Friday, December 30

Good 40s Films: Casablanca

1942 Drama
From Warner Bros.
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Humphrey Bogart
Ingrid Bergman
Paul Henreid
Claude Rains
Conrad Veidt
Sydney Greenstreet
Peter Lorre
S. Z. Sakall
Dooley Wilson
Joy Page
Leonid Kinskey

There would be very few American filmgoers who would disagree that this one certainly qualifies as one of the good films of the 1940s, as the title of this post suggests. For so many it is considered an American classic.  I have no problem with that or with acknowledging it as one of the most famous of all American films. The one problem I do have is referring to it as the best film ever made. It seems to go back and forth with Citizen Kane to claim that weighty honor and I simply don't agree that either one deserves it.  I suppose it's just the idea of calling anything the best ever that makes it open to dispute.

It's a simple enough story.  At one level it's not only a love story (and the world will always welcome lovers) but one of two men vying for the same woman in the early part of WWII.  One of those men is Rick Blaine (Bogart), a cynical, world-weary ex-freedom fighter who now runs Rick's Cafe Americain and despite his claim that he doesn't stick his neck out for anybody, the truth is he does that very thing when he chooses to.  His nightclub has become a haven for refugees looking to secure papers that would guarantee them a flight to America.

The other man, Victor Laszlo (Henreid), a resistance fighter who gained a measure of celebrity and notoriety when he escaped from a concentration camp, has found his way to Cafe Americain along with his wife, Ilsa (Bergman).  Laszlo, too, wants Rick to secure him the necessary travel papers while the crafty police chief (Rains) and a nasty German major (Veidt) are waiting to nab Laszlo.

There's one other problem.  Rick and Ilsa are former lovers, having engaged in a brief love affair in Paris before Germany's invasion. Rick did not know of  Laszlo's existence let alone a marriage. Laszlo had been in a concentration camp at the time but on the night that Ilsa was to meet Rick and flee Paris, Laszlo had escaped and sent word to her. She returned to her husband and left Rick waiting at the train station without any word. He's been angry with her ever since and has no problem displaying it when she suddenly appears with her husband at the club.

While each appear to still be carrying a bit of a torch for the other, Rick is suspicious of Ilsa's motives, feeling she would say and do anything to get the travel papers.  As the famous scene at the airport nears, Ilsa has decided that she loves Rick and will stay with him if he will secure the papers for Laszlo alone and Rick agrees.  But as the three of them stand near the departing plane, with the wily police chief also present, ready to take Rick into custody, Rick tells Ilsa that she is going to leave with her husband.  Through teary eyes she hears him tell her that her husband needs her and that life with Rick would not produce the happy results they would want.

For me part of the movie's charm is the coterie of Warner Bros stock character actors.  While Henreid and Rains had their moments as leading men, I found them to be more effective when they left the starring roles to others.  Rains was so good as the police chief... smarmy, duplicitous, dripping in counter-charm. Lorre, as a criminal in the midst of being apprehended, had one of his briefest roles but always there to add the right touch.  Ditto for Greenstreet as a rival club owner.  S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall as the head waiter, spent most of his career in musical-comedy but proves here that he can handle drama just as well.  Veidt always registered truth in villainous performances; he was certainly a superb Nazi.    Nervous nelly Leonid Kinskey was his usual fascinating hyper self as the bartender. Joy Page, in real life Jack Warner's stepdaughter, grabbed some attention as another patron looking for a passage to America for her and her newlywed husband. She has an important scene where she opens some spaces for Rick to gather a better understanding of love.   

By my count, best of all was Dooley Wilson as Sam, friend to both Rick and Ilsa, and piano-player for the ages.  He, of course, sings As Time Goes By, when Ilsa (with her sad eyes) asks him to do so.  She wants him to play it again as he did during those lovely days in Paris.  He plays more than that song but of course it is the theme of the film and is hauntingly heard throughout.  (Don't let it rattle you, but Wilson couldn't play the piano. However, if you're rattled, you might as well know the entire affair was filmed in Burbank. No one really saw Casablanca or Paris.)

The idea for the film came to producer Hal Wallis via an obscure play called Everybody Comes to Rick's.  It had been pedaled to most studios and they all turned it down. What Wallis found appealing about it is that it reminded him of Algiers, an extremely popular and well-made film with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, released in 1938. There were those who were surprised at the success of Algiers and you know what that means in Hollywood... let's do it again or at least copy it somehow.  Both concerned a man and a woman caught up in the intrigue in that same mysterious part of the world. Wallis changed the title to Casablanca to add to the smoky allure.  He said he would be happy if this picture turned out just half as successful as Algiers.

William Wyler was the first choice for director.  He was sent a rough draft of the script and a letter asking him to come on board but he didn't respond.  Wallis had wanted to also ask WB go-to director, Michael Curtiz, but rumors were flying that he didn't want to be asked.  Curtiz also heard that they were flying by their pants on the story because the writing wasn't completed and that usually meant nightmarish times on most any film.  But finally Wallis talked him into directing Casablanca and always felt Curtiz breathed life into individual scenes and gave many of them a beginning, middle and end before moving on to the next. Curtiz was also an expert at filling them with atmosphere and suspense. The film had the director's distinctive mark all over it and he would be rewarded with an Oscar for his efforts.

In the earliest stages there was talk of the starring trio to be comprised of Dennis Morgan, Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan. They were all WB employees and would come cheap, which was good, because it was going to be made cheaply and quickly, too. Then it was decided that it would be made with George Raft as Rick.  He wasn't much of an actor but he would not cost a fortune either since he was also on the WB payroll and this kind of role was right up his alley.  But he turned it down.

He had also turned down The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra. You see where we're going.  Since those films wound up starring Bogie, it wasn't a stretch to offer him Casablanca.  The problem was he didn't want to take another Raft reject.  Additionally he didn't think the film would be a feather in his cap or anyone else's.  It was not regarded as anything beyond a little drama that might bring in the hoped-for bucks that Algiers accomplished.

Two years earlier he had costarred with Raft in They Drive by Night and it was successful. But one forgets that, although Bogie had made many films by the time he made Casablanca, he had not been a big star.  He had some lead roles in B pictures and in A films (like Dark Victory), he had small roles. However, in 1941, he made a splash with both High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Casablanca would cement his pact with the public.

Ingrid Bergman, by contrast, had made few films.  Most of the ones she had appeared in were Swedish.  Her American debut came in Intermezzo (1939), a remake of a Swedish film of the same title. She had also been seen by the American public in Adam Had Four Sons in 1941.  Her other 1941 films, Rage in Heaven and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, had not been released at the point that she started Casablanca.  

Bergman was not originally considered because, first of all, she was not under contract to WB but rather David O'Selznick, who didn't graciously lets his few stars get loaned out and if he did, it would cost the other studio a fortune.  Just as importantly, the part of Ilsa was written as an American (presumably with another name as well) but Wallis thought she should become foreign (think of Algiers and Hedy Lamarr ... come viss me to za Cazzablonca) and then Bergman's name was brought up again.  She was happy to have gotten the part because, as she said, she would get to look pretty and wear nice clothes.

Most everyone, Bergman included, found the experience of making the film dreadful and certainly no one thought a classic was in the works.  There was not a lot of happiness on that set mainly because the writing was largely handled on a day-to-day basis. Although the Paris scenes were shot first, the film was otherwise shot in sequence, very rare and also quite expensive, but that was sensible since no one was never quite sure where it was all leading.  Even regarding the ending, no one knew whether Ilsa was going to leave with her husband or stay with Rick until almost time to film it.  

The actress said she probably knew Bogie the least of any actor she ever worked with. He was so angry all the time that he retreated to his trailer when a scene was over.  She admitted she was in awe of his talent and might have liked to pick his brain a little more since she was new to the Hollywood scene, but it didn't happen.

Only toward the end of her life did Bergman finally come to some peace about Casablanca.  Hard as it was for her, she still had a bit of a rough time that it would be the film that would be immortal for her.  I think she was the one who said it seemed much better than it actually is.  

The very talented twin screenwriters, Julius and Philip Epstein, may have had their struggles and arguments with Curtiz but I always thought their screenplay (with an assist from Howard Koch) was well-deserving of their Oscar.  They came up with some memorable lines, bandied about to this day.  My partner and I will roll out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.  And if you missed it the first time he said it, you certainly heard Bogie after the sixth time of saying here's looking at you, kid.

The Epsteins wanted a slam-bam finish during that airport scene where Rick and the crafty cop know they need to come to terms about Rick's future.  They thought they had a good one when they had Rick say to the cop, Louis, I might have known that you'd mix your patriotism with a little larceny.  Then they quickly sketched in the final delicacy, Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  

In real life, the actual war gave the film some publicity it could never have dreamt of.  In November of 1942, allies landed in Casablanca and a summit conference was held there with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in attendance.  As a result, Casablanca became a household word.  WB couldn't believe its good fortune.

The film would win the Academy Award for best picture of 1942.

Let's fast forward to the current millennium and apparently Madonna wanted to play Ilsa in a remake with Ashton Kutcher as Rick. Like it happened back in the early 40s, every studio turned her down but this time it was said that she was told that film is deemed untouchable.  

While you're mulling over that one, let's have a quickie...

Next posting:
Movie-making in the 1970s


  1. The first photos of Casablanca could be seen printed on a magazine in 1945( I still have it) and the movie in 1946.It was a delirium!
    The story, the song, but especially Bergman. I maybe wrong but I think that it was the first time, after the war, that italian women re-found their interest in dresses ( remember the white dress with the white hat?). I remember that my sister Mirella came back home humming As Time Goes By and tried to explain to my mother the elegance of Bergman cloths.
    I happened to see the movie many times during the years and I always look at it with, how can I say, with affection maybe. I definitly agree with You that it's not the best movie of the forties,but I do not agree with that critic who wrote that it was " the most beautiful among the ugliest movies of the screen. It's too mean.

  2. Looking at it with affection is well said. I quite agree. May I borrow it?