With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully or desperately toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly. And so a tortuous, round-about refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles. Across the Mediterranean to Oran. Then by train or auto or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here the fortunate ones through money or influence or luck might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca. And wait. And wait. And wait.
The above words, part of an ominous voiceover by Westbrook Van Voorhis, set the scene for the most popular movie ever made and my personal favorite Casablanca (1942). This voiceover accompanies a simple shot of a crude, slowly-spinning globe and a zoom-in shot toward Western Europe, The following minutes of the film introduce the viewer to the Moroccan city of Casablanca, its wartime mix of nationalities and cultures, and the theft of the exit visas that will serve as the "maguffin" around which much of the plot will turn. This entire brilliant montage was directed by Don Siegal, who would later achieve fame as the director of the SF classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Casablanca was based on a one-set play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick's written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Inspired by a trip Burnett and his wife took to Europe in which they saw the tragic plight of Europes refugee hordes and felt moved to tell their story, the play was never produced. When Warner Brother's purchased the rights to the play for $20,000, that was more than had ever been paid for any unproduced play. The decision to retitle the story Casablanca was apparently made by Warner Brothers' production chief Hal Wallis based on the success of the movie Algiers (1938). The subsequent invasion of Casablanca and a major meeting of allied leaders there made the title choice extremely timely.
Building a screenplay on the thin material of the original play was a task assigned by Wallis to brothers Philip and Julius Epstein. They wrote most of the film up to the flashback of Rick and Ilsa's time in Paris. The Epsteins gave the film much of its style and ironic humor. When the Epsteins were called away to work on Frank Capra's Why We Fight films, Howard Koch was brought in to take over the writing task. Koch accentuated the story's political message -- that there are some things worth fighting and even dying for, foremost among those being freedom. Casey Robinson, a writer best known for "womens pictures", was called in to enhance the romance element and wrote most of the flashback along with other scenes between Rick and Ilsa. Other writers may have contributed to the script as well, but only the Epsteins and Koch get screen credit. Hal Wallis himself is often said to have contributed the movies famous final line but he actually only chose the line from among several suggestions. Some of the films most famous lines "Here's looking at you kid" and "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." were improvisations by Bogart. I won't bother summarizing the familiar story, but for anyone who has never seen Casablanca the first two links below each provide a plot summary. Better still you should rush out to rent the video and watch it.
Given the number of cooks contributing to the pot and the fact that the screenplay was still being written while the film was shot, it is surprising how tight the script is but it is not flawless. It makes no sense, for instance, for the letters of transit to be signed by General Degaulle who was a Free French leader not a Vichy one. Ilsa's reference to Sam as a "boy" grates on the ears of the hearer in these more enlightened times. When Captain Reneau responds to Major Strasser's characterization of Rick as "another blundering American" by saying "I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918" it is a great line but the Allies never invaded Berlin in World War One. These flaws, and several others, do not detract enough to spoil the picture for anyone.
Composer Max Steiner wrote a brilliant musical score that is a vital part of the film's impact. The song "As Time Goes By" (written by Herman Hupfeld for the 1931 Broadway revue titled Everybody's Welcome) was specified in the original stage play. As was his usual practice, Steiner wove the simple theme of the song into his score for many of the film's scenes. Steiner, however, is reported to have disliked the song and written one of his own to replace it. By that time, however, Ingrid Bergman had cut her hair for another role and could not reshoot the scene in which she whispers, "Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By." [Nowhere in the film does anyone say, "Play it again, Sam."] Steiner and Hal Wallis both firmly expected Steiners tune "Knock on Wood" to be the hit song from the movie but it was "AS Time Goes BY that was made a clasic by the film.
Warner Brother's announced in the Hollywood Reporter on January 5, 1942 that Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan would star in Casablanca. It is interesting to imagine how much poorer the cinema and how much better the nation might have been if Reagan had starred in Casablanca and Bogart had become president in 1980. But there is considerable doubt that the report actually reflected the intentions of Warner brothers. George Raft wanted the role of Rick but was rejected by Hal Wallis, which is ironic since Bogart's career had grown through taking roles that Raft had turned down -- as gangster Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in High Sierra (1941) and as private eye Sam spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Dennis Morgan was apparently an early choice to play Rick before the film was given an "A" picture budget. Several actresses, including Hedy Lamarr and the French actress Michele Morgan, as well as Ann Sheridan, were screen tested for the role of Ilsa before it went to Ingrid Bergman. The pairing of Bogart and Bergman proved to be ideal.
Casablanca is a great picture with depths that are not apparent on first viewing. See it once and you will enjoy it, perhaps even be moved by it. See it a second time and you will find it is better than you first thought. But you will still be finding new depths on a fifth or sixth viewing. After a couple of viewings you are apt to find the scene in which the café patrons sing "The Marseillaise" as patriotically stirring as if you were French (to hear The Marseillaise check out the link below). I recommend no film more highly than Casablanca.
You may not remember this but in the Fifties there was a TV show based on this classic movie. Charles McGraw played Rick, who works quietly to disrupt Nazi activities during World War II. Marcel Dalio, Dan Seymour and Clarence Muse co-starred.