“The stuff…that dreams are made of.”
Yes, I know that’s from another rather famous film. But it’s hard not to think of Casablanca in such terms. After all, suppose you went to sleep and dreamt about the perfect movie. What might your dream include? Top stars (how about Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman)? Favourite character actors (maybe Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, and S.Z. Sakall)? Intriguing foreign setting (North Africa — Morocco maybe)? Intelligent script with snappy, memorable dialogue — drama with a liberal dose of romance and a touch of comedy (the Epstein brothers have to figure in there, don’t they)? Pleasing musical score, rousing when needed, yet something hummable to remember the film with pleasure afterwards (Max Steiner perhaps)? Brisk, atmospheric direction drawing on good production values that emphasize both substance and style (could that be other than Warner Brothers, with perhaps Michael Curtiz at the directorial helm)? Is that enough? Well, wake up! Doesn’t Casablanca sound more than a little familiar?
But enough of dreaming, let’s try to get a handle on the real thing. How often has someone asked you “So what is it that’s so great about Casablanca“? People seem to realize that the film is something special, but can’t articulate exactly why. Perhaps the simple reason for that lies in the embarrassment of riches that the film possesses. You just start to think about one thing in the film that’s so great when that jogs your mind about another great aspect that in turn reminds you of…well, you get the idea. That’s certainly what happens to me when faced with the question of Casablanca‘s reputation.
Just what does the almost endless list of positive characteristics of Casablanca include? Well just go back to your dream and you’ve got a good chunk of such a list right there. But it’s more than a list of such attributes. Some films have comparable attributes, but for some often-indefinable reason, they just don’t work. The whole is not greater and may in fact be less than the sum of the parts. That is emphatically not the case with Casablanca. The film is the supreme example of that amalgam of art, commerce, and hard work, plus a dose of good luck, that defined Hollywood’s golden age.
Now there’s been a lot of nonsense written about Casablanca including one suggestion that the film is a political allegory for the times (Rick as Roosevelt — after all, casa blanca is Spanish for white house) or another that it’s a repressed gay fantasy (wherein Rick rejects Ilsa, preferring instead an affair with another man, Louis Renault). These are typical of the sort of irrelevance that pervades the analysis of so many academics who seem to prefer the obscure to the straight-forward. No, Casablanca began simply as another typical Warner Brothers war-time project — a romantic melodrama intended to contribute to the war effort, based on “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” a play whose screen rights producer Hal Wallis had purchased. The scriptwriting process was almost worthy of a book in itself, as the script got lobbed back and forth repeatedly between Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein. Every lob, however, helped to sharpen the script — tightening the dialogue and clarifying the characters’ relationships. Of course, some parts came more easily than others. Most notoriously, though, the ending seemed unlikely ever to be satisfactory. An ending in which Ilsa would leave with her husband rather than stay with Rick never seemed seriously in doubt, but just exactly how and where to accomplish it was the problem. At one stage, the ending was to occur over a chess game at the café. It was only after numerous conversations between the three writers and with Wallis involved himself, that the ending we now know came to be.
With Casablanca, what we also have is a touch of serendipity to go with the appreciable amount of good planning. Case in point: How about George Raft and Ann Sheridan as Rick and Ilsa? Now Raft was never actually seriously considered for the part of Rick, but he lobbied strongly for it, enough so that Jack Warner was prompted to write Hal Wallis about the idea. In this instance, though, Wallis had already made up his mind that the part was Bogart’s. Ilsa was a different matter. When Sheridan was first cast, there was no Ilsa; the character was an American known as Lois Meredith, and Sheridan’s bold, sassy style was thought appropriate for it. As the script changed and the character metamorphosed into the European heroine, Ilsa, Wallis turned to the likes of Hedy Lamarr and Ingrid Bergman. Lamarr could not be pried out of MGM’s arms, so negotiations began with David O. Selznick to use Bergman whom he had under contract. In the end, an exchange involving Warner’s Olivia De Havilland allowed the use of Bergman in the Ilsa role.
Even Casablanca‘s director, Michael Curtiz, was far from the first choice. To be sure, Wallis sent the script to three Warner directors (Curtiz, Vincent Sherman, and William Keighley) for their comments, but his preference was William Wyler. Obviously, for whatever reason that prospect didn’t materialize (it’s not known whether Wyler even read the script) and Wyler was in the armed forces by the time production started on Casablanca. Vincent Sherman was excited about the project, but Wallis preferred to go with the more experienced Curtiz with whom he’d had a long relationship and from whom he knew what to expect.
“What of it? I’m going to die in Casablanca. It’s a good spot for it.”
“Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer. You’ll have to think for both of us, for all of us.”
“…Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”
It is, of course, easy to talk about the top-billed cast members such as Humphrey Bogart — how the role of the cynical, world-weary Rick Blaine fit him like a glove and confirmed his star status after The Maltese Falcon (1941, WB) — or Ingrid Bergman who played Ilsa Lund and did so convincingly despite worrying constantly during shooting that she had no clue where her character was headed since the script ending never seemed to get finalized — or even Paul Henreid who, having just completed his best work to date in Now Voyager (1942, WB) with Bette Davis, took on the somewhat thankless yet essential role of Ilsa’s husband, the freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. Several books (see footnote) have been written about these players and their roles in Casablanca. So, let’s turn instead to three talented supporting actors whose abilities are most emphatically on display in Casablanca: Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, and S.Z. Sakall.
“You despise me, don’t you?”
“If I gave you any thought, I probably would.”
As Ugarte, Peter Lorre is at his whining, obsequious best. By 1942, Lorre was recognized as one of Warners’ prime supporting assets, particularly when teamed with Sydney Greenstreet. That was technically the case here, although the two have no scenes together. The Ugarte character is a critical one in Casablanca as his stealing of the letters of transit is what leads Ilsa and Victor to Rick’s and sets in motion the events that follow. Ugarte is basically an unprincipled black marketeer whose only real interest in the letters is how much they’ll sell for. He does provide one of the first clues that Rick is someone in whom to put one’s faith, for he is willing to entrust the letters to Rick while he passes the evening entertaining himself in the bar. The Ugarte role seems to fit Lorre like a glove. The unlovely face with the protruding, sympathetic eyes seem the hallmark of a man who’s been unable to get society’s respect through honest means so has sunk to dishonest ones to command some measure of power in the community. In his film characters, Lorre always seemed to be in search of acceptance by others. But just as in the cases of those characters, he never really seemed to get the level of respect in the industry that would have resulted in his landing the top parts that his great skill and the earlier promise of his work in Fritz Lang’s M (1931, Germany) should have warranted. Despite that, what he did get, he managed to make as persuasive as anyone could. With Ugarte, despite limited screen time, he succeeds memorably, and for that we should be grateful.
“Well, Ricky. I’m very pleased with you. Now you’re beginning to live like a Frenchman.”
“I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”
If you’ve read this column before, you’re probably aware of the high regard that I have for Claude Rains. To me, he was one of Warner Brothers’ crown jewels, adding a touch of class to virtually every film he was in whether period piece or modern drama. After Rick and Ilsa, Louis Renault is probably the character in Casablanca that people most remember. (For some, he’s the first they think of.) With the moustache, a hint of a French accent in his cultured voice, and a twinkle in his eyes, Rains brings Louis majestically to life — patriotic yet prepared to blow with the prevailing wind, a man of his word yet open to a bribe, and sophisticated yet susceptible to sentiment. While building towards the film’s conclusion when we find out where he really stands in the conflict, Rick has chosen to mask his feelings with a brooding cynicism. That fit Bogart’s acting persona. Louis has preferred the path of laughter and submissiveness, masked by an easy urbanity. That fit the adaptable Rains’ style. We like Louis so much that it’s relief then to find that both he and Rick are really two of a kind, for that appeals to the realist in us. We like to see ourselves as embodying the good qualities, yet we’re sometimes weak and fall prey to temptation — just as Louis does. But in the end we like to think that we’d do the right thing when everything’s on the line, just as Rick and Louis do. We might like to think that we’re most like Rick, but it’s more likely that we’re really like Louis, and so he in fact is the character that we most readily identify with. Without Rains’ adroit playing of Louis, that wouldn’t be the case.
“Carl, see that Major Strasser gets a good table, one close to the ladies.”
“I have already given him the best, knowing that he is German and would take it anyway.”
People seldom talk about S.Z. Sakall when discussion turns to Casablanca and that’s a shame. Sakall, a Hungarian who had become popular in German films before being banned from working in Nazi Germany, arrived in America in 1939 and appeared in more than two-dozen films in the 1940s. He plays the ever-present Carl, the head waiter at Rick’s Café Américain. Carl is a member of the official underground, but at the same time he almost appears to be an unofficial guardian to all the various refugees fleeing their home countries in hopes of escaping to America via Casablanca and Lisbon. For as they congregate at Rick’s, Carl seems to know them all and have a personal concern for their future fortunes.
No matter what he played, Sakall always seemed like a big cuddly bear (Jack Warner even nicknamed him “Cuddles”), jowls flapping whenever he became animated. Although he would later become almost a caricature of himself in his film roles, early in his career this was not the case. In Casablanca, the jowl-flapping was at a minimum and he was used throughout to provide relief from the drama. Remember such vignettes as the pickpocket who bumps into Carl causing him to pat his pockets quickly, or the drink shared with the elderly couple who proceed to check their watches as they show off their newly-learnt English. Throughout, Sakall is a sheer delight.
“…(We) are speaking nothing but English now — so we should feel at home when we get to America… What watch?” [glancing at her wristwatch]
“Er, you will get along beautifully in America”
One of the great strengths of Casablanca was its use of dozens of expatriate foreign actors who had managed to make their way to Hollywood in the late ’30s and early ’40s as their homelands in Europe came under the Nazi influence. The authenticity that this added to Casablanca‘s atmosphere should not be underestimated. A problem that Hollywood sometimes had with films with foreign settings was their unrealistic look and feel, partly due to the studio-bound nature of the filming and also to the frequent use of American players made up to look like foreigners. Casablanca was made in the studio but this was less of a problem because of the preponderance of interiors called for in the film script. The real plus was the use of this contingent of expatriates which made the set look and sound like an international gathering place. What they brought was more than a look and sound though; there was a realistic atmosphere borne of these individuals’ real-life experiences in Nazi camps and prisons, of being on the run, of fearing what might happen next, of hoping for a better future. There’s a sadness, however, in the realization of the very small roles most of these individuals have in Casablanca as compared to their importance in their home countries. Ilka Gruning, the woman who has the exchange of words with her husband over their watches, had run the second-most-important drama school in Berlin. Helmut Dantine, the young husband at the roulette table, was the leader of Vienna’s anti-Nazi youth movement. Marcel Dalio, the croupier at the same roulette table (“…well, a couple of thousand less than I thought there would be”), had starred in two classic French films for Jean Renoir — La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Règle du Jeu (1939). These are but three examples of more than two-dozen such instances that populate Casablanca.
Production and Direction
When Casablanca was completed in early August 1942, WB had six other movies in production and all but one were more expensive to make. Casablanca‘s final cost was $1,039,000. In charge of production was Hal Wallis who earlier that year had signed a contract with WB to make four pictures a year for the company. 1942 was, one could say, not a bad year for him; his productions included Desperate Journey, Now Voyager, Casablanca, Watch on the Rhine, Air Force, and Princess O’Rourke — all money-makers and two of them nominated for the Academy Award as best picture of the year (Casablanca and Watch on the Rhine). Casablanca was very much Wallis’ baby. He approved purchase of the play it was based on; he brought on the Epstein brothers to hone the script and contributed to it himself; he decided on Michael Curtiz for direction and regularly provided comments to Curtiz following screening of the dailies; he saw the film as a Bogart picture from the start and negotiated for Ingrid Bergman. He in fact had his finger in virtually all parts of the pie and must be given a significant share of the credit for Casablanca‘s success.
In Michael Curtiz, Wallis had a director that he knew well and was comfortable with, even if Curtiz wasn’t his first choice for this particular film. The Hungarian-born Curtiz’s history with WB went back to 1926 when he had been recruited in Europe after a series of successful Austrian pictures. He would come to be a versatile workhorse director for the studio as well as being entrusted with most of WB’s top stars and most prestigious films including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, with Errol Flynn), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938, with James Cagney), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939, with Bette Davis and Flynn), The Sea Wolf (1941, with Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, with Cagney). Once assigned to Casablanca, Curtiz proceeded to ensure his own contributions to the finished product. Much of the casting of the minor parts appears to have been Curtiz’s doing and it seems unlikely that Bergman would have finally been selected to play Ilsa had Curtiz not been supportive. Curtiz’s most significant contribution, however, lay in the look and urgency he brought to so many scenes in the film — from the initial round-up of suspects that lead off the story, to our first look at Rick’s Café and its various characters, to Ugarte’s arrest, to the Paris railway station sequence in the rain, and certainly last but not least the scenes between Rick, Ilsa and Victor at the airport. Curtiz also loved to use shadows and their movement to heighten the impact of scenes and this too is frequently evident throughout Casablanca.
Take a look at those final scenes again and pay attention to the camera placement during Rick and Ilsa’s conversation — the use of two-shots and then close-ups of Rick and Ilsa over each other’s shoulders. Can anyone argue but that this is one of the romantic moments in cinema? Both actors are superb and Curtiz’s camera work makes the most of it. Seconds later, we have Rick’s explanation to Victor and again the same magical combination of actors at their best delineated beautifully in Curtiz’s choice of frame composition and the use of shadow cast on the actors’ faces by their hats.
Perhaps unlike any that of any other dramatic film, the music of Casablanca has come to take on a life of its own. The signature tune — “As Time Goes By” (originally written by one Herman Hupfeld for a now-forgotten 1931 Broadway show) — immediately evokes images of the movie, as does one of the film’s lines of dialogue referring to that music — “Play it, Sam.” However, the use of “As Time Goes By” almost didn’t happen, for Max Steiner who wrote the score for Casablanca didn’t particularly like the song.
Steiner was another WB workhorse and Wallis wanted him for the film. Steiner had just finished a very successful score for Now Voyager which would win him the 1942 Academy Award. His approach was always to watch a particular film assigned to him a couple of times before commencing to write the score. This time, however, Steiner was stuck with working around the song “As Time Goes By.” Ingrid Bergman had been filmed by Sam’s piano humming the first few bars of the song, but by now it was too late to have her come back to the studio to hum something different that Steiner might have composed in its stead, for her hair had been radically shortened for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Paramount). So Steiner made the best of it and proceeded to make the song the centerpiece of his score, a love theme for Rick and Ilsa that echoed throughout the film in different variations and stylings. Similar use is made of “La Marseillaise.” Both converge in the final airport scenes.
It has been suggested that the music of Casablanca is almost a character in the film in itself. I think there’s a great deal of merit in that suggestion, for so many of the film’s great moments seem inseparable from the music. As you play them over in your mind’s eye, the music is automatically there too. Much of Casablanca seems inconceivable without it.
The Last 57 Years
Although it was not unanimously acclaimed as any masterpiece at the time of its release, Casablanca received very favourable reviews for the most part and went on to win the Academy Award as Best Picture of 1943. It also received the Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director.
Despite the idea of a sequel, attempts to develop a musical stage version of the film, and a short-lived television series, it was only with Bogart’s death in 1957 that Casablanca really started to be recognized for the very special film it was. The Bogart cult that first surfaced on American college campuses in the late ’50s and early ’60s seemed to be the impetus for the film’s rediscovery and reassessment. During the 40 years since then, Casablanca‘s ranking of at or near the top of lists of the best films made to date has continued unabated. Certainly voting on such lists tends to be dominated by enthusiasts and industry types as opposed to historians or critical analysts, but I get the sense that even the latter are starting to recognize Casablanca‘s merits. It’s nice to see that academics may finally be catching up with what true film enthusiasts knew all along!
Casablanca on DVD
Casablanca appeared on DVD first about a year and a half ago. MGM Home Entertainment at that time held the video rights and its release was stunning looking. Apart from a couple of very short sequences which appeared to be a little soft due to imperfections in the source material, the DVD was the best looking video version of the film to date, surpassing Criterion’s CAV LD. The image was one to treasure with great shadow detail, excellent contrasts, deep blacks, and clean whites. Casablanca was, of course, not a widescreen film, and its OAR of 1.37:1 was properly presented on this full frame disc. Sound was the original mono and it was nice and clear, free of hiss or other time-related defects. Since then, WB has acquired the video rights to Casablanca from MGM and has re-issued the same disc under its own banner.
But that’s not the end of the story. MGM’s original package contained a few supplements. There was a fairly informative documentary (about 30 minutes long) on the film hosted by Lauren Bacall and entitled “You Must Remember This” as well as the theatrical trailer. In addition there were eight other trailers for Bogart films plus an 8-page booklet containing production background on the film. WB’s reissue did not include the booklet, presumably because MGM retained the rights to it. Not that the booklet was any great masterpiece, but the mere fact of its exclusion is where I start to have a problem with this DVD release.
Rather than doing Casablanca proud and giving it a package of supplements worthy of the #1 film on many people’s top-ten lists, WB has seen fit to reduce the supplementary material. In an age when films that will be forgotten about in a few years time are showered with obscene amounts of supplementary material, Casablanca has virtually nothing. WB should be hanging their heads in shame. When Criterion gave Casablanca the deluxe CAV LD treatment years ago, we saw what was possible. There was audio commentary from respected film historian Ron Haver; a still frame section covering a synopsis of the original play, the budget, censor adjustments, and script editing notes; the original theatrical trailer; a synopsis for a proposed sequel; newsreel footage of Casablanca during the war; excerpts from the Lux Radio Hour presentation of “Casablanca” with Alan Ladd and Hedy Lamarr; and even an example of the colorized version of the film (whatever one may think of that process). It you are lucky enough to have that LD, hang onto it. It’s still your best video special or collector’s edition of Casablanca.
But you say, there is a collector’s edition DVD of Casablanca available from WB via Creative Design? Don’t be fooled. It’s simply a shamefaced ploy to gouge extra money from unwitting fans of the film. It’s the same transfer as the regular release with the same few supplements, except for an extra $60.00 you get a CD of the soundtrack, some lobby cards, a poster, and a movie frame cell — all glitz, no substance. Save your money; don’t get ripped off.
I really want to give WB’s Casablanca DVD a “Not-Recommended” rating because of my anger at WB’s shoddy supplement treatment of a great film, but I can’t in all honesty do that. I’ve argued in the past that on any DVD, the film’s the thing and I can’t deny that on its DVD, Casablanca looks like a thing of beauty. For that reason alone, you have to have it. But don’t be content with it. Let WB know how you feel if you agree with my view of the situation. WB certainly has the capability to do right by Casablanca as they’ve shown in some of their other DVD releases. If they don’t want to, they should be approaching Criterion to do the job for them. Casablanca deserves no less!
The best is “Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca – Bogart, Bergman, and World War II” by Aljean Harmetz, Hyperion, New York, 1992.