Casablanca (1942)

Directed: Michael Curtiz

Main Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rich Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Renault), Conrad Veidt Major Strasser), Peter Lorre (Ugarte), Sidney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari)

“Our candidate for the best Hollywood movie of all time,” says Leonard Maltin in the various editions of his Movie Guide (2011); and in a previous edition, “A kiss is only a kiss, but there is only one Casablanca.”

Such hyperbolical statements exist in plethoric numbers by critics, viewers, reviewers and commentators for seventy plus years now (2014), while AFI (American Film Institute) has placed Casablanca consistently in its 10-best movies in its 100-movies list.[1] Such fame has been bolstered by virtual worship in college campuses, where students swarm classes in which it is shown, or ask professors why they do not include Casablanca in the syllabus if it happens not to be there. I was asked that question once (I have never taught it), and my answer was as vague and elusive as a professor’s glib tongue can make it. The reason, I was going to say (but didn’t), is that I like it too much. Being so biased (in favor) is not a good excuse, but that is at least the one I gave myself. I am no longer teaching, so I have a chance to look at the movie from a certain distance.

I can now say—with as much objectivity as I can muster—that Casablanca has so far survived the slings and arrows of outrageous oblivion, the cloud that ultimately obscures all glory. I turned back the clock and looked at the movie once more—with the paraphernalia of modernity: Blu-ray/DVD commentaries, and a glut of reads by biographers, critics, foes (it has some[2]) and other strangers. And I am making this assessment by forwarding what might be called the element of LUCK. To make the statement a bit more formal, I would say confluence of circumstances. Think about it (as if you wouldn’t): By 1942, Bogart got the role of Rick Blaine because he had reached the status of a top movie star at Warner’s after six years of slave labor as a thug (more often than not), who was shot dead in the seventh or eighth reel, more often than not. The tough guys who had precedence as the leads over him at Warner’s, mainly in gangster roles, in the previous decade were James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and George Raft.[3] Raft turned down the lead role in High Sierra (1941), and subsequently the role of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), which catapulted Bogart, to stardom, so elusive until then. Even for Casablanca, Raft, who not in the run but he had the backing of Jack Warner,[4] was left behind, as the clever producer at Warner’s, Hal Wallis, now an independent producer of selected films of his own, saw to it that Bogart was the right choice for Rick Blaine. “Raft, single-handedly, handed stardom to Bogart,” a film historian observes.[5] After Casablanca, Bogart was propelled into the sphere of superstardom, becoming not only a romantic lead but an unforgettable screen presence. He was forty three years old when that happened. Of course, this worked to his benefit, but also to the benefit of Casablanca. The two are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, when one thinks of Casablanca, one also thinks of Bogart, and vice versa. In 2006, Richard Schickel wrote, “If he [Bogart] had not played Rick Blaine it is doubtful that we would be gathered here to mark the 50th anniversary of his passing.”[6] This is as true as is its opposite: Where would Casablanca be today if Bogart hadn’t been in it?

Of course, his presence alone would not have been enough without a worthy female lead. And the choice of Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund was no less fortuitous. Several actresses were considered, among them Hedy Lamarr, the French actress Michele Morgan, and Ann Sheridan. But Lamarr, who had made an impression as an exotic beauty in Algiers (1938) was tied up at MGM, who were in no mood to loan her out to anyone. The others gradually fell out of favor for one reason or another,[7] and Wallis turned his eye upon the Swedish import, Ingrid Bergman, who had made a few good movies so far, Intermezzo (1939) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), among others, but had not yet gained the status of a star. Bergman was under contract to David O. Selznick, who kept a zealous eye on his imported beauties (think of Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind). Aside from that, as A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax point out, Bergman at the time (1942) was considered “damaged goods,” because there were reports that Sweden was going to join the Axis[8] (it never did). Selznick also wanted Olivia de Havilland, a contractual property of Warner’s who had sparkled in in the Errol Flynn epics, for eight weeks in exchange for Bergman for the same amount of time. So he grudgingly said yes, though not entirely for those reasons only,[9] and Ingrid became Ilsa and, as they say, the rest is history.

As for the others in the cast, luck had a hand in it too. Because of Hitler and Nazism, and the recent defeat of France, scores of good men and women, and more than a few actors, had fled Europe, and many of them took refuge in Hollywood, which took advantage of good, but largely unemployed, players. Of those included in Casablanca, the ones in key secondary roles will be mentioned here, and a few of the others who worked uncredited. First and foremost is Conrad Veidt, whose etched features and vain swagger suggested the archetypal Nazi villain, but who had actually fled Hitler’s Germany because his wife was Jewish,[10] and had already appeared with Bogart in All Through the Night (1942). As the snooty Major Strasser, he was the perfect foil for Claude Rains’s Captain Renault, who maintains a precarious balance between him and Rick, in whose Café Américain he wins large sums of money, aside from the fact that he provides visas to attractive women in exchange for sexual favors. For those reasons, he offers cover for independent-minded crypto-liberal Rick, who affects indifference to any cause but his own: “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he says frequently. Strasser already had a dossier on Rick (“Don’t worry, we are not going to broadcast it,” he says to him), but allows his Café to remain open, for he is looking for a bigger fish to catch: Victor Laszlo, an escapee from the concentration camps, and he knows the latter will sooner or later make his appearance at Rick’s, looking for an exit visa. Strasser’s presence at Rick’s, and that of his Nazi cohorts, adds to the menacing undercurrents that pervade the jovial atmosphere at the Rick’s Café. In reality, Veidt was an affable man and excellent actor who relished displaying the mindset of a despicable Gestapo leader.[11]

Others among expatriates include Marcel Dalio, a noted French actor who played Emil, the croupier, a bit role, considering that he had distinguished himself in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) and had fled France after its occupation by the Germans. Madeleine LeBeau, Yvonne, Rick’s casual girlfriend, adrift in the amoral cosmos of the Café, was a real Frenchwoman in exile and has real tears in her eyes while Victor Laszlo leads the independent-minded crowd at Rick’s sing La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. Other European imports fleeing Hitler were the Hungarian S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, playing the jowly and sentimental Carl, the waiter, and Leonid Kinsky, a Russian actor who plays Sascha, the love-stricken bartender (“I love you, but he pays me,” he tells Yvonne when she asks for another drink). These and other bit players lend color and authenticity to the motley crowd that populated Rick’s Café Américain, a gathering place of hopefuls who travelled to Casablanca, by any means possible, where they sought exit visas for Lisbon, and thence to America.

Luck has something (but not everything) to do too with the assemblage of other important characters. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet had already gained status at Warner’s after their outstanding performances in The Maltese Falcon (1941), where they were two of the five major characters, and were well fitted here as Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet), owner of the Blue Parrot, the rival spot across the street from Rick’s Café. Lorre, who played Ugarte, the black-marketer in Casablanca, born Laszlo Lowenstein, was a Jewish expatriate born in what today is Slovakia, pursuing an acting career in Germany, playing the infamous child-killed in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). After that, he drifted back and forth from England, where he made two films with Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew too Much in 1935 and The Secret Agent in 1936, then came to Hollywood to stay, but he was shuffled from studio to studio until he delivered Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Lorre was known for his glib tongue and bulging eyes that constantly changed expression, from child-like innocence to suspicion, malice, embarrassment, threat. In Casablanca he has only two short appearances: one when he delivers the letters of transit to Rick, with request to hide them for a short time, and when he is captured while trying to escape. Ugarte’s brief appearance sets off a chain of events that last from that point to the very end, as the letters, which Rick hides under the piano cover, become the objects of interest by all parties concerned: the police, Victor Laszlo, to whom Ugarte planned to sell them, and by Rick, who has reasons to keep them for himself.[12] And, of course, Strasser, who is intent on discovering who killed the German couriers.

As Victor Laszlo, Paul Henreid was an Austrian aristocrat who also had fled Hitler’s Germany, as some of his ancestors might have been Jewish.[13] He had previously made Night Train to Munich (1940), in England, playing a handsome Nazi, gaining the attention of female audiences. Subsequently, he came to Hollywood, where he established a notable career. When Casablanca started in May 1942, he was still making Now, Voyager, with Betty Davis, and arrived on the set late. In his first scene, he enters Rick’s, side by side with Bergman, she in a plain white dress, he in off-white suit, just after Ugarte had been caught and order restored. Arthur Edeson’s camera captures the couple first in medium, then in a long panning shot, he, looking a hero, she a princess at his side. They have the stamp of Europeans, elegant upper class people, who dominate their environment just by entering it. His elegance and her beauty immediately draw the attention of patrons and of Strasser himself along with that of the vigilant Captain Renault. Visually, they are splendidly matched, and everything changes in the Café after their entrance. Laszlo has come there to look for a connection, evidently with Ugarte, to obtain the letters of transit and exit visas. As Laszlo and Ilsa sit at the their reserved table, a man, Berger, approaches them and asks Laszlo if he wants to buy a ring, which Ilsa recognizes as a sign of the French underground resistance, and Laszlo goes to the bar to talk to him. Berger is played by John Qualen, born Johan Kvalen, in Illinois from Norwegian immigrant parents (Berger tells Laszlo he is a Norwegian). He looks foreign, and he fits the character ambiance in the film. As they sit at the bar, Berger tells Laszlo that Ugarte has just been arrested. But neither of them suspects at this point that the letters had already been delivered to Rick.

Other bit players, almost all uncredited, look or act like foreigners. The wonderful Corinna Mura, the guitarist, singing an entrancing Latin song, as the camera captures Ilsa’s worried face; the pickpocket warning two naïve customers, crying “Vultures, vultures,” while lifting the man’s wallet; the Hungarian couple learning to speak English, as their compatriot, Carl, has a drink with them: “What watch?” “Ten watch?” “Such watch?” Add the suspicious-looking, whispering traffickers who offer bottom prices for diamonds to anxious ladies; the omnipresent uniformed policemen who overcrowd Rick’s Café, the heavy-accented Col. Heinz (uncredited) screeching, “Can you imagine us in London?” Others like the portly Arab wearing the fez opening Rick’s door,[14] while Sam (Dooly Wilson), like a chorus leader, intones “As Time Goes By” pounding on the piano, which the real Dooley Wilson could not play.[15]Aside from Ugarte’s arrest and a couple of shots fired at the beginning and end of the movie, there is no violent action in Casablanca. It’s an anomaly in the age of gangster and subsequently war movies and film noir movies dominating the screens at the time. Witty dialogue provides relief to the underground tension, in a bar of merriment where danger simmers and intrigue dominates.

Of the principals in the story, only Rick is an American (aside from Sam, of course), an expatriate for unknown reasons[16] in a foreign land, running his joint with a steady hand, and yet he is alone, alienated, wearing a cynical mask (“I am a drunkard,” he says to Strasser when asked by latter to state his nationality), though the viewer cannot quite accept this façade. With the entrance of Laszlo and Ilsa, the configuration changes, as the glittering, high class Europeans come face to face with the “ugly American.” Bogart was born into privilege, son of wealthy doctor, and had a first class education and social standing. But that image had just about been eradicated by his playing hoods and tough guys at Warner’s in the previous decade. Now, weathered and practically resurrected from that image, Bogart, who had been spruced up for his role here, wearing a white tuxedo and black trousers, could be looked upon as his own double: Don’t believe what I wear; I’m still tough when I need to; evidence his throwing out a German banker, an undesirable in the gambling room and later stopping a brawling German officer fighting with a French policeman for the graces of Yvonne. And of course he sheds this mask altogether when he shoots Strasser at the end.

Luck, rather than “mere chance” had also a hand in the genesis of Casablanca. At the time it started, May, 1942, Pearl Harbor had already been attacked in December 1941, and America had entered the war, the outcome of which was very much in doubt at that point. Patriotism was needed, and expected by everybody, and Hollywood was contributing its share. Warner’s had, in fact, done its part, having already produced Across the Pacific and All Through the Night, both Bogart vehicles early in 1942, and both with anti-Japanese and anti-Nazi themes, and was getting ready to film Watch on the Rhine, written by no other than Lillian Hellman, whose play had been a hit on Broadway. But that project stalled, and Hal Wallis picked up a play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, written before the war started, but ahead of its time. Murray, a schoolteacher with writing aspirations, had visited Europe, Vienna in particular, in 1938, as the Hitler had annexed Austria and, horrified by the anti-Semitism there, fled to the south of France, where he saw a black man was playing the piano at a nightclub. The idea of a play with an American facing crucial decisions, set in a nightclub seething with pre-war turmoil, came to him, and, upon his return to America, he co-authored Everybody Comes to Rick’s with Joan Allison, who introduced the letters of transit to the plot.[17] This was a fortuitous addition, for the letters, according to Roger Ebert serve as a Hitchcockian McGuffin, that is, an object everyone in the movie is after.[18] Druxman stresses that such things as letters of transit, “signed by De Gaulle himself and cannot be rescinded,” as Ugarte says, did not exist, and Ebert also says that, even if they did, they would not have the slightest value in the Vichy controlled Casablanca, where Laszlo would be arrested on sight. But they serve the plot admirably and add to the transcendent allure of Casablanca.

The play lay dormant in New York for a while, though Warner’s had purchased it for $20,000. No one had any use for it, until the idea for Lillian Hellman’s play fell through, and Wallis saw the opportunity to use it. Though written before the war, it had a perfect war theme, a man with independent spirit was the owner of the Café, the black pianist was his friend, and a woman, a lost love that kept him cheerless and cynical, but his patriotism was aroused when the war came, and he could again play the hero to those in need (why does he help the Bulgarian girl and her husband?). The nightclub, as it finally evolved in the script, was a hotbed of fugitives, traitors, resistance groups, pickpockets, black marketers selling visas, and only a spark was needed for a conflagration. Wallis would model it on Algiers (1938), the prewar movie, set in an exotic land, rather than Europe, and he renamed it Casablanca. Though no one really believed that it would become the classic it did, Casablanca retained most of the trademarks of the Burnett play—resistance to evil, a potentially destructive love story, a subjected crowd looking for a leader making a big, selfless decision–which, with it its timely war theme, ultimately found its way to glorious fruition.

Luck was also a factor in the selection of its screenwriters. The first version of Casablanca had been co-authored by Wally Kline and Aeneas McKenzie, based on the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, and soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in early December, 1941, the project gained momentum as a war story. Wallis handed the script over to the Epstein brothers, Philip G. and Julius J., known for their witty and cynical repartee (“My heart?” says Renault seeing Rick aiming a pistol at him. “That is my least vulnerable spot.”), having worked in previous Warner’s projects, such as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), also directed by Michael Curtiz. Two other authors were added: Howard Koch, whose writing credits included The Sea Hawk (1940) and Sergeant York (1941), was brought in to strengthen the political aspects of the script, strengthening Rick’s character as a patriot finally moved by the plight of fugitives in his saloon. Yet another writer, Casey Robinson, a regular at Warner’s, helped build up the romantic ties between Rick and Ilsa, especially the scene when Ilsa finally breaks down and tells Rick that she still loves him, letting him “think for both of us.” Only three appear in the final credits—the Epstein brothers and Koch—while the others (credit was also given to the playwrights, Burnett and Allison) were omitted or willingly dropped out.[19]

For my count, that makes five sets of writers that contributed materials for the making of Casablanca, in one way or another: The original play writers, Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, the duos of Kline and MacKenzie and Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson; that make up eight people. Of course, Hal Wallis deserves credit for assembling these materials to one coherent whole, and director Michael Curtiz for moving the chess pieces along the right ways. Add Max Steiner for his music, and Arthur Edeson for his photography—plus the brilliant cast—a confluence of circumstances, right time, right place, right authors that has thence made people marvel how things can get lucky.

Enough? No. Casablanca was released in November, 1942, shortly after the allies landed in Algiers and Morocco, in the real Casablanca. Soon after, the three Western leaders of the war, Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, and FDR met in Casablanca, Morocco, for a conference. Casablanca means White House (“Casa Blanca”) in Spanish, and FDR invited the cast in the White House, in Washington, D.C., for a celebration.[20] Luck? Maybe not, but certainly Lady Fortune had a finger in making—and glory.

Notes:

[1] Currently at #3, after Citizen Kane and The Godfather, while The Maltese Falcon occupies #31.

[2] David Thomson, Biographical Dictionary of Film, 3rd Edition, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). Thompson debunks Casablanca in several entries in his book, but gives some credit to director, Michael Curtiz for transforming “soppiness to such an extent that reason and taste began to waver.” p.165.

[3] Raft has signed with Warner’s in 1940, and had already co-starred with Bogart in They Drive Through the Night (1940), where he played the lead.

[4] See, Bogart, A.M Sperber and Eric Lax (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997), 190.

[5] Michael B. Druxman, author and screenwriter, in a DVD Documentary: The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird, WB, 2006.

[6] Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart. “The Genuine Article,” Appreciation by Richard Schickel (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2006), p.15.

[7] Ann Sheridan, who had worked with Bogart in All Through the Night (1942), was allegedly dropped because of her American presence—and accent; and a European actress would fill the role better.

[8] See Sperber and Lax, Bogart, 191.

[9] See Sperber and Lax, in Bogart, state that the co-authors Julius and Philip Epstein visited him in his office and said that Casablanca wasn’t much of a movie, just “another shit like Algiers “(1928). Selznick immediately said yes.

[10] See Sperber and Lax, Bogart, 199.

[11] He had already played Hal Ebbing, a Nazi agent organizing a plot inside the United States, in Warner’s All Through the Night (1942), in which Bogart is his pursuer.

[12] Roger Ebert, in his Commentary to Casablanca, says that the letters functions like Hitchcock’s McGuffin, an object that everybody wants, and for that reason controls the plot. WB, DVD, Blu-ray.

[13] See Sperber and Lax, Bogart, 199.

[14] Actually Dan Seymour, also uncredited here, but cast again with Bogart in To Have and Have Not.

[15] Elliot Carpenter played the piano behind the scenes.

[16] In Murray Burnett’s and Joan Allison’s play, he was a lawyer, married with children, but this detail was dropped from the script, and his past was left vague. See Druxman DVD commentary.

[17] Druxman says so, in his DVD Casablanca commentary.

[18] Also In his commentary in Casablanca.

[19] Robinson, used to solo credits, refused to let his name appear with those of three others.

[20] Michael B. Druxman, DVD Commentary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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