“CASABLANCA” HOW AND WHY IT BECAME AN ICONIC HOLLYWOOD MOVIE:

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A personal observation on American filmmaking exceptionalism

By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

When the movie “Casablanca” merged the powerful elements of love, war, and destiny in 1942, the film and its producers never saw the phenomenal appeal or its success coming until it won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1943.  Seventy-seven years later it still deserves a shout-out for American filmmaking exceptionalism.

It seems the world can never get enough stories about romance, loves won and lost, exciting adventures or the drama of the human condition. Even with its flaws and its foibles laid bare, such stories keep tugging us into this intriguing, exciting, complicated short journey we call life but it doesn’t explain where we came from, why we’re here or where we are going. 

It’s not only profound, it’s a little scary when one thinks about it.  No wonder the world is constantly in a state of flux, chaos, and uncertainty.  The best medium for me in bringing some sense of understanding and clarity to life’s unanswered questions has been the cinema.

“Casablanca” starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, as one of the best examples of American filmmaking.  The story encompassed a unique entertainment value amid the potent and poignant backdrop of World War II.  It allowed Americans, for the first time, to see others through the lenses of empathy and their fight for a just and good cause, pitting the Allies – America, England, France, and Russia – against the Axis powers – Germany, Japan and Italy.     

Americans have always prided themselves as being a nation of rugged individualists.  We believe that with our love of freedom, our love of country, and our love of democracy, anything is possible.  All we need to do is put our minds, muscles, and money in motion and we become invincible. We are a nation of optimists, but also a nation of nationalists.  The pressure to keep America neutral and out of “Europe’s War” was extremely intense.  Yet we still admire the qualities and characteristics of our Wild West history and those non-conforming individuals who loved doing things their way. 

“Casablanca” came along in American cinema at just the right time.  Before John Wayne ‘won’ WW II on the silver screens of the country, this relevant and significant movie produced by Warner Brothers, helped explain America’s necessity for entering the war and did so with honesty, style, and a wonderfully patriotic script.  Deftly directed by Michael Curtiz, featuring  a brilliant cast, the movie  would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar of 1943, also winning Best Screenplay Oscar statuettes for twin brothers Julian and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch.

The timeless romantic war story made a huge international star of journeyman actor Humphrey Bogart, who was used to playing hard-boiled tough guys, convicts, and outsiders in B movies.  However, his luminous young Swedish co-star, Ingrid Bergman, was already an established and accomplished actor in Europe and England. Her beauty and his talent made them an acceptable romantic on-screen couple, despite their age gap (he was 42 and she was 27).  Bergman would go on to win three Academy Awards; Bogart would win only one.  Handsome leading man Paul Henried, the ‘other man’ in this love-triangle, would later go on to woo Bette Davis in “Now Voyager”, another Warner Brothers romantic film directed, once again, by Michael Curtiz.

The genesis of “Casablanca” began as the love-child of playwrights Murray Bennet and Joan Alison who wrote an unproduced stage play called “ Everybody Goes to Rick’s” which they couldn’t sell to Broadway.  However, savvy movie producer Hal B. Wallis got a hold of the stage-script and thought with changes it would make a wonderful and much needed World War II propaganda movie. He bought the film rights from Bennet and Alison for $20,000, then a princely sum of money for an unproduced stage play.

Many extraordinary and wonderful films were produced during the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age when the studio system was in its full glory.  Producer Wallis enjoyed the freedom of the Warner Brothers backlot that was overflowing with actors, writers, producers, directors, and movie technicians. It afforded him the luxury to cast his movie directly from the studio’s list of long-term contract players, many who fled Europe earlier to England and America as immigrants when Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor in 1933.

The now-rewritten movie script by the Epstein brothers and Koch depicted Rick Blaine as a cynical American, ex-pat soldier of fortune with a mysterious past who settled in Casablanca, French Morocco running his own cabaret and gambling casino called Rick’s Café Americain. 

The heart of the story, revolved around Rick and his struggle to decide whether to help his former lover Ilsa Lund (Bergman) and her Czech husband Victor Lazlo (Henreid), a wanted underground resistance leader on the run from the Nazi government, to escape from Casablanca to America and continue the fight against the Axis powers.  It’s obvious that both men are in love with the same beautiful woman.  The burning question for audiences was which man will win Isa’s heart in the end?  Rick, the exciting soldier of fortune she met and fell in love with in pre-war Paris or Victor, the dedicated and committed leader for the cause of freedom. 

Rick’s was frequented by the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy of those fleeing the war in Europe seeking passage to the safety of America.  Casablanca was a melting pot of characters who conducted negotiations for coveted travel visas by black market profiteers, all under the watchful eye of ‘mildly-corrupt’ French Prefect of Police Captain Louis Renault, brilliantly played by charming character actor Claude Rains.  Renault never met an attractive female seeking an exit visa that didn’t require his special personal attention – validating the practice of “quid pro quo” that has been a powerful negotiating force since the world began.

Producer Wallis knew he had a solid film on his hands when he saw the early footage from Curtiz.  Only generations later would everyone realize that the film was made, not only to help defeat Nazism and Fascism, but that it also told a wartime love story that resonated with practically everyone; as a result “Casablanca” has been a consistent Top Ten movie in fan popularity polls for more than seven decades.  American Film Institute’s (AFI) Top 100 Films List of All Time ranks it as number three.

“Casablanca” is a master class on how to write a successful screenplay.  Most films back in the 1940s ran about 90 minutes.  There wasn’t a lot of time spent on exposition or explaining character development for audiences.  Writers learned quickly that they had to grab the audience both emotionally and viscerally to guide them as to whom to root for or whom to dislike in the story.  In Westerns, for example, if the character kicked a slinking dog crossing the dusty main street at night, that would be your “heavy” regardless if he was wearing a black hat or not.  Character not costumes informed the screenplay.  In more modern settings it is the action or reaction that defines the “good guy”. 

In “Casablanca”, Rick jealously guarded his past life, opting outwardly to not pick sides in the wars raging in Europe and Asia.  He claimed he was just a saloon keeper trying to make a living.  “I stick my neck out for nobody” was his standard working class-type reply when the police made an occasional arrest in his nightclub.  But Rick; was never personally involved in illegal activities. He was ‘clean’ as far as the authorities were concerned. 

Bogart was the perfect choice to portray Rick.  He brought his cynical, rough-around-the edges-vocal quality and the street smarts of a take-charge guy when needed.  He’s the sort of man that men liked and he had a vulnerability that women found attractive.  It may be hard to believe now, but studio head Jack Warner, seriously thought at one time that actor Ronald Reagan would be a perfect Rick.  After all, Warner was alleged to have said “we’ve got him under a long term contract.”  Producer Wallis said just one word – “Bogart”.  And the rest thankfully is history.

And what was not to like about Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund?  Her on-screen luminosity was breathtaking, her acting skills spoke for themselves, and the camera adored her – it was a slam dunk decision!

Rick always appeared aloof and indifferent about what went on inside his cabaret and private casino.  But he was keenly aware of the intrigues and illegal dealings that took place, but his public stance was just a smokescreen to mask his idealistic side.  He ran guns to Ethiopia and fought alongside the Spanish Republican/Loyalists against Spain’s Fascist dictator Francisco Franco in the 1930s.  He had a strict rule of never sitting with his patrons at their tables, but he made sure that Captain Renault always won at roulette, as well as having complete carte blanche in the dining room with a tab that he rarely paid. 

At one point in the film, Captain Renault is forced to close Rick’s for a short period, following an incident involving the cafe’s French patrons and their spirited rendition of their national anthem to the displeasure of dining German officers.  German Major Strasser demands that the café be immediately closed down.  Rick quickly finds Renault among the departing patrons to ask why his café was being closed.  Renault replies with mock anger, “I’m shocked, shocked, to find out that gambling is going on here”, all the while stuffing his pockets with his roulette winnings that are being personally delivered by Rick’s croupier. “Casablanca” is a very rich source for what we now call clichés.  However, back in 1943, it was just called clever dialogue from a team of very sharp and talented screenwriters.

I have yet to see and hear character dialogue in any movie that so quickly and succinctly captures the male essence, confidence, and power of the Ricks of the world, especially when dealing with women.  The ‘discovery shot’ that introduces Rick to the audience occurs about four minutes into the film. Yvonne, a neglected former lover of Rick, enters.  She walks slowly past him, seated alone at his private table, and asks him tentatively “Where were you last night?”  “That’s so long ago I can’t remember.”  “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”  Rick’s brush-off dialogue is delivered in a bored monotone without ever looking up at Yvonne.  The curt exchange only lasts about 10 seconds but it speaks volumes about Rick’s character.  He’s direct, crafty but trustworthy and very resourceful.  Talk about a power trip of male ego and confidence!  

“Casablanca” takes place during the early stages of WW II and is put in motion by Peter Lorre as Ugarte, a petty criminal who often frequents Rick’s.  When the news that two German couriers carrying important documents have been found murdered on their way to Casablanca, the event sends the police and the black market into a frenzy of searches for those missing documents. The fact they are “irrevocable” exit visas’ authorized and signed by French General Charles De Gaulle, suddenly makes them priceless to many interested parties.  Ugarte, asks Rick to hide his stolen documents for safe keeping with Rick replying in a steely voice that said he didn’t want them in the club overnight for obvious reasons.  His club would be the first place to be searched by the German occupiers. When Ugarte presses Rick, he reluctantly agrees, but just for one night.

As the story unfolds, we also learn via a flashback montage that Rick and Ilsa were lovers in pre-war Paris.  Again, a love triangle plot set against the backdrop of World War II just upped the ante of the plot points of intrigue and riveting suspense that viewers relished then and still do today.  

Sidney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, Joy Paige and Helmut Dantine play indelible, memorable supporting characters.   All are fine actors who brought a wealth of experience, authenticity and charm to their nicely nuanced performances.  When appropriately leavened with light comedic moments, charm is always a welcomed ingredient in good screen stories. 

Some movie viewers of today might find the film a little old fashioned with values we rarely honor in our dystopian-based movies nowadays.  Many of these films, however, are ‘computer generated imagery’ (CGI) produced creations: car chases, shoot-outs, and action sequences are now, technically, the “stars” of today’s films.  Additionally, many of these films rely on a ton of “F-bomb-laden dialogue as a way of telling the story.  Back in the day, moviemaking relied more on actor talent and subtlety of performance and less on high-octane action scenes and movie director excesses.  

Hungarian born film director Michael Curtiz was a master of large cast movies and an expert at telling stories and films set in Europe.  His “Casablanca” brims with many brilliant directorial touches too numerous to mention here. The screenplay is an excellent example of the collaborative effort between the writers and the director that is so necessary for good films to become great films. 

My major concern now is whether future top-tier character-driven movies will become an endangered species. The industry is struggling for relevancy right now; it’s on life support thanks to cultural and societal changes along with streaming platforms vying for product exposure and income.  Then, COVID-19 pandemic arrived placing everyone and everything in a holding pattern until 2021.

“Casablanca” reruns, however, are still keeping its audiences fully engaged just as it has been doing for the last seven decades. I’m glad to learn it’s been embraced by younger modern audiences too.   One would think an older, senior audience would be its largest demographic, but not necessarily so.  This wonderfully enduring movie still remains one of Hollywood’s all-time favorites across all age groups.

Do yourself a favor if the opportunity presents itself:  Enjoy one more time the magic of Hollywood’s Golden Age of filmmaking with its memorable moments, dramatic scenes, and nostalgia-fueled dialogue from ”Casablanca” that Bogie and other actors forever immortalized.  Who could forget Captain Renault’s memorable “Round up the usual suspects”, or Rick’s drunken lamentation, “Of all the gin joints of all the towns in all the world, she has to walk into mine.”  Just sublime stuff.

Then there’s the exquisitely poignant and iconic exchange between Rick and IIsa on that foggy tarmac late at night when a plane awaits to take her and Victor to America.  In one impassioned speech, Rick lays out the ultimate rationale for supporting the Allied cause and steps up to the moral plate to remind Ilsa of her destiny.  His achingly tender reminder that “We’ll always have Paris…” and his parting comment “Here’s looking at you kid” have been seared into the memories of moviegoers across the world for decades.  This kind of romantically-inspired writing is what sets “Casablanca” apart from other hallmark films in Hollywood’s pantheon of cinematic classics accompanied by the perfect, iconic, leitmotif song, “As Time Goes By”. 

It’s the one film that stays firmly lodged in my heart and the hearts of passionate cinephiles and ardent aficionados of romantic films like “Casablanca” forever.