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Movie-A-Day: Casablanca

Or, the difficult birth of one of Hollywood's greatest movies

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre
Director: Michael Curtiz
Year Of Release: 1942
Plot: Rick Blaine is the owner of a bar in Casablanca. With France and much of the rest of mainland Europe under Nazi control, the Moroccan city has become a centre for refugees, all of whom want travel papers from the corrupt Captain Renault. However Rick has some documents that will allow anyone who holds them to escape to Lisbon and then onto New York. Resistance leader Victor Laszlo and his wife Ilsa turn up in the city. The Nazis don’t want them to leave, but Rick could make it happen. However he has a past with Ilsa.
It just goes to show the cultural penetration of Casablanca that when I first watched it when I was young, it seemed unbelievably clichéd to me. The screenplay in particular came across more like a series of famous phrases than actual dialogue. It was only when I got a bit older that I realised the reason it seemed rather hackneyed was that this was where all the clichés had come from.

I still find it a slightly bizarre though that there are speeches by Rick that have since been broken down into three or four famous movie quotes, which have become so woven into modern culture that people will probably know the line, even if they don’t know where it came from.

Take this bit of dialogue:

Rick: I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but 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. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you kid.

There’s at least four phrases in there that have seeped into popular culture, and countless more throughout the film, from “Round up the usual suspects” and "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," to "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” and “I stick my neck out for nobody”. It is undoubtedly the most widely quoted screenplay in film history. Incidentally though, Rick never says, “Play it again, Sam.” That’s the name of a Woody Allen movie, but all Rick ever actually says is, “Play it Sam, play As Time Goes By”, and "You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it!"

However what I find most intriguing is the political situation the film found itself part of during production and on its initial release. Casablanca is quite famous for having a script that was finished on the fly and was constantly changing during production. Although Jules and Phil Epstein thought they’d finished the script before the movie started filming in May 1942, there was uncertainty over whether everything was working, and so other writers, including Herbert Koch, were brought in (the Epsteins had been asked to go to New York to work on Frank Capra’s patriotic war documentaries, ‘Why We Fight’ and so were initially unavailable for more work). Koch and co. upped the romance, while the Epsteins later returned and rewrote further portions.

It’s kind of interesting that for most of the production, nobody knew how the film would end. This caused the cast a lot of consternation on the set, particularly for Ingrid Bergman. She would ask director Michael Curtiz how she should play the role – was she really in love with Rick or Victor? – but all Curtiz could say was to play it down the middle, as he didn’t know how things would turn out. Although it was unlikely the censorship office would have allowed Ilsa to leave her husband for Rick, the lack of an ending definitely caused problems on set.

The censorship office also banned the makers from suggesting Rick and Ilsa sleep together after they reconcile in Casablanca, and so the filmmakers instead inserted a rather phallic shot of a lighthouse, so that the audience could make up their own minds.

However it wasn’t just the tone of the screenplay that caused trouble. With America newly entered into the war, and the map of what was and wasn’t Nazi controlled constantly changing, the people making the movie were also constantly worried that events were going to overtake them. Eventually the world situation did overtake the movie, as just before the film was due to open, Casablanca was invaded. Although there was talk of adding a new ending to take this development into account, it was decided not to alter the film and just say Casablanca was set before the invasion.

As a studio, Warner had also been one of the first to come out against the Nazis, long before America was involved in the Second World War, but even in 1942, there was disquiet in the US about the extent of the country’s involvement in the war. While most agreed that because the Japanese had attacked, war was necessary on that front, there were still some who were unsure the extent to which the US should be involved on the ground in Europe.

Casablanca was partly a response to this. In the original unproduced play the film is based on, ‘Everybody Comes To Rick’s’, which was written before America’s entry into the war, the main character is very much used to represent America’s then position of isolationism. However as Rick sees the effects of the flow of refugees and the reality of what’s going on, he comes to realise that he has to get involved. While Pearl Harbor had ensured the US became involved in the war, Casablanca was made to highlight and back up the reasons for America to be fighting in Europe and that it wasn’t just about getting back at the Axis powers for sinking the US fleet, but also about the lives of millions of people living under Nazi control, as well as those left stranded around the world by the war.

Most of those making the film were personally involved in what was going on in Europe. For example, while Jewish director Michael Curtiz had left his native Hungary for the US before the rise of Nazism, most of his family was rounded up by the Third Reich and his sisters sent to Auschwitz. It’s also interesting to note that of the credited cast, only Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Joy Page were born in the US. Most of those on-screen, including the likes of Peter Lorre, were exiles who’d fled Nazi oppression. Curtiz was also heavily involved in efforts to help artists who’d been displaced from Europe find a new home and work in the US.

Casablanca premiered in New York on November 23rd, 1942, with the film rushed out due to the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca a few weeks before. As was common at the time, the film then slowly expanded around the US, not reaching most areas until January 1943. By that point Casablanca was big news, as the first war conference between Roosevelt and Churchill (as well as the exiled French government) was held there between January 14th and 24th.

The film was successful but not spectacularly so on its initial release, and many were actually surprised when the film picked up the Best Picture Oscar at the following year’s Oscars. However Casablanca’s popularity grew and eventually became one of Warner’s highest grossing war movies, with audiences responding both to its romance and humanitarian message.

It is a truly wonderful movie, and while it’s sometimes difficult to get past the feeling that Casablanca is just people saying one cliché after another, you have to remember that this is where all these famous lines came from. It’s also interesting that while with most wars, great movies about them aren’t made until the battle has ended and it’s possible to look at things with a little hindsight, but Casablanca is an unabashed classic made right at the moment the events it talks about were happening (to the point that it was out of date even before it premiered). It’s an incredible achievement, and a film that deserves its place in the pantheon of the greats.

TIM ISAAC

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