Today in history: November 26, 1942

Casablanca premiered at the Hollywood Theatre in New York City.

It was not expected to be a long-lasting mythical evocation of the quintessential American ideals we all aspire to, from generation to generation. It was just supposed to be another one of the pro-war propaganda movies the studios were churning out at that time. It went on to win the Academy Award the next year – but again, lots of films win Academy Awards and don’t go on to achieve legendary status.

The legend around the film began growing in the late 50s, a couple of years after Bogart’s death. The stories about the Casablanca showings at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge Massachusetts are now famous … and make me wish for a time machine.

Aljean Harmetz, author of Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II, explains:

Humphrey Bogart died in 1957. The cult of Casablanca was born three months later. If Cyrus Harvey, Jr., was not the father of the phenomenon, he was certainly the midwife. In 1953, Harvey and Bryant Haliday had turned the Brattle Theatre across from, Harvard University into an art cinema. Harvey, who had spent much of his Fulbright scholarship year in Paris watching movies at Henri Langlois’s Cinemathique Francaise, programmed the Brattle with European classics and the early films of Fellini, Antonini, Truffaut, and Ingmar Bergman, for whom Harvey and Halliday became the American distributors.

“At some point, we thought that we ought to bring in some of the American films that hadn’t been shown that much,” says Harvey. “And my partner and I both thought that the Bogarts were vastly underrated. I think Casablanca was the first one we played. It was my favorite. I thought that Bogart was probably the best American actor who ever lived. And the picture caught on very rapidly. The first time we played it, there was a wonderful reaction. Then the second, third, fourth and fifth times it took off. The audience began to chant the lines. It was more than just going to the movies. It was sort of partaking in a ritual.”

Casablanca played at the Brattle for the first time on April 21, 1957. It was so successful with Harvard students that it was held over for a second week. Then the Bogart festivals began, with six or eight of his mopvies playing each semester during final-examination weeks. The festivals would culminate with Casablanca. It was at Harvard that the relevance of Casablanca to a generation that had no relationship to World War II became apparent.

So. Happy birthday to a film that has done so much to shape how we think about ourselves. It has meant different things to different generations – and that’s the definition of a good piece of art. If you watch a lot of the other WWII movies made at that time – they seem dated, overblown, propagandistic, and overly simplistic. Not this one. Not this one.

I have a feeling (just a hunch) that if Ilse had not gotten on that plane with Victor – if she had stayed with Rick … the movie would not be remembered today. It might be still watched, on late-night movie channels, but it would not have taken on that mythical quality. It is the vision of self-sacrifice that taps into our deepest held beliefs and hopes. It is who we hope and aspire to be. It is a noble outlook … and yet, at the center of the film, is the Rick character, who says he is not good at being noble. If you make a big deal out of your own nobility, then you are just a jackass who thinks way too highly of yourself. But if you quietly, and with no fanfare, do the right thing – abdicate your own wants for a greater cause, practice the art of letting go … then you truly deserve to be called noble.

Hokey? Sure. Sentimental? Absolutely.

If you’re a fan of this movie – enjoy the quotes below!


Billy Wilder says:

“This is the most wonderful claptrap that was ever put on the screen … Claptrap that you can’t get out of your mind. The set was crummy. By God, I’ve seen Mr. Greenstreet sit in that same wicker chair in fifty pictures before and after, and I knew the parrots that were there. But it worked. It worked absolutely divinely. No matter how sophisticated you are and it’s on television and you’ve seen it 500 times, you turn it on.”

Sociologist Todd Gitlin writes:

Casablanca dramatizes archetypes. The main one is the imperative to move from disengagement and cynicism to commitment. The question is why Casablanca does this more effectively than other films. Several other Bogart films of the same period — Passage to Marseilles, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo — enact exactly the same conversation. But the Rick character does not simply go from disengagement to engagement but from bitter and truculent denial of his past to a recovery and reignotion of the past. And that is very moving, particularly because it is also associated with Oedipal drama. But there is also a third myth narrative, a story about coming to terms with the past. Rick had this wonderful romance; he also had his passionate commitment. It seems gone forever. But you can get it back. That is a very powerful mythic story, because everybody has lost something, and the past it, by definition, something people have lost. This film enables people to feel that they have redeemed the past and recovered it, and yet without nostalgia. Rick doesn’t want to be back in Paris. And the plot is brilliantly constructed so that these three myths are not three separate tales, but one story with three myths rushing down the same channel.

Aljean Harmetz, author of Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II writes:

I was in elementary school during World War II; I did my part in the war by rolling tinfoil and rubber bands into balls and bringing them to the Warners Beverly Theatre on Saturday mornings. World War II had receded with all its certainties and moral imperatives, leaving muddy flats behind. The world is a cornucopia of grays. I believed the romantic interpretation of Casablanca then — love lost for the good of the world — and believe it now. But it is the very ambiguity of Casablanca that keeps it current. Part of what draws moviegoers to the movie again and again is their uncertainty about what the movie is saying at the end …

Casablanca‘s potent blend of romance and idealism — a little corny and mixed with music and the good clean ache of sacrifice and chased down with a double slug of melodrama — is available at the corner video store, but Casablanca couldn’t be made today. There is too much talk and not enough action. There are too many characters too densely packed, and the plot spins in a hard-to-catch-your-balance circular way instead of walking a straight line. There is no Humphrey Bogart to allow the audience a permissible romance without feeling sappy. And the studio would insist that all the ambiguity be written out in the second draft.

From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

“Bogart had competence,” says Billy Wilder. “You felt that, if that big theatre where you were watching Casablanca caught on fire, Bogart could save you. Gable had that same competence and, nowadays, Mr. Clint Eastwood.” But Gable is too heroic for a disillusioned world. Three decades after his death, Bogart still seems modern. “He wore no rose-colored glasses,” wrote Mary Astor. “There was something about it all that made him contemptuous and bitter. He related to people as though they had no clothes on — and no skin, for that matter.”


From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

Of the seventy-five actors and actresses who had bit parts and larger roles in Casablanca, almost all were immigrants of one kind or another. Of the fourteen who were given screen credit, only Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Page were born in America. Some had come for private reasons. Ingrid Bergman, who would lodge comfortably in half a dozen countries and half a dozen languages, once said that she was a flyttfagel, one of Sweden’s migratory birds. Some, including Sydney Greenstreet and Claude Rains, wanted richer careers. But at least two dozen were refugees from the stain that was spreading across Europe. There were a dozen Germans and Austrians, nearly as many French, the Hungarians SZ Sakall and Peter Lorre, and a handful of Italians.

“If you think of Casablanca and think of all those small roles being played by Hollywood actors faking the accents, the picture wouldn’t have had anything like the color and tone it had,” says Pauline Kael.

Dan Seymour remembers looking up during the singing of the Marseillaise and discovering that half of his fellow actors were crying. “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees,” says Seymour.

From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

Bogart and Rains admired each other, and that admiration comes through their scenes together. What seems to be a genuine friendship between Rick and Renault takes the sting out of the ending of Casablanca. “My father loved Humphrey Bogart,” says Jessica Rains. “He told me so.” The cockney who turned himself into a gentleman was unexpectedly compatible with the gentle-born son of a doctor and a famous illustrator who turned himself into a rowdy. “Professional” is the word the people they worked with pin, like a badge, to both men. “Bogart never missed a cue,” says script supervisor Meta Carpenter. “He was completely professional.” Rains, says assistant director Lee Katz, “was very professional altogether.” To the Warner hairdressers, said Jean Burt, Bogart and Bette Davis were “the real pros. They were on time; they knew their lines; they knew their craft.”


From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

[During shooting] Bogart was snappish and moody. Love scenes were uncharted waters for him. “I’ve always gotten out of my scrapes in front of the camera with a handy little black automatic,” he told a journalist who visited the Casablanca set during production. “It’s a lead pipe cinch. But this. Well, this leaves me a bit baffled.” The interview is typically frothy and insubstantial as Bogart plays with the idea of becoming a sophisticated lover or a caveman lover. But, even as he jokes about it, his uneasiness is obvious. “I’m not up on this love stuff and don’t know just what to do.”

According to a memoir by Bogart’s friend Bathaniel Benchley, before Casablanca began shooting, a mutal friend, Mel Baker, advised Bogart to stand still and make Bergman come to him in the love scenees. Bogart appears to have taken the advice, but his reticence may have been as much innate as calculated. Nearly a dozen years after Casablanca, Bogart told a biographer that love scenes still embarrassed him. “I have a personal phobia maybe because I don’t do it very well,” he said.

“What the women liked about Bogey, I think,” said Bette Davis, “was that when he did love scenes he held back — like many men do — and they understood that.” Miscast as an Irish horse trainer in Dark Victory, Bogart had tried to make love to Davis, who played his rich employer. Said Davis, “Up until Betty Bacall I think Bogey was really embarrassed doing love scenes, and that came over as a certain reticence. With her he let go, and it was great. She matched his insolence.”

However distant Bogart and Bergman may have been from each other in real life, and however uneasy Bogart may have been with Bergman in his arms, their love scenes have the poignancy and passion that Hollywood calls chemistry. “I honestly can’t explain it,” says Pauline Kael, “but Bogart had that particular chemistry with ladylike women. He had it with Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen and he so conspicuously had it with Lauren Bacall — who pretended to be a tough girl but really wasn’t — in To Have and Have Not. But he didn’t have it with floozy-type girls.”

Critic Stanley Kauffmann explains the match between Bogart and Bergman as the resonance of a relationship between brash America and cultured Europe. “She was like a rose,” he says. “You could almost smell the fragrance of her in the picture, and you could feel his whiskers when you looked at the screen. It was intangible.”


From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

Of the stars, Bergman had the more difficult job. Bogart had only to play a man in love. Foreshadowing without giving away too much, Bergman had to let the audience know that love wasn’t enough.

ILSA. And I hate this war so much. Oh, it’s a crazy world. Anything can happen. If you shouldn’t get away, I mean, if something should happen to keep us apart. Wherever they put you and wherever I’ll be, I want you to know that I — Kiss me! Kiss me as though it were the last time.

And Bergman had to hold the audience even when she was saying dialogue that was so richly romantic that it was almost a parody, including, “Was that cannon fire? Or was it my heart pounding?”

Her voice and her face could make almost anything believable. In 1947, several top sound men agreed that Bergman had the sexiest voice of any actress. “The middle register of her voice is rich and vibrant, which gives it a wonderfully disturbing quality,” said Francis Scheid. “It’s sexy in a refined, high-minded way.” “The face is quite amazing,” says Pauline Kael. “I think she had a physical awkwardness on the stage and in her early films, but I think somehow that the beauty of her face obviated it. Even in Casablanca, her physical movements are not very expressive. But you didn’t really care.”


From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

Casablanca started on Stage 12A with the flashback to Rick and Ilsa’s romance in Paris. It was an accident that Bogart was required to make love to Bergman almost before he was introduced to her. Originally, production was to start in Rick’s Cafe on Stage 8, but the intricate clockwork that matched actors, scripts, stages, and sets had been thrown off because Irving Rapper was two weeks behind schedule on Now, Voyager. Claude Rains didn’t finish his role as the wise psychiatrist in Now, Voyager until June 3. Paul Henreid was not free until June 25. So the [Michael] Curtiz movie began with the scene in the Montmartre cafe. The first day, a lovestruck Richard Blaine — “His manner is wry but not the bitter wryness we have seen in Casablanca” say the stage directions — pours champagne for himself, Ilsa, and Sam while the Germans march toward Paris and Sam plays, “As Time Goes By”.

According to Geraldine Fitzgerald, Bogart and Bergman had lunch together a week or ten days before Casablanca started production. “I had lunch with them,” she says. “And the whole subject at lunch was how they could get out of the movie. They thought the dialogue was ridiculous and the situations were unbelievable. And Ingrid was terribly upset because she said she had to portray the most beautiful woman in Europe, and no one would ever believe that. It was curious how upset she was by it. ‘I look like a milkmaid,’ she said.


From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

“I remember,” says film critic Pauline Kael, “my friends and I talked about when are the executives going to discover this guy [Humphrey Bogart]. It was early in his career, when he appeared in horror movies and all sorts of stuff that Warners threw at him. We liked him years before he got the leading roles. he was small, but he knew how to use every part of himself. By the late thirties, he was quite in charge of everything in his performance. He had a tension, like a coiled spring. You didn’t want to take your eyes off him.”

In The Maltese Falcon, as Dashiell Hammett’s detective Sam Spade, Bogart carried to the right side of the law the wary watchfulness, the cynicism, and the ambiguities that had infused his deadliest killers. “I think it was his very best performance,” says Kael, who was twenty years old in 1941 when she saw the movie for the first time. “Because you got a sense of the ambivalances in th eman, and he used all the tensions marvelously physically. I don’t think he could have been as good as he was in Casablanca if he hadn’t done the Falcon first, because he really discovered his powers in the Falcon. he created more tension in his scenes than he ever had before. And I think afterwards he drew on the qualities he had discovered in himself in the Falcon. So I think it was [John] Huston who brfought those things out. And [Michael] Curtiz benefited from them.”…

The arc of Bogart’s career at Warner Brothers can be seen in how and when he chose to fight Warner — and with what success. Bogart was suspended for refusing to play the part of the outlaw Cole Younger in Bad Men of Missouri … His suspension ended in June 1941, when George Raft, whose career decisions at Warners were unerringly wrong, refused The Maltese Falcon because “it is not an important picture.” And what would have happened if Raft had agreed to play Sam Spade? The odds are high that Bogart would have made a breakthrough in some other movie. The disillusionment, stoicism, and weary aloofness that he brought to the screen fit the heroes of a new kind of movie melodrama, film noir, too well to have gone unnoticed …

Warner Brothers could overuse and misuse its actors. It could dump Van Johnson and Susan Peters in 1942 and let MGM build their careers. But the studio would not have remained in business if it had missed the obvious. The Maltese Falcon had been immensely profitable, and George Raft was becoming more difficult with every role he was offered. In January 1942, Bogart demanded $3,000 a week and the right to do ten guest radio appearances a year. He was given a new contract, starting at $2,750 a week. After six years at Warners, Bogart finally had a star’s contract. Warner Brothers was stuck with him for seven years, and the studio began to look for a role that would turn him into a romantic lead.

On February 14, [Hal] Wallis sent a memo to Steve Trilling: “Will you please figure on Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan for Casablanca, which is scheduled to start the latter part of April.” Six weeks later, Jack Warner wrote Wallis that George Raft was lobbying him for the role. Wallis held firm and Casablanca had the first of its three stars.


From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

Much of the major work on the Casablanca screenplay was done between April 6, when Howard Koch was assigned to the movie, and June 1, when a revised final script was mimeographed …

Each subsequent script for Casablanca became leaner and sharper, more economical, the scenes rearranged for greater dramatic effect and the speeches polished and clipped. Within the confines of a studio that both Koch and Julie Epstein describe as ‘a family”, Koch rewrote the Epsteins to give the movie more weight and significance, and the Epsteins then rewrote Koch to erase his most ponderous symbols and to lighten his earnestness.

This kind of survival-of-the-fittest script is unlikely to happen today, when writers, director, and studio executives come insecurely and suspiciously together to make a single movie, the original writer is rarely brought back after his work is rewritten, and screen credit means that someone gets extra money from television and videocassette sales…

At the beginning of May, the Epsteins finished the second section of the script of Casablanca, while Howard Koch turned in his revision of the Epsteins’ first act. Earlier, in nineteen pages of suggestions of “Suggestions for Revised Story”, Koch had warned:

There is also a danger that Rick’s sacrifice in the end will seem theatrical and phony unless, early in the story, we suggest the side of his nature that makes his final decision in character. It would be interesting to have Renault penetrate the mystery in his first scene with Rick when he guesses that the cynical American is underneath, a sentimentalist. Rick laughs at the idea, then Renault produces his record — “ran guns to Ethiopia”, “fought for the Loyalists in the Spanish War.” Rick says he got well paid on both occasions. Renault replies that the winning side would have paid him better. Strange that he always happens to be on the side of the underdog. Rick dismisses the implication, but throughout the picture we see evidences of his humanity, which he does his best to cover up.

Koch’s script of May 11 also deepened Rick’s character and underlined the political tensions in subtle ways. For example, Koch makes the man Rick bars from his gambling room — who was an English cad in the play — into a representative of the Deutschebank. When the owner of the Blue Parrot offers to buy Rick’s Cafe, Koch has added dialogue in which the character played by Sidney Greenstreet also offers to buy Sam, and Rick says, “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” (In their rewrite of Koch’s script, the Epsteins would build on Koch’s line by having Greenstreet respond, “That’s too bad. That’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.”) If Koch layered the politics rather heavily — in his version, Victor Laszlo forces Renault to toast liberte, egalite, fraternite — the Epsteins would remove those speeches in the script of June 1. With delicate balance, Koch managed to hold down the gags while the Epsteins managed to cut out the preaching.


From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

In the Epsteins’ first script, Lois is still Lois and Renault’s womanizing still has an unpleasant edge. However, the groundwork has been laid for the relationship between Rick and Renault, which may lie as close to the emotional heart of the film as the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. The Epsteins have created a bantering between equals, an admiration at the edges of the frame.

RENAULT. I have often speculated on why you do not return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with the President’s wife? I should like to think you killed a man. It is the romantic in me.

RICK. It was a combination of all three.

RENAULT. And what in Heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

RICK. My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

RENAULT. Waters? What waters? We are in the desert.

RICK. I was misinformed.

Says Epstein today: “My brother and I tried very hard to come up with a reason why Rick couldn’t return to America. But nothing seemed right. We finally decided not to give a reason at all.”

From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

The sixty-six pages of script, labeled Part I TEMP., were mimeographed on April 2. The Epsteins had written the first third of the movie, the section preceding the flashback to Rick and Ilsa’s Paris romance. Ilsa and her Resistance-hero husband had come to Casablanca, and at the end of the Epsteins’ script, Rick was sprawled drunkenly in his empty cafe, waiting for her to return.

“That first part was very close to the play,” Epstein says. “It was with the second half that we had trouble.”

Those sixty-six pages mirror the final movie. The Epsteins even begin with a spinning globe, an animated map, and a description of the refugee trail that leads to Casablanca. Everybody Comes to Rick’s took place inside Rick’s Cafe, and Rick was the first character to be introduced. The Epsteins start by creating the feel of Casablanca: A man whose papers have expired is short by the police; a pickpocket warns his victims that vultures are everywhere; refugees look up longingly as an airplane brings the Gestapo captain (a few scripts later he was promoted to major) Strasser to Casablanca and lands beyond a neon sign that reads RICK’S. Inside the cafe, a dozen desperate refugees try to buy or sell their way to freedom. Rick is not introduced until page 15, when a hand writes “Okay — Rick” on the back of a check and the camera pulls back to a medium shot of Humphrey Bogart. And the plot is driven by an invention of the Epsteins: the Letters of Transit were being carried by two German couriers who have been murdererd.

Of the four major characters in Everybody Comes to Rick’s, only the noble Victor Laszlo remains essentially the same in the movie. Rick, who in the play is a self-pitying married lawyer who has cheated on his wife, takes on Bogart’s persona of wary, hooded toughness. Says Jules Epstein: “Once we knew that Bogart was going to play the role, we felt he was so right for it that we didn’t have to do anything special. Except we tried to make him as cynical as possible.”

From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

However, there was no mistaking the fact that Casablanca, with its snappy dialogue, eccentric characters, witty cynicism, wary anti-hero and liberal political message was definitely a Warner movie. Casablanca is a less raw and angry melodrama than the studio might have made a few years earlier, but it has the same distrust of authority and suspicion of human nature. America’s entry into the war was already softening movies by requiring them to throb with patriotism, but the milieu of Casablanca is still corrupt, and the little people still don’t get a fair shake.


From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

Bogart’s response to the success of Casablanca was more typically sardonic. He enjoyed telling his fourth wife, Lauren Bacall, how Charles Enfield, the studio’s head of publicity, had had the amazing revelation that the actor had sex appeal. Says Bacall, “Bogie would say, ‘Of course, I did nothing in Casablanca that I hadn’t done in twenty movies before that, and suddenly they discover I’m sexy. Any time that Ingrid Bergman looks at a man, he has sex appeal.'”

From Making of Casablanca, The: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II:

Warner Brothers was the most frugal of the studios, and little was wasted there in 1942. World War II gave the studio’s president, Harry Warner, an excuse to pick up nails dropped by careless carpenters. But he had obsessively picked up nails before the war made iron scarce. Casablanca moved onto the French Street created for The Desert Song the day after that film moved off. A few signs and two live parrots turned the French Morocco of heroic freedom fighter El Khobar into the French Morocco of heroic freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. And half a dozen bit players with foreign accents got a full week’s work by straddling the two films. More than half of the movies Warners made in 1942 dealt in one way or another with the war, a bonanza for actors who had fled from Berlin or Vienna. Casablanca was filled with those Jewish refugees, many of them playing Nazis.

Film critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote:

“Bogart absolutely encapsulates permissible romance. In this disillusioned, disenchanted world here was a romantic hero we could accept. I think that that disenchantment began with World War I and the emergence of what could be called the Hemingway — the undeluded — generation. And I think that that revulsion with the romances and the lies of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century has persisted. There have been plenty of representatives of the lovely bucolic strain of American life on the screen. Bogart was someone urban — in a sense more jagged and abrasive than Cagney — who you felt was suffering. Cagney was triumphant. Bogart was tough, but he had sensitivity. Certainly the epitome he stood for was in Casablanca. I was misinformed. That’s the twentieth century.”

Roger Ebert – who provides the commentary to the DVD (and I highly suggest you check it out, if you haven’t already – it’s marvelous commentary, true goosebump material from someone who has STUDIED and also LOVED this movie since it first came out) – wrote the following article about Casablanca for his “Great Movies” series:

If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that “Casablanca” is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.

No one making “Casablanca” thought they were making a great movie. It was simply another Warner Bros. release. It was an “A list” picture, to be sure (Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid were stars, and no better cast of supporting actors could have been assembled on the Warners lot than Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson). But it was made on a tight budget and released with small expectations. Everyone involved in the film had been, and would be, in dozens of other films made under similar circumstances, and the greatness of “Casablanca” was largely the result of happy chance.

The screenplay was adapted from a play of no great consequence; memoirs tell of scraps of dialogue jotted down and rushed over to the set. What must have helped is that the characters were firmly established in the minds of the writers, and they were characters so close to the screen personas of the actors that it was hard to write dialogue in the wrong tone.

Humphrey Bogart played strong heroic leads in his career, but he was usually better as the disappointed, wounded, resentful hero. Remember him in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” convinced the others were plotting to steal his gold. In “Casablanca,” he plays Rick Blaine, the hard-drinking American running a nightclub in Casablanca when Morocco was a crossroads for spies, traitors, Nazis and the French Resistance.

The opening scenes dance with comedy; the dialogue combines the cynical with the weary; wisecracks with epigrams. We see that Rick moves easily in a corrupt world. “What is your nationality?” the German Strasser asks him, and he replies, “I’m a drunkard.” His personal code: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Then “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” It is Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the woman Rick loved years earlier in Paris. Under the shadow of the German occupation, he arranged their escape, and believes she abandoned him–left him waiting in the rain at a train station with their tickets to freedom. Now she is with Victor Laszlo (Henreid), a legendary hero of the French Resistance.

All this is handled with great economy in a handful of shots that still, after many viewings, have the power to move me emotionally as few scenes ever have. The bar’s piano player, Sam (Wilson), a friend of theirs in Paris, is startled to see her. She asks him to play the song that she and Rick made their own, “As Time Goes By.” He is reluctant, but he does, and Rick comes striding angrily out of the back room (“I thought I told you never to play that song!”). Then he sees Ilsa, a dramatic musical chord marks their closeups, and the scene plays out in resentment, regret and the memory of a love that was real. (This scene is not as strong on a first viewing as on subsequent viewings, because the first time you see the movie you don’t yet know the story of Rick and Ilsa in Paris; indeed, the more you see it the more the whole film gains resonance.)

The plot, a trifle to hang the emotions on, involves letters of passage that will allow two people to leave Casablanca for Portugal and freedom. Rick obtained the letters from the wheedling little black-marketeer Ugarte (Peter Lorre). The sudden reappearance of Ilsa reopens all of his old wounds, and breaks his carefully cultivated veneer of neutrality and indifference. When he hears her story, he realizes she has always loved him. But now she is with Laszlo. Rick wants to use the letters to escape with Ilsa, but then, in a sustained sequence that combines suspense, romance and comedy as they have rarely been brought together on the screen, he contrives a situation in which Ilsa and Laszlo escape together, while he and his friend the police chief (Claude Rains) get away with murder. (“Round up the usual suspects.”)

What is intriguing is that none of the major characters is bad. Some are cynical, some lie, some kill, but all are redeemed. If you think it was easy for Rick to renounce his love for Ilsa–to place a higher value on Laszlo’s fight against Nazism–remember Forster’s famous comment, “If I were forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.”

From a modern perspective, the film reveals interesting assumptions. Ilsa Lund’s role is basically that of a lover and helpmate to a great man; the movie’s real question is, which great man should she be sleeping with? There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that was briefly considered. But that would be all wrong; the “happy” ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility (“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”). And it allows us, vicariously experiencing all of these things in the theater, to warm in the glow of his heroism.

In her closeups during this scene, Bergman’s face reflects confusing emotions. And well she might have been confused, since neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day who would get on the plane. Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing.

Stylistically, the film is not so much brilliant as absolutely sound, rock-solid in its use of Hollywood studio craftsmanship. The director, Michael Curtiz, and the writers (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) all won Oscars. One of their key contributions was to show us that Rick, Ilsa and the others lived in a complex time and place. The richness of the supporting characters (Greenstreet as the corrupt club owner, Lorre as the sniveling cheat, Rains as the subtly homosexual police chief and minor characters like the young girl who will do anything to help her husband) set the moral stage for the decisions of the major characters. When this plot was remade in 1990 as “Havana,” Hollywood practices required all the big scenes to feature the big stars (Robert Redford and Lena Olin) and the film suffered as a result; out of context, they were more lovers than heroes.

Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it. The black-and-white cinematography has not aged as color would. The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned. Much of the emotional effect of “Casablanca” is achieved by indirection; as we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do after all amount to more than a hill of beans.

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8 Responses to Today in history: November 26, 1942

  1. Ken says:

    I know I’ve gone on about this before here, but the whole notion of “accidentally” great movies really fascinates me — stuff like The Princess Bride, Toy Story II (which was supposed to be a direct-to-video, changed to theatrical release in mid-production), maybe The Muppet Movie and The Stunt Man. I’m not sure the term even applies, but it’s the best I can do on short notice. Everyone sets out to do good work, but what must it be like to be working on a production and be watching the rushes (or during the rehearsals of a play, maybe) and have it dawn on you that something really special is happening, like the ’69 Mets or something.

  2. Mark says:

    If you asked me what my 2nd favorite movie of all time was, or even to list my 10 favorite, I would have an extremely hard time defining that answer. But as to my absolute favorite of all time, it’s not even close.

    A plot that contains everything I love in a movie. One-liners that are recognized a half century later, some of my favorite actors of all time, and even the outdated special effects (like the plane taking off from the airport). I love this movie like no other.

    I’ve watched this movie more times than I can remember and without exception, I always see or find something else, yet another reason to love it even more (the last time paying special attention to the scene in the bar where the French and German patrons battled it out singing their respective National Anthems, knowing now that the French actors were played by actual immigrants).

    It truly is one of the great American Classics!

  3. Rob says:

    Thanks for this great tribute, red. It is impossible to read that “I was misinformed.” scene without thinking about it … or smiling. Think I’ll have to break out the DVD tonight. You can probably watch this film any time any place but I think it works best after 10PM in total darkness with a big bowl of popcorn.

    PS – I’ve read that quote many times over the years but I never bought Ingrid Bergman as a milkmaid. :)

  4. Jaquandor says:

    I am more in awe of this movie every time I watch it. Even more than the sheer luck of them figuring out the ending almost as they were shooting it is the fact that Max Steiner was almost successful in scuttling “As Time Goes By” as the film’s signature song, which Steiner hated…only the fact that Ingrid Bergman had gone on to a new film and had her hair cut, thus making certain reshoots that would have been necessitated by changing the song, impossible. So Steiner instead wrote what I consider to be his finest score, using as one of its key motifs a song that he hated.

    (In my town our favorite mini-mart is called “Rix”, for some reason. Every time my daughter asks if we can go there to pick up a couple of drinks or some chips, I say, “Sure. Everybody comes to Rix.” Someday she’ll get that joke!)

    Thanks for this post.

  5. Eric the...bald says:

    I have always loved this movie. And I agree that, had she not boarded that plane at the end, it might not be so beloved. But she did, and Bogie became cemented in my mind as a selfless hero. Thanks for this post.

  6. Bernard says:

    I have a feeling (just a hunch) that if Ilse had not gotten on that plane with Victor – if she had stayed with Rick … the movie would not be remembered today.

    So right. That apparent lack of resolution at the ending plays to our innate desire to wonder and ask, What if? In our minds we can continue to imagine and play out the possibilities of something we know will never be, while retaining a pristine and never-changing memory of what was.

  7. So THAT is why there’s a bar/restaurant called Casablanca next to the Brattle.

  8. Jeffry says:

    I love it when folks come together and share thoughts.
    Great website, keep it up!

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