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From the current Winter 2019 Issue

We'll Always Have...


By Wayne Klatt


Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin called Casablanca “the best Hollywood film of all time.” Obviously, judging “the best” of anything is subjective, but the fact is that Maltin’s not the only one to take this attitude. Casablanca is that rare film that works on every level: as a wartime drama, as a romance, even as a comedy.

Of course, today we can view the film through the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia, but it must be remembered that when the film opened in late 1942, the United States was less than a year into World War II — and at the time, there was a very real possibility that the Axis powers would win. (When Humphrey Bogart’s Rick is asked “Who do you think will win the war?” he answers, “I haven’t the slightest idea,” which was true for a lot of people.) Casablanca regains its intensity when you realize what was at stake when the film was made. Indeed, the uncertainty and chaos surrounding the film almost mirrored the real-life drama of the times.

Which is appropriate, as the story that became Casablanca had its roots in real-life people and situations. It all began with Murray Burnett, a New York high school teacher who had traveled to Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that every life in that place at that time could have been the subject of a movie: Hundreds of people were being smuggled out through the “refugee trail” to Marseilles, Casablanca, Lisbon and — if they were lucky — America. Burnett’s mission was to help his wife’s stepfamily escape from Austria. In those days, bribery and threatening to bring matters to the attention of the American government could still unlock a few doors.

Burnett and his wife did what they could for the family, then made their way to a French resort town and visited a small nightclub, La Belle Aurore. Inside, an African-American pianist played American jazz (including, apparently, “As Time Goes By”) as everyone around him spoke in a different languages and accents.

When France fell in 1940, Burnett (who had returned to the United States and subsequently divorced) realized the cafe would be a natural setting for a play. He and second wife Joan Allison collaborated on a script for a play, to be called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. It’s the story of a woman who is married to a Resistance organizer and needs the help of attorney Rick Blaine (who became a nightclub owner in later editions) to save her husband so he may keep the movement alive. Out of love, Rick helps Victor and surrenders to the Germans.

Although it was finished in 1940, Rick’s remained unproduced when the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. By then, Broadway was easing up on new productions, but Warner Bros. studios was reviewing theatrical scripts for possible movies — and this play had Hollywood all over it, with strong leads being both united and then separated by spies and villains. A story analyst at Warner Bros. recommended buying the play, calling it “sophisticated hokum.” It was meant as a compliment.

The casting for Casablanca evolved over time. Initially, the studio — not thinking in grandiose terms — announced that Ann Sheridan would star as female lead Lois Meredith. Among those considered for the character of Rick were George Raft and James Cagney, but producer Hal Wallis was intent that Humphrey Bogart should take the role. Bogart had established himself as a star the year before with gutsy performances in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, where he proved he could play tough and emotional at the same time.

While that decision was being made, it was also determined that the female lead should be European. So it was that Lois Meredith became Ilsa Lund, and Ann Sheridan gave way to Ingrid Bergman. The Swedish-born Bergman had come to the states in 1936 to star in Intermezzo and had made an impression as a young woman who falls victim to Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The role of Victor fell to Paul (von) Henreid, the son of a Viennese banker, who was educated and naturally charming. He had made a splash alongside Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, which showed off his habit of lighting a cigarette and giving it to the woman with him. Henreid, Conrad Veidt (who played the Nazi Major Strasser) and Peter Lorre (as the devious Signor Ugarte) were among many performers who had fled Hitler’s Europe. Actor Dan Seymour (who played the doorman at Rick’s) recalled seeing actors who had been cast as refugees weeping on the set and “suddenly realized they were all real refugees.”

Certainly, no one involved with Casablanca could complain about the casting, but no one appeared to like the story. For one thing, there was no villain — except the war itself. The way Claude Rains was delivering his lines made police captain Renault seem rather pleasant. Producer Hal Wallis suggested expanding the role of Major Strasser, but there was still nothing in the original play (which had involved a single set) to tie these characters together.

Initially, the identical twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein were assigned to transform Rick’s into Casablanca, but they were committed to director Frank Capra’s Why We Fight project. Screenwriter Howard Koch (whose resume included the screenplay for Sergeant York and the script for Orson Welles’ famous radio production of “The War of the Worlds”) came in long enough to craft the Paris-based backstory that illustrated the pre-War love affair of Rick and Ilsa, then he was off to another project.

The Epsteins — known for their dialogue and ability to write for particular actors — came back in and added most of the comedy. They had scenes and sequences, but the screenplay still wasn’t finished when shooting began in late May. That meant no one had any idea whether Ilsa would wind up with Rick or Victor. The experienced, excitable Curtiz kept throwing up his hands and complaining (in his thick Hungarian accent) that he had no idea how to handle the scenes he was setting up.

Curtiz wasn’t the only one who found it challenging to shoot scenes without a final script; as Ingrid Bergman acknowledged, “Every day we were shooting off the cuff.” This sentiment was confirmed by Howard Koch: “Ingrid Bergman came to me and said, ‘Which man should I love more...?’ I said to her, ‘I don’t know... Play them both evenly.’”

Humphrey Bogart kept retreating to his trailer just off the set, wondering whether the self-pitying role of Rick would set back a career that was just getting started. Every day the actors would say, “What are we doing here?” and Curtiz would reply, “We’re not quite sure, but let’s get through this scene today and we’ll let you know tomorrow.”

It isn’t that the script had no ending; the Epsteins had actually written a handful of endings — what they didn’t have was dialogue that matched the cleverness of exchanges like this one:

RENAULT: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
RICK: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
RENAULT: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
RICK: I was misinformed.

Then, as Julius Epstein recalled, he had the epiphany that not only ended the film but transformed it. “My brother and I were driving down Sunset Boulevard,” he said, “and we looked at each other and said, ‘Round up the usual suspects.’ Somebody must have been murdered. Who was murdered? Major Strasser. Who killed him? Rick! That was the way we got our ending.”

What a relief this simple twist must have brought to the set. In one stroke, the villain is dispatched, true love prevails, Rick Blaine becomes the hero (and a romantic martyr to boot), and Claude Rains’ Renault (who delivers the “usual suspects” line) becomes a true character, elevated above mere comic relief.

The film had evolved into a well-crafted story, but no one involved had any reason to believe it would be anything but an engaging yarn. Certainly, the critics were unmoved; The New York World-Telegram reported that “Casablanca is not the best of the recent Bogarts,” and Newsweek dismissed it as mere “escapist entertainment.”

These reviews clearly did not consider how the background of the story might resonate with audiences, moviegoers who were learning that events on three far-away continents were affecting their lives — and our collective future.

That attitude wasn’t limited to the critics; when the 1943 Academy Awards were broadcast on radio, master of ceremonies George Jessel listed the best-picture nominees — which included such high-minded films as The Song of Bernadette and Watch on the Rhine — but his tone takes on a virtual sneer when he gets to Casablanca.

If Jessel’s tone suggests he had little respect for Casablanca, he quickly learned the Hollywood community felt differently; before the night was out, the film had won Oscars for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and the coveted Best Picture honors. The on-set chaos may have driven its stars to distraction but it also transformed their careers, allowing Ingrid Bergman to show both strength and vulnerability and establishing Humphrey Bogart as the most compelling leading man in American films. It transformed “As Time Goes By” from a near-forgotten chestnut into a standard and produced one of the most unforgettable (and quotable) screenplays ever written.

At the end of Casablanca, Rick Blaine tells Captain Renault, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” It’s been more than seventy-five years since Casablanca introduced itself to moviegoers everywhere, striking up a friendship that will never end.

We’re still looking at you, kid.

Tune in to Those Were the Days on January 19 and 26 to hear two different radio productions of Casablanca -- with two completely different casts.


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