During the early 1940′s the Hollywood studio system was at its peak. At Warner Brothers, studio head Jack Warner and as his right hand man, executive in charge of production, Hal B. Wallis confidently stood shoulder to shoulder with the other major studios. Back then Hollywood would churn out at least one movie per week from each studio. It was like a factory, pumping out movies on a production line. Casablanca was like any other film at the time, made for a cheap buck as opposed to any strong artistic merit. Funny then that it has since gone on to become one of the most beloved films of all time.
Casablanca was just another place on the map until Hal Wallis got his hands on a play entitled ‘Everybody Comes To Rick’s‘. Based upon the travels of playwrights Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the play was unproduced at the time that Wallis bought the rights to it. A few years previous to all of this a very successful Hedy Lamarr movie had been released which was simply entitled ‘Algiers’. The title was key to its success as the name of the location conjures up images of exotic and romantic scenery a world away from what American audiences would be used to. Wallis decided to follow in the footsteps of this movie and changed the name from ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ to ‘Casablanca’ the location in which the play was set. The next step was hiring Philip and Julius Epstein to come onboard and adapt ‘Casablanca’ into a feature film screenplay. The Epstein’s are credited for adding much of the witty dialogue into the story and the inclusion of many of the colourful and charming characters. Unfortunately the Epstein brothers were called away to help Frank Capra with his patriotic documentary series ‘Why We Fight’ and therefore never got around to completing the screenplay.
Screenwriter Howard Koch was hired to complete the script. Koch added some pathos to the story and bumped up the dramatic scenes in the movie which complimented the Epstein’s comedic pieces. He made Rick a far more complex character, a bitter cynical man who always tries his best to do the right thing. Warners loved the new draft but were curious to seek out a second opinion and so they passed it over to another screenwriter- Casey Robinson. Robinson was very impressed with the dramatic and comedic elements of the script but felt that the love story was lacking and so he took to work at remedying this and strengthened the romantic scenes.
While Robinson was still working on the screenplay a story was announced in the trades that the movie was in production and would star Dennis Morgan, Ann Sheridan and (future US President) Ronald Reagan. This has since been revealed to be a false story and it has been speculated that it was presumably leaked by the stars agents to keep their names in the public eye. George Raft later tried out for the part of Rick but lost out to Humphrey Bogart. It has been said that at the time Wallis was assigned to search for Bogart’s next lead role seeing as how he was under contract to the studio and therefore he was offered the role of Rick Blaine.
Bogart up until this point was known for his roles in gangster and detective movies, this was to be his first lead role in a romantic movie. Wallis also chose Swedish born actress Ingrid Bergman for the role of Ilsa Lund, the female lead. Bergman however was not under contract to Warners but to David O Selznick. Wallis managed to strike a deal with O Selznick where Selznick would loan Bergman to Warners for Casablanca in return for Warners loaning actress Olivia de Havilland to David O Selznick. Paul Henreid was signed as Ilsa’s current lover Victor Lazlo with Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson and Claude Rains filled out the supporting cast. The movie was now beginning to take shape.
With a string of hits behind him such as ‘Captain Blood’ and ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, Michael Curtiz was hired to direct the movie. Primarily an action director Curtiz brought some wonderful camera movements and rapid fire pacing to the proceedings and gave the film a distinct look. He was also adept at some movie magic. For example the airport scene is famously known for casting midgets as mechanics working on a cardboard cut out plane in the background. It is a wonderful camera trick that is within keeping of traditional Hollywood magic. Curtiz though, it must be said was a hired studio hand as opposed to an auteur. The studio would chime in throughout the production looking to make changes, even going so far as to rewriting pages of dialogue on the day of shooting the scenes in question. Most of the cast and crew took all of this in their stride because as far as they were concerned this was just another movie, nothing special about it at all. At one point during filming the script had to be revised to meet the demands of censor Joseph Breen. To appeal to Breen’s criteria overt sexual references within the script and the original play were changed to subtle innuendo.
The studio were constantly changing their mind on the ending of the film. Even as late as halfway through filming they had not made up their minds on how the story should end for Rick and Ilsa. An ending was finally agreed upon towards the end of filming in which Isla leaves Rick at his request and stays with her husband. It is interesting to think that had this not been a ‘production line’ movie but a true studio investment that this ending may not have even been considered but instead a happy ending would have been decided upon from the get go.
The film premiered on November 26th 1942 to coincided with the Allies capture of Casablanca and saw theatrical release on January 23rd 1943. It was met with instant praise from the critics who loved the charm and wit of the script, the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman and the risky ending. While it didn’t light the box office on fire it was a success financially.
Its lasting impact on cinema and pop culture is spectacular. Throughout the years it gained a reputation for being a high water mark in Hollywood history and has rightfully earned the position of being a timeless cinematic classic. Many of the lines such as ‘Here’s looking at you kid’, ‘We‘ll always have Paris‘, ‘I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’ and ‘Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine’ have become part of the lexicon. ‘As Time Goes By’ is now synonymous with the film having been a hit for years before it’s inclusion with the movie. It has been parodied by other cinematic icons such as the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen and the Looney Tunes. It is beloved the world over and remains a favourite among many generations of cinema goers. It’s a perfect blend of wit, intrigue, romance, tragedy and patriotism with a charm and magic that has rarely been seen since.
Celebrating it’s 70th anniversary, Casablanca has been re-released theatrically today at select UK cinemas. Regardless of whether you have seen it 100 times on television or never at all I strongly urge you to view it on the big screen if you get the chance, it’s one of the all time greats!