We wade into the backstory of the movie Casablanca, which, since its release in the forties, continues to captivate us all.
In 1992, noted film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “‘Casablanca’ is The Movie. There are greater movies. More profound movies. Movies of greater artistic vision or artistic originality or political significance. There are other titles we would put above it on our lists of the best films of all time. But when it comes right down to the movies we treasure the most…[i]t is The Movie.”
That icon of cinema, released this month back in 1942, is etched deeply into our memories. Set in World War II as the Nazis invade even more territory in Europe, including France, Casablanca tells the stories of people fleeing to the safety of American shores. In Casablanca, then a protectorate of France, acquiring an exit visa to gain entry into the United States is an elusive endeavor. Refugees can wait forever to get theirs.
Our lead Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns a bar and restaurant that has become a gathering place for refugees and people peddling exit visas or buying the jewelry the refugees can give up for cash. Complicating Rick’s life is Captain Renault (Claude Rains), the French officer in charge of Casablanca and a Nazi collaborator. He and Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) try to ensure that Rick doesn’t interfere with the sale of a pair of exit visas to Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a leader of the Czechoslovakian underground movement who is to arrive at Casablanca.
But—a situation summarized by Bogart’s line, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”—entering Rick’s restaurant accompanying Laszlo is Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), Rick’s former lover. And so starts the romantic knot that has gripped us over the decades.
Getting off the ground
Based on a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, Casablanca was, back then, no special movie project of Warner Bros. Instead, it was just another film in their lineup for the year.
The movie, in fact, had an inauspicious start. In a memo to Casablanca producer Hal B. Wallis, Robert Buckner, a screenwriter, called the play’s key scene “hokum melodrama.”
Wallis had to reconsider his choices for the roles. One of these was Otto Preminger, who Wallis had wanted to play Strasser. In the end, because the former turned out too costly to hire, he opted for Veidt. For the cafe singer-pianist, Wallis prospected several candidates, deciding on Clarence Muse. The arrangement didn’t push through, though, so the role went to Dooley Wilson, whom Warner Bros borrowed from Paramount—ironically, a singer and drummer rather than a pianist. One of the actresses Wallis preferred for Ilsa was Hedy Lamarr, but MGM, the studio Lamarr had a contract with, didn’t lend her to Warner Bros for the film.
Screenwriter Howard Koch worked on the script separately from, rather than together with, the other two writers, Philip and Julius J. Epstein, the latter two of whom wrote the movie’s wittiest lines. Filming required lots of last-minute decisions because Koch could only finish scenes on the day they were to be shot.
The writers had no idea about the ending throughout most of the shooting. Because she was unaware of who her character was to be with until the end of filming, Bergman, told by Koch to give equal weight to both her love interests, was more or less flying blind with the way she acted her role.
Warner Bros originally planned for the movie to come out in June 1943. They ended up releasing the film earlier to make the most of the Allies beating back the Axis Powers in Casablanca in November 1942. Afterward, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin would hold a summit in the city, which kept Casablanca in the headlines. Perhaps partly because of that, the movie became a hit.
A collaboration among refugees
What makes the film—about people escaping from the Nazis—resonate more is the fact that some of the people who had worked on it had escaped the Nazis themselves.
Some were Jewish or had a Jewish spouse. Peter Lorre, who plays the crook Ugarte, was a Jewish actor who left Germany in 1933 when the Nazis won government positions, notably Hitler, who was declared chancellor. S. Z Sakall, Rick’s waiter Carl, was a Jewish Hungarian actor who had relatives who died in Nazi concentration camps. Jewish French actor Marcel Dalio, the dealer Emil in Rick’s casino, and his wife, French actress Madeleine Lebeau (who plays Yvonne), escaped from France in 1940 as Germany started encroaching into the country—a battle the Nazis would win. According to the New York Times, the Nazis distributed flyers with his face as an example of “a typical Jew.” His relatives were killed by the Nazis in concentration camps.
In a scene where Henreid’s Laszlo spurs the band at Rick’s to play La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, the camera gives Lebeau a close-up shot where you see her crying. According to Leslie Epstein, nephew and son of Julius and Philip Epstein, the tears she shed weren’t fake.
Veidt, who plays Strasser, was German and escaped from his country with his Jewish wife. Ironically, many of the roles he got offered in Hollywood were Nazi officers.
Helmut Dantine, who plays refugee Jan Brandel, in his teens headed a youth organization that opposed the Nazis. When the Nazis took over Austria, Dantine’s country of birth, they apprehended him and held him prisoner at a concentration camp. Dantine’s relatives arranged for his freedom, bringing him to the US, where he started acting. Like Veidt, he also played Nazis in Hollywood films.
And it wasn’t limited to the cast. Casablanca’s technical consultant, Robert Aisner, helped protect France in the Maginot line, a series of defenses meant to safeguard the country from the Germans in World War I. The Nazis put Aisner in a concentration camp—which he escaped from, passing through Casablanca on his way to the US.
Reaction and impact
Casablanca won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It also had nominations for, among others, Best Actor (Bogart) and Best Supporting Actor (Rains). The year following its release, Warner Bros announced a sequel, entitled Brazzaville, where Bogart was to play Rick Blaine again. Warner Bros, however, ultimately scrapped the project. Plans were also made to put up a musical version on the stage until the sixties.
Over time, the film would reach the heights of iconicness. Some would declare it one of the greatest movies of all time. The American Film Institute would include it in several of its 100 Years… feature lists, including number 3 on its 100 Years…100 Movies 10th-anniversary list (the greatest films ever made) and first on its 100 Years…100 Passions list (the greatest romances ever put to film).
Over time, we have continued to cherish Casablanca, so much that it isn’t surprising Ebert has pronounced it The Movie. Based on how we have loved it all this time—and probably will keep on doing so—we certainly agree.
Banner photo via Wikimedia Commons.