It is 70 years since Warner Bros. unleashed Casablanca several months before its release date, to capitalize on the Allied landing in North Africa. Often quoted and much imitated, it is routinely cited, in and out of gin joints around the world, as a shining example of Hollywood’s golden age.
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and directed by Michael Curtiz, Casablanca has had several rebirths over the years. Months after Bogart died in 1957, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., showed the film as part of a season devoted to old movies – and launched a tradition among Harvard University students of making it out to Casablanca during the final week of exams. Soon, the practice spread: Long before The Rocky Horror Picture Show or the sing-along Sound of Music, students were cracking open champagne bottles and singing along to The Marseillaise along with the patrons of Rick’s Café.
When Woody Allen made his 1969 Broadway production Play It Again, Sam (followed by the 1972 film, strewn with clips from the original movie), he helped transform Casablanca’s cult reputation into mainstream recognition. By the time of a 1977 poll conducted by the American Film Institute, Casablanca finished third behind Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane.
Next Wednesday, just before a new, three-disc Blu-ray/DVD version hits stores, the movie will be shown in 500 movie theatres across the United States, with Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne offering an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the film.
Yet, looking back over Casablanca’s history, it’s impossible not to suspect that its reputation depends as much on rose-coloured lenses of nostalgia and sentiment as on artistic merit. Charmed by Bogart’s rebellious cynicism, Bergman’s melting gaze (shot with gauze filters, and catch lights to make her eyes sparkle), smart dialogue and a colourful international cast, we tend to forgive its weaknesses with a certain condescension toward the awkward techniques of the past.
What’s to be made, for instance, of that absurd plot about two magical “letters of transit” obtained from two German couriers who, everyone knows, were assassinated? And, apart from the newsreel voiceover at the beginning, Casablanca isn’t a world, or a city, but obviously a movie set. Players meet as in a stage play that, through the first half, keeps threatening to break into a musical. The anti-isolationist propaganda message is ham-fisted. The characters don’t so much evolve toward as convert to new world views.
Many films of the 1940s were arguably better made, and were at least as rewarding on repeated viewings: The Shop Around The Corner, Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Great Dictator, Notorious, to name a few.
It’s not as though the creators of Casablanca were under the illusion they were creating great art. In the late eighties, I interviewed screenwriter Julius Epstein. Along with his brother Philip, and Howard Koch, Epstein won one of the three Oscars given to Casablanca. (The others were for best picture and best director). Then 80, Epstein wasn’t much of a fan of Casablanca. He felt he had done better work elsewhere, including his Oscar-nominated screenplays for Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972) and Reuben, Reuben (1983).
Casablanca, for him, was a job for hire. “It was a war movie,” Epstein told me. “Everybody wrote a few. I wish I had a dime for every time I heard the line ‘We’re fighting for the right to boo the Brooklyn Dodgers,’ which, I’m proud to say, I never stooped to. But I can’t really remember it pleasantly, because it was written under difficult circumstances – writing it on the set, rushed. There was no time for anything.”
Although handled by pros, Casablanca’s script was a slapdash job. Pages were being written even as the film was being shot, with the Epstein brothers and Koch working separately from each other. When Koch claimed the link between different sequences was illogical, director Curtiz reportedly replied, “Don’t worry what’s logical. I make it go so fast, no one notices.”
The actors thought the predicaments were improbable and the dialogue corny. “It was ridiculous,” Bergman said later. “Every day, we were shooting off the cuff. Every day, they were handing out the dialogue and we were trying to make some sense of it.”
Paul Henreid, who played heroic Victor Laszlo, couldn’t figure out why a Resistance leader would be wandering around Vichyite Casablanca in a white suit. “I guess I’ve been asked at least 2,000 times why Casablanca remains popular, and I really don’t know the answer. It had good chemistry in the cast, but lots of films have that. The dialogue was good, but lots of films have that. I think the song helped – let’s say it was no handicap.”
And yet, as a piece of propaganda against tyranny, Casablanca still delivers an emotional tug. Psychoanalytic critics have also focused on the Oedipal theme (few screen beauties seem as motherly as Ingrid Bergman). The peripatetic Rick and Sam, meanwhile, can be seen a latter-day Huck Finn and Jim.
Italian critic and novelist Umberto Eco once wondered why American and Italian student audiences responded with similar pleasure to what he considered “a very mediocre film… low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects.”
The reason, he argued, is that the patchwork nature of its creation has made it a repository of Hollywood filmmaking, a multigenre compendium: “C asablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control.
“Two clichés make us laugh,” wrote Eco. “A hundred clichés move us.” Here’s lookin’ at them, kid.
PLAY IT AGAIN, HOLLYWOOD
The cynical expatriate with a hidden noble streak is not unique to Casablanca, and many films from Raiders of the Lost Ark to the recent Chinese epic The Flowers of War have borrowed from Casablanca in overt or subtle ways. Here are just a few of the films that owe a direct debt to the 1942 original.
A Night in Casablanca (1946)
The Marx Brothers’ 12th film was initially intended as a straight-up parody of Casablanca. When Warner Bros. sent a letter of enquiry regarding the plot, the brothers exploited the situation, sending a series of open letters to Warner Bros. for publicity. The eventual plot stars Groucho as Ronald Kornblow, the latest manager of the Hotel Casablanca, whose three previous managers have been murdered by escaped Nazi war criminal who has stolen art treasures hiding in the hotel.
Play it Again, Sam (1972)
Herbert Ross (The Turning Point) directed Woody Allen as a neurotic film critic who tries to get over the end of his marriage by dating again, and takes romantic advice from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy). After a series of blind dates, he starts to fall for Linda (Diane Keaton), the wife of his best friend. Bogie’s advice: “I never saw a dame yet that didn't understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45.”
Sydney Pollock (Tootsie, Three Days of the Condor) attempted to remake Casablanca against the backdrop of the Cuban revolution. It was a box-office stiff, mainly of interest as an exercise in cinematic taxidermy. Robert Redford plays Jack, an apolitical gambler who falls for Bobby Duran (Lean Olin), who thinks her Cuban-revolutionary husband (Raul Julia) is dead.
Barb Wire (1996)
Set at the Hammerhead Bar and Grill in the last free city in a civil-war-torn future United States, this sci-fi film has Pamela Anderson playing the apolitical club owner Barb, who must help a scientist escape to Canada even though the woman is married to Barb’s former lover. When the fugitives head off into the mist on an Air Canada flight, Barb’s new friend says, “I do believe I’m falling in love,” and Barb utters the immortal words: “Get in line.”
- Liam Lacey