your children are?|
ROMEO AND JULIET/WEST SIDE STORY: No romance list would be complete without mention of the most famous pair of tragic lovers in all of Western literature. With this necessity in mind, for this spot, I was unable to decide between two films which tell the same classic story; the 1968 version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and its 1961 musical re-imagining West Side Story. Both stories chronicle the star-crossed loves between two youths from opposing groups; feuding aristocratic families in the original and warring street gangs in West Side. Director Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is one of the most faithful versions of the Shakespearean masterpiece to be put to celluloid and remains a staple of English lit classes. Despite its faithful telling of the familiar tale, however, the film manages to breathe new life into the story through its use of location shoots, eye-catching costumes, and casting of actual teen actors in the title roles. The film begins with youthful energy as an exploration of the purity of young love before heart-wrenchingly depicting its inevitable shattering of innocence. Even today, its theme song and the image of Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting sharing a first kiss on a balcony remain the things that many instantly think of when they hear the words Romeo and Juliet.
|Gang-life was never so well choreographed|
While Romeo and Juliet earned audience favor with its faithfulness to its source material, West Side Story earned similar style points for the innovative ways in which it departed from that same material. Adapted from the 1957 Broadway hit, West Side Story is a musical 1950’s take on the classic tale updated to New York’s tenements. The film uses its star-crossed lovers to highlight the racial tensions of its day as newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrant Maria falls for Tony, a former gang member struggling to go straight. While the racial differences between the two would have been difficult enough to overcome during this time, matters are made even more complicated by the fact that Tony’s ex-gang is trying to lure him back into his old life in an effort to take down the rival gang that Maria’s brother leads. While the film’s approach to racial issues and gang violence may be simplistic, it was startlingly progressive for its day and remains unfortunately relevant as gang violence continues to plague America’s cities. The soaring songs (Tonight, Maria, I Feel Pretty, Somewhere) have since gone on to become part of the ‘great American songbook’ and the performances are equally compelling, creating a perfect balance between musical score and story that remains iconic today. For love at its most beautiful and tragic these films are a truly complementary pair, and a match made in cinematic heaven.
Tell me your favorite Valentine's flicks in the comments and be sure to check out next week's Anti-Valentine follow-up!