‘Happy accident’? The people who made ‘Casablanca’ knew what they were doing. Whether by intellect or intuition, they created a masterpiece.
The Encore was among the first “repertory” houses to spring up in the early 1970s. In those days, long before home video, rep theaters rescued old movies from TV and exhibited them on the big screen to enthusiastic viewers of all ages.
Humphrey Bogart was the poster boy for this new form of exhibition. Revival houses would devote several evenings to Bogart classics. “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep” or “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” would often play on a double bill with “Casablanca,” the latter usually the last film of the evening.
I seem to recall, only moments after Rick says goodbye to Ilsa for the last time at Casablanca’s fog-enshrouded airport, stumbling out into a cool and perhaps equally foggy night, not too far from where the actors actually delivered those lines. It would be midnight, possibly even later. One still reeled pleasurably from the delicious double-whammy of back-to-back Bogie.
Bogie’s movies and the roles he played were in lock step with the zeitgeist: Bogie, the existential hero of the American counterculture; Bogie, the spiritual godfather of Godard’s “Breathless” and by extension the French New Wave; Bogie, a cigarette dangling from his lips and a scotch nearby, the lonely guardian of a brand of moral integrity that resonated strongly with a new generation of moviegoers many years after his own death.
No doubt it matters when you see a movie. If I had been alive in 1942, the year of its initial release, “Casablanca'” patriotic fervor, akin to so many movies made by Warner Bros. and all the studios during World War II, would have held sway. Nor would it hurt that the Allies had just invaded that city in North Africa.
Had I attended the Brattle Theatre in Boston in 1953, the first cinema to bring back an audience favorite, which wound up playing the film annually around the pre-exam periods at Harvard University, I might have responded to its mythological version of America — tough on the outside but morally resolute within.
Were I to see it for the first time today, perhaps its romance would hit home. What other film ever got away with its heroine saying with a straight face, “Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?”
Those ideals and images stick with me. When the movie appears on television late at night — reportedly, the film has played on TV more times than any other film. I think I’ll watch a scene or two yet wind up staying with the film to its terrific climax. I can recite lines of dialogue right along with the actors, but the words never lose their power to move and excite me. Everyone has one movie that never grows old, no matter how many times viewed. For me, it’s “Casablanca.”
Any poll of film critics or historians concerning the Best Film Ever Made invariably turns up “Citizen Kane” as the No. 1 American film of all time. Then come works by genuine auteurs such as Billy Wilder, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Stephen Spielberg.
“Casablanca,” so hugely entertaining, so lauded with Oscars, gets treated as a happy accident, a hastily conceived and executed studio film that came together miraculously with just the right cast, director and writers at just the right moment in history.
The story of the film’s “happy accidents” is well known. How several writers labored on the script; how Ingrid Bergman’s role nearly went to French actress Michele Morgan; how Bogart in all probability ad libbed the line “Here’ looking at you, kid” ; how the director fought with everyone; how the composer wanted to replace the song “As Time Goes By”; how the movie’s famous last line was written weeks after shooting finished; and how the Allies happened to capture the French Moroccan city not long before its November 1942 premiere in New York, making Casablanca a household word.
The film began as an attempt to recapture the exotic appeal of the 1938 Hedy Lamarr vehicle “Algiers.” Certainly, the themes and characters were familiar to audiences of the time. “Casablanca” fit a formula for dozens of movies released during the War. While made in perhaps a more slap-dash manner than some studio confections, “Casablanca” nevertheless was a studio confection. The actors were mostly contract players and its director, Michael Curtiz, did not have final say. Producer Hal Wallis did.
But as time has gone by, “Casablanca’s” enduring popularity and strength as a great American movie cannot be explained away as a happy accident. The people who made this film knew what they were doing. Whether by intellect or intuition, they created a masterpiece. Indeed “Casablanca” represents the triumph of the studio system.
The screenplay for “Casablanca” ran through the typewriters of several of Warner Bros. contract writers but the ones of importance were the twin brothers, Julius and Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch. The Epsteins were known mostly for sharp, often comic dialogue and as smooth adapters of stage plays such as “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Thus, Warner Bros.’ Jack Warner Jr., the studio’s vp and head of production, assigned the Epsteins to turn a play called “Everybody Comes to Rick'” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison into a movie script. In the studio’s assembly-line writing system of that era, much of what they wrote was rewritten by Koch.
Without having read any of the various drafts, I think one can assume the Epsteins were responsible for many of the often-quoted lines from one of that era’s most literate screenplays while Koch, a political animal who would eventually be blacklisted for his leftist leanings, interjected much of the political situation that drives the melodrama. While today we might not see such a “collaboration,” in which neither set of writers ever conferred with one another, as ideal, the result in this instance is a polished gem where character, dialogue, dramatic action and comic by-play come together in seamless harmony.
Curtiz, a Hungarian Jew, was one of the top directors of Warners’ films in the ’30s and ’40s, helming many of Bette Davis’ vehicles and putting top stars such as Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Joan Crawford and Paul Muni through their paces. His mobile camera and artful compositions gave his work tremendous kinetic energy. This certainly enlivened “Casablanca,” which is actually a fairly talky and static story. The flow of images and the excellent placement of his actors within the sets are hallmarks of his classical studio style.
Some of the credit for the film’s fluid, distinguished looks belongs, of course, to its cinematographer, the veteran director of photography Arthur Edeson. He had a long career that included several atmospheric horror films such as “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man” as well as Bogie’s breakthrough film, John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.”
Wallis, the film’s producer, assumed an enviable position on Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot the year he made “Casablanca.” In early 1942, Wallis signed a contract that allowed him to leave his job as head of production to run his own company, Hal Wallis Productions. In that year, he made six pictures for Warners to distribute: “Desperate Journey,” “Now, Voyager,” “Watch on the Rhine,” “Air Force,” “Princess O’Rourke” and “Casablanca.” Not a bad year.
Both “Watch on the Rhine” and “Casablanca” received Best Picture Oscar nominations and “Casablanca” won the award. When Wallis left the studio, he made three other Oscar-nominated Best Pictures in “The Rose Tattoo” (1955), “Becket” (1964) and “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1969).
It would be hard to overestimate Wallis’ contribution to “Casablanca.” Clearly, this was a man who knew how to produce audience-pleasing movies. Hollywood history is filled with more colorful and lauded producers from Samuel Goldwyn to David O. Selznick. Yet none created more solid, mainstream motion pictures than Wallis.
These then were the people who came together briefly in 1942 to create the “happy mistake.” One more factor needs to be cited. The song “As Time Goes By” is now so synonymous with the film and Warner Bros. that the studio currently uses it as the its theme music when the corporate logo pops up prior to all its films. Yet the song was itself pretty obscure when the movie first appeared. Apparently, the song, written by Herman Hupfeld, appeared in a 1931 Broadway show, “Everybody’s Welcome.” Burnett, co-author of the original play, had written the song into “Everybody Comes to Rick’,” and it remained in the final shooting script. However, the film’s composer, Max Steiner, one of the movies’ greatest, reportedly wanted to dump the tune. But Jack Warner insisted that the tune stay in the picture. Steiner even uses it as a leitmotif throughout the film to bridge scenes and link the film’ two lovers.
Of all the people involved in “Casablanca,” the key figure here is Bogart. True, his role isn’t anything he hadn’t done in countless films before and would do again in many more pictures in his career. He was good at playing the rebellious hero, the guy who claims he will stick his neck out for nobody but winds up doing exactly that before the film is over. But this role, more than any others, crystallized the existential nature of his hero.
Richard Blaine lives in the moment and clearly wants to be in control of every aspect of his life. But as someone much later would point out, you can’t always get what you want. Rick is what we would now call a control freak. He is first seen with a close-up of his hands. He signs an “OK” to someone’s check for the gambling casino in the back room of his cafe. He insists on approving the entry of all patrons into those quarters, turning down a German banker with a remark that the banker should be grateful his money is good at the bar.
His occasional girlfriend Yvonne nurses a drink and a grudge at the bar. “Where were you last night?” she asks. “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember,” he murmurs. “Will I see you tonight?” she asks. “I never make plans that far ahead,” he says decisively.
As we learn much later, Rick wasn’t always in control. When the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Bergman) and her husband, underground hero Victor Laszlo (Henreid), show up in Casablanca, we learn she and Rick were lovers in Paris until she learned Laszlo had not been killed, as she earlier believed. She then disappeared without warning, leaving a dazed Rick holding her rain-soaked goodbye note at the Paris train station.
Ilsa’s abandonment of him represents a supreme jolt to Rick’s system. It probably triggered Rick’s heavy drinking and the cynicism that occupies him as the movie begins. The story then is Rick’s journey over the course of the movie from disengagement to commitment. He is a Hemingway-esque figure, confronted by the twin themes of many of the master’s novels: personal honor and the tenuous nature of love in a time of war. Indeed, “Casablanca” is unimaginable without the influence of Hemingway. For the story is nothing if not a portrait of men and women behaving with grace under pressure and finding the courage to go on in the face of certain loss.
Bogart’s Blaine is the hero of disillusionment. He remains aloof from “this crazy world,” clinging strongly to his integrity and offering his allegiance to no one or no thing. His neutrality rang a responsive cord with a generation following his death, a generation that grew familiar with corruption and betrayal in American society during the Vietnam era.
Just as Hemingway’s heroes grew fed up with the lies that brought about the Great War or the betrayals of the Spanish Civil War, so too does Bogart’s Rick flee his symbolic home in the U.S. Claude Rains’ “poor corrupt official,” Captain Renault, enjoys speculating that Rick’ exile could possibly be blamed on absconding with church funds or a senator’s wife or, perhaps, he killed a man. Rick replies that it was a combination of all three offenses.
Of his presence in Casablanca, Rick insists he came for the waters. Told by the astonished Renault that Casablanca contains no waters, he simply replies, “I was misinformed.” It’s a witty line, of course, but he is kidding on the square. He was misinformed. He once was not the least bit disengaged. He ran guns to Ethiopia in 1935 in their fight against the Italian Fascists. A year later, he fought in Spain on the Loyalist side. But Paris undid him. He trusted in love and was betrayed. He understands the source of this “misinformation” so he chooses to remain disengaged and disillusioned. That is, until Ilsa walks into his gin joint.
Ingrid Bergman was paired with Bogart only once in her career. This was a role she performed just prior to her “big” role which, oddly enough, was Maria in Hemingway’ “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Perhaps as a consequence of career distraction, the Swedish beauty more or less glides through “Casablanca,” difficult to read and ambivalent in her allegiance. (This may also be the result of confusion on the set over whom her character would end up with until right before filming the last scene.) This makes her a perfect match for Bogie’s Rick. Forced by his nature to continue his pursuit of the one female who dumped him, Rick brushes up against real political commitment in the form of freedom fighter Victor Laszlo and comes to realize just how unobtainable Ilsa truly is. Thus, by entertaining the romantic myth that their re-established connection has allowed him to regain “Paris” and all it represents, Rick can give her up to Laszlo even as he embraces Laszlo’ cause. For once, a hero has his cake and eats it too.
(The other school of thought, of course, is that Rick is merely paying Ilsa back in kind, abandoning her as she once abandoned him. But even the film’s famed theme song adamantly denies this.)
“Casablanca” is jammed with great character actors, many fairly recent refugees from Hitler’s Europe, playing terrific supporting roles. But Rains as Captain Renault is most definitely the third side of this dramatic triangle. There is even a hint, much commented upon over the years but definitely far from the minds of anybody involved creatively with the film’s making, of a homosexual undertone in the relationship between Renault and Rick. Renault describes Rick to Ilsa, before she realizes exactly who this Rick is, as “the kind of man that, well, if I were a woman and I weren’t around, I should be in love with Rick.”
But to read the movie’s final fadeout and Rick’ choice of male camaraderie over Ilsa as homosexual is, to my mind, a misread. Rick and Renault both start the film in cynical disengagement from the problems of the world. Renault must cooperate and cohabit with the Nazis as a representative of Vichy France, but is not above the occasional dig at the master race. To Rick, the Germans in Casablanca are simply patrons of his saloon, albeit not among his favorites.
The film’s tensions, sexual and dramatic, derive from the ambiguity of characters’ motives. We can never be too sure about Rick and Renault until the final fadeout. Clearly though, they are no longer neutrals by the end. Rick’s journey is one of disengagement to engagement, from bitter self-pity to the recovery of his past (even though that past remains murky to us). Rick’s brush with Laszlo and Ilsa is part of what transforms him. And Rick is a man Renault admires. He can’t help being affected by Rick’s rediscovery of his values and his willingness finally to stick his neck out for something or somebody. He wants no part of arresting Rick for the murder of Major Strasser, a man he clearly despises. It’s easier to round up the usual suspects, to maintain the guise of business as usual, while acknowledging a profound change that has come over not only himself but the one man he respects in that god-forsaken desert town.
At the movie’s beginning, in the moral chaos that is Casablanca, Rick Blaine is a cynical, aloof drunk. By the film’s climatic scene, he has joined the Cause. (“I’ve got a job to do,” he obliquely tells Ilsa.) One even suspects he may in his own way be just as an effective freedom fighter as Laszlo.
This was what my counterculture generation responded to the most, the rediscovery of selfless courage and undaunted idealism. And it’s always nice to know that even if you lose the girl, you will “always have Paris.”