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Virtue and the Women of Old Hollywood

This post focuses on humility. The second is on kindness, while the third concerns meekness.

By Sarah McCullough Cornwell

Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics that in philosophical inquiry — or really any pursuit — you should be like an archer and know precisely for what you are aiming. In that spirit, I intend for this post to be the first in a series in which I interpret classic female characters in old Hollywood films as exemplars of the seven classic virtues, namely those virtues that are used to combat the seven deadly sins Dante observes in his journey through the Divine Comedy. I thought this particular line of investigation would be helpful to me as a mother raising a newborn daughter. And it sounds fun.

I did not take the opportunity to read anything by Dante until I was married. I was intrigued by the rich symbolism found in the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, but was particularly struck by the idea of having certain characters from history act as guides. With this in mind, to introduce my daughter to the seven classic virtues long before she is able to read Dante, I will enlist the help of other guides: Ingrid Bergman, Myrna Loy, Katherine Hepburn, and Jean Arthur, among others.

Though classical movies were introduced to me in no particular order, I will take some of my favorites in the order of the virtues Dante encounters as he scales the terraces of Purgatorio to Paradise. The first virtue that Dante and his guides, Virgil and Beatrice, find is humility, depicted in a statue of the Annunciation. Never was there a more selfless response than “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Dante beholds those poor wretches who suffered the sin of pride in their life. In purgatory, they are taught humility — the virtue that combats this deadly sin — by walking bent over with heavy stones upon their back. This may raise a question: Is a virtue like humility an onerous burden?

Consider one of the top ten classic films: Casablanca. My plot summary will be seriously lacking, so please watch this movie if you’ve never taken the opportunity. Suffice it to say that boy (Humphrey Bogart) meets girl (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris; Nazis march into Paris, boy and girl arrange to leave together; girl leaves boy standing on a rainy train platform; boy becomes embittered and ends up opening a café in one of the last ports out of Nazi-occupied territory. Years later, girl shows up with new boy (Paul Henreid) at café. New boy is a famous Czech dissident wanted by the Nazis.

The plot thickens. Bergman threatens Bogart in order to obtain his counterfeit exit visas, so that she can get Henreid out of the country. It turns out Henreid is not a new boy at all, but really Bergman’s husband whom she presumed had died in a concentration camp when she had met Bogart in Paris. Just as Bogart and Bergman were to flee together from the advancing Nazis, Bergman received word that Henreid was still alive and she left immediately to find and care for him, leaving Bogart on the train platform alone. All these years later, Bogart and Bergman are still as in love as they had been in Paris. They decide to send Henreid to safety, with Bergman staying behind to be with Bogart. But in an iconic scene at the end, Bogart tells Bergman she should get on the plane with her husband, and he will stay behind, perhaps to be arrested by the Nazis for allowing the escape of such a high-level dissident.

At first blush, Casablanca may seem like a movie about Bogart’s humility, which then leads to a bittersweet ending. Bergman and Bogart, the lovers whose relationship is central to the whole plot, do not end up together, and this is because Bogart puts the well-being of Bergman and her relationship with her husband ahead of his desires. Taken in isolation, the ending seems sad, not happy, and Bogart is the hero while Bergman is the meek woman who does as she is told.

Consider the ending within the entire context of the story, however, and it turns these two assumptions on their heads. The film leading up to the final scene at the airport shows Bergman as a model of humility. At the end, Bogart is mirroring what he has learned from her and takes on the burden that she once bore. And while Bergman and Bogart do not end up together, they do not end up alone, and the movie ends on a spirit of hope.

There are more reasons to believe Bergman is the primary example of humility in the movie. When Bergman left Bogart in Paris, she was taking the harder and selfless route. Instead of fleeing the advancing Nazi occupation with a man she loves and with whom she seems to spend a large part of the day enjoying champagne, she goes deep into Nazi territory to nurse her ailing husband who is in hiding from the Gestapo. She chose to honor her vow of marriage and remained with her husband in sickness and in health, and, in this case, in danger and in safety. She looked to serve another in love even at the expense of what she would have chosen should she have been free of her vow. If she had in fact been a widow as she previously believed, she presumably would have gone with Bogart on the train.

To further her act of humility, she didn’t tell Bogart the reason she left him. Bergman knew that if she told him she was staying behind in Paris to find her husband, Bogart would have stayed too. She also knew that he would likely be arrested by the Gestapo for his Underground involvement. All of this is revealed to Bogart when he and Bergman meet in his gin joint years later.

By the time Bergman and Henreid arrive in Casablanca, they are exhausted. One might imagine they have been through hell on earth (or, at least, purgatory) to move through war-torn Europe with the Gestapo on their tails. Casablanca is the last step they must take. For Bergman, her strength finally gives out upon seeing Bogart again.

Bergman is no Virgin Mary, whose humility prevailed through the entirety of Jesus’ earthly life, even through seeing her son hung on a cross. Mary did not surrender to exhaustion. Bergman did, and she told Bogart that it was his decision whether she stayed with him or left with Henreid. I find this not weak but relatable and, in that way, helpful. There are times in our lives when our exhaustion means we must rely on our loved ones to help make decisions. Man, after all, was not meant to be alone. And up until the very end, Bogart planned for Henreid to board the plane to safety, and he and Bergman were to remain together in Casablanca, an ending that many in the audience would have accepted and perhaps even a few preferred.

But no. Bogart chose in the end to follow Bergman’s example and put the well-being of a loved one above his desires. He insisted that Bergman board the plane, saying she would regret it if she didn’t. “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday.” Bogart put her ultimate happiness first, and protected her from harm in the same way she had protected him. Bogart explained to Bergman that if she stayed, she would likely be arrested by the Gestapo along with Bogart for letting Henreid escape.

And so, despite the burden of letting go of a loved one, these final good acts are not onerous, but satisfying. The ending is a happy one due to Bergman’s humility, which, in turn, brought out Bogart’s. Each of them made decisions that put others’ needs before their own.

The two show us what it is like to carry a heavy burden — and, indeed, what it is like to allow another to carry that burden for us for a short time when the cross becomes too heavy. Though the way can be difficult, the end is not the cross, but the empty tomb and the unending joy of Paradise. It may not be today or tomorrow, but it will be soon, and, in the meantime, exercising humility is not dreary. In the end, Bergman is seated next to her loving husband, Henreid, and Bogart is at the hopeful threshold of a “beautiful friendship.”

Sarah Cornwell is a recovering Lutheran who joined the Episcopal Church in 2011.  She holds a BFA in dance and a MA in International Humanitarian Assistance.  She lives with her husband and four children in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.



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