On this Day:
In 1942, “Casablanca”, a film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, premiered at the Hollywood Theater, New York City. It went on to win the Academy Award’s Best Picture in 1943.
Casablanca is a 1942 American romantic drama film directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid. Filmed and set during World War II, it focuses on an American expatriate (Bogart) who must choose between his love for a woman (Bergman) or helping her and her husband (Henreid), a Czech resistance leader, escape from the Vichy-controlled city of Casablanca to continue his fight against the Germans. The screenplay is based on Everybody Comes to Rick’s, an unproduced stage play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The supporting cast features Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Dooley Wilson.
Warner Bros. story editor Irene Diamond convinced producer Hal B. Wallis to purchase the film rights to the play in January 1942. Brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein were initially assigned to write the script. However, despite studio resistance, they left to work on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series early in 1942. Howard Koch was assigned to the screenplay until the Epsteins returned a month later. Principal photography began on May 25, 1942, ending on August 3; the film was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California with the exception of one sequence at Van Nuys Airport in Van Nuys, Los Angeles.
Although Casablanca was an A-list film with established stars and first-rate writers, no one involved with its production expected it to stand out among the hundreds of pictures produced by Hollywood yearly. Casablanca was rushed into release to take advantage of the publicity from the Allied invasion of North Africa a few weeks earlier. It had its world premiere on November 26, 1942, in New York City and was released nationally in the United States on January 23, 1943. The film was a solid if unspectacular success in its initial run.
Exceeding expectations, Casablanca went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Curtiz was selected as Best Director and the Epsteins and Koch were honored for Best Adapted Screenplay. Its reputation has gradually grown, to the point that its lead characters, memorable lines, and pervasive theme song have all become iconic, and it consistently ranks near the top of lists of the greatest films in history. In 1989, the United States Library of Congress selected the film as one of the first for preservation in the National Film Registry.
In December 1941, American expatriate Rick Blaine owns a nightclub and gambling den in Casablanca. “Rick’s Café Américain” attracts a varied clientele, including Vichy French and German officials, refugees desperate to reach the neutral United States, and those who prey on them. Although Rick professes to be neutral in all matters, he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
Petty crook Ugarte boasts to Rick of “letters of transit” obtained by murdering two German couriers. The papers allow the bearers to travel freely around German-occupied Europe and to neutral Portugal; they are priceless to the refugees stranded in Casablanca. Ugarte plans to sell them at the club, and persuades Rick to hold them. Before he can meet his contact, Ugarte is arrested by the local police under Captain Louis Renault, the unabashedly corrupt prefect of police. Ugarte dies in custody without revealing that Rick has the letters.
Then the reason for Rick’s cynical nature—former lover Ilsa Lund—enters his establishment. Spotting Rick’s friend and house pianist, Sam, Ilsa asks him to play “As Time Goes By”. Rick storms over, furious that Sam disobeyed his order never to perform that song and is stunned to see Ilsa. She is accompanied by her husband, Victor Laszlo, a renowned, fugitive Czech Resistance leader. They need the letters to escape to America to continue Laszlo’s work; Major Strasser has come to Casablanca to thwart him.
When Laszlo makes enquiries, Signor Ferrari, an underworld figure and Rick’s friendly business rival, divulges his suspicion that Rick has the letters of transit. Laszlo returns to Rick’s cafe that night and makes him an offer for the letters. Rick refuses to sell at any price, telling Laszlo to ask his wife the reason. They are interrupted when Strasser leads a group of officers in singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” (“The Watch on the Rhine”). Laszlo orders the house band to play “La Marseillaise”. When the bandleader looks to Rick, he nods his head. Laszlo starts singing, alone at first, then patriotic fervor grips the crowd and everyone joins in, drowning out the Germans. Strasser demands Renault close the club, which he does on the pretext of suddenly discovering there is gambling going on in the premises.
Ilsa confronts Rick in the deserted café; when he refuses to give her the letters, she threatens him with a gun, but then confesses that she still loves him. She explains that when they met and fell in love in Paris in 1940, she believed her husband had been killed attempting to escape from a concentration camp. While preparing to flee with Rick from the city during the Battle of France, she learned Laszlo was alive and in hiding. She left Rick without explanation to nurse her sick husband. Rick’s bitterness dissolves. He agrees to help, letting her believe she will stay with him when Laszlo leaves. When Laszlo unexpectedly shows up, having narrowly escaped a police raid on a Resistance meeting, Rick has waiter Carl spirit Ilsa away. Laszlo, aware of Rick’s love for Ilsa, tries to persuade him to use the letters to take her to safety.
When the police arrest Laszlo on a trumped-up charge, Rick persuades Renault to release him by promising to set him up for a much more serious crime: possession of the letters. To allay Renault’s suspicions, Rick explains that he and Ilsa will be leaving for America. When Renault tries to arrest Laszlo as arranged, Rick forces him at gunpoint to assist in their escape. At the last moment, Rick makes Ilsa board the plane to Lisbon with Laszlo, telling her that she would regret it if she stayed: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” Strasser, tipped off by Renault, drives up alone. Rick shoots him when he tries to intervene. When policemen arrive, Renault pauses, then orders them to “round up the usual suspects.” He suggests to Rick that they join the Free French in Brazzaville. As they walk away into the fog, Rick says, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
In the seven decades since its production, the film has grown in popularity. Murray Burnett called it “true yesterday, true today, true tomorrow”. By 1955, the film had brought in $6.8 million, making it the third most successful of Warners’ wartime movies (behind Shine On, Harvest Moon and This Is the Army). On April 21, 1957, the Brattle Theater of Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed the film as part of a season of old movies. It was so popular that it began a tradition of screening Casablanca during the week of final exams at Harvard University, which continues to the present day. Other colleges have adopted the tradition. Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology who had attended one of these screenings, has said that the experience was “the acting out of my own personal rite of passage”. The tradition helped the movie remain popular while other films famous in the 1940s have faded from popular memory. By 1977, Casablanca had become the most frequently broadcast film on American television.
For actress Ingrid Bergman, this was one of her best-known roles. In later years, she stated, “I feel about Casablanca that it has a life of its own. There is something mystical about it. It seems to have filled a need, a need that was there before the film, a need that the film filled”.
On the film’s 50th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times called Casablanca’s great strength “the purity of its Golden Age Hollywoodness [and] the enduring craftsmanship of its resonantly hokey dialogue”. Bob Strauss wrote in the newspaper that the film achieved a “near-perfect entertainment balance” of comedy, romance, and suspense.
According to Roger Ebert, Casablanca is “probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title, including Citizen Kane” because of its wider appeal. Ebert opined that Citizen Kane is generally considered to be a “greater” film, but Casablanca “is more loved.” In his opinion, the film is popular because “the people in it are all so good”, and it is “a wonderful gem”. Ebert said that he has never heard of a negative review of the film, even though individual elements can be criticized, citing unrealistic special effects and the stiff character/portrayal of Laszlo.
Critic Leonard Maltin considers Casablanca “the best Hollywood movie of all time.”
Rick, according to Rudy Behlmer, is “not a hero … not a bad guy”: he does what is necessary to get along with the authorities and “sticks his neck out for nobody”. The other characters, in Behlmer’s words, are “not cut and dried” and come into their goodness over the course of the film. Renault begins as a collaborator with the Nazis who extorts sexual favors from refugees and has Ugarte killed. Even Ilsa, the least active of the main characters, is “caught in the emotional struggle” over which man she really loves. By the end, however, “everybody is sacrificing”. Behlmer also emphasized the variety in the picture: “it’s a blend of drama, melodrama, comedy [and] intrigue”.
A remembrance written for the 75th anniversary published by The Washington Free Beacon said, “It is no exaggeration to say Casablanca is one of the greatest films ever made”, making special note of the “intellectual nature of the film” and saying that “while the first time around you might pay attention to only the superficial love story, by the second and third and fourth viewings the sub-textual politics [of communitarianism and anti-isolationism] have moved to the fore.”
A few reviewers have had reservations. To Pauline Kael, “It’s far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism …” Umberto Eco wrote that “by any strict critical standards … Casablanca is a very mediocre film.” He viewed the changes the characters undergo as inconsistent rather than complex: “It is a comic strip, a hotchpotch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects.” However, he added that due to the presence of multiple archetypes which allow “the power of Narrative in its natural state without Art intervening to discipline it”, it is a movie reaching “Homeric depths” as a “phenomenon worthy of awe.”
Casablanca holds a 99% approval rating and a weighted average of 9.40/10 on Rotten Tomatoes based on 122 reviews. The site’s critics consensus reads: “An undisputed masterpiece and perhaps Hollywood’s quintessential statement on love and romance, Casablanca has only improved with age, boasting career-defining performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.” On Metacritic, the film has a perfect score of 100 out of 100, based on 18 critics, indicating “universal acclaim”. It is one of the few films in the site’s history to achieve a perfect aggregate score (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
Rick is sitting in his Cafè Américain bar in Casablanca, enjoying his book on geometry…
He raises his glass and says: “Here’s looking at Euclid.”
Second, a Song:
The music to Casablanca was written by Max Steiner, who wrote scores for King Kong and Gone with the Wind. The song “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld had been part of the story from the original play; Steiner wanted to write his own composition to replace it, but Bergman had already cut her hair short for her next role (María in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and could not re-shoot the scenes which incorporated the song, so Steiner based the entire score on it and “La Marseillaise”, the French national anthem, transforming them as leitmotifs to reflect changing moods. Even though Steiner disliked “As Time Goes By”, he admitted in a 1943 interview that it “must have had something to attract so much attention.” Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, was a drummer, so his piano playing was performed by Jean Plummer.
Particularly memorable is the “duel of the anthems” between Strasser and Laszlo at Rick’s cafe. In the soundtrack, “La Marseillaise” is played by a full orchestra. Originally, the opposing piece for this iconic sequence was to be the “Horst Wessel Lied”, a Nazi anthem, but this was still under international copyright in non-Allied countries. Instead “Die Wacht am Rhein” was used. The “Deutschlandlied”, the national anthem of Germany, is used several times in minor mode as a leitmotif for the German threat, e.g. in the scene in Paris as it is announced that the German army will reach Paris the next day. It is featured in the final scene, giving way to “La Marseillaise” after Strasser is shot.
Here is Victor Laszlo and Major Strasser in the “duel of the anthems” scene from Casablanca. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” – Howard E. Koch (spoken by Humphrey Bogart as Rick)
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky