#228) Casablanca (1942)

casablanca

#228) Casablanca (1942)

OR “Citizen Blaine”

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Based on the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.

Class of 1989

There’s no way I could condense “Casablanca” down to 1000 words, so buckle up for a Horse’s Head Super-Sized Two-Parter!

The Plot: It’s December 1941 and Casablanca, Morocco is a wartime limbo for those seeking escape from the Nazis while awaiting passage to the still-neutral United States. Most of these European refugees spend their days at Rick’s Café Américain, owned by jaded expat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). He keeps his politics to himself, but will serve drinks to anyone, and keeps corrupt Vichy police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) on his payroll. One eventful day at Rick’s sees the appearance of two “letters of transit” stolen by criminal Ugarte (Peter Lorre) that can guarantee safe passage to America, as well as the arrival of Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), whom Rick had a lost weekend with in Paris during the Battle of France. Will Rick use the papers to aid the Allied cause for Victor and Ilsa? Or will he rekindle his feelings for Ilsa and run off with her? And will someone please let Sam (Dooley Wilson) play a different song?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[o]ne of the most beloved of American films”, though admits that the script is “often lacking logical cohesion”. An essay by film critic Jay Carr isn’t so much an appreciation of “Casablanca”, but rather an examination of the power that movies have on our lives and our culture.

But Does It Really?: “Casablanca” has something for everyone, and is the rare film that succeeds on each front. It’s the prime example of a movie that favors emotions over logic: the plot has a few holes in it (there’s no such thing as a “letter of transit”), but who cares when Bogart and Bergman look into each others’ eyes while Max Steiner’s score swells in the background? Like so many of the greats, “Casablanca” defies its own genre; labeling it as good drama would deny the script’s brilliantly funny dialogue, and hailing it as a classic romance would ignore the film’s dark look at two continents escaping Nazi persecution. For a film that deals with a very specific time in world history (they had to change the timeframe once America entered the war), “Casablanca” is effortlessly timeless. It’s the perfect doomed romance, mixed with a crucial historical backdrop, eye-pleasing locales, and some of the greatest characters committed to celluloid. To call “Casablanca” overrated or unworthy of recognition is downright un-American.

Everybody Gets One: Julius and Philip Epstein were twin brothers from New York hoping to make it as Hollywood screenwriters. They clashed with Jack Warner (who didn’t?), but when assigned to adapt an unproduced play set in a Moroccan nightclub, they solidified their place in film lore, although Julius always said they were just “making a living”. The brothers left halfway through writing to work with Frank Capra on his “Why We Fight” films, leading to production delays.

Wow, That’s Dated: Ilsa calls 56-year-old Sam “the boy”. Even the all-time classics have their unfortunate signs of the time.

Take a Shot: Not only is Casablanca referenced throughout the movie, but Louis even manages to sneak in the play’s original title, telling Major Strasser “Everybody comes to Rick’s”.

Seriously, Oscars?: Although released in late 1942 to capitalize on the recent Allied invasion of French North Africa, “Casablanca” didn’t play Los Angeles until January 1943, and was therefore eligible for the 1944 Oscars. The film didn’t receive the most nominations or win the most awards (both of those distinctions went to “The Song of Bernadette”), but “Casablanca” took home the three big ones: Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Best Picture. Bogart’s iconic performance lost Best Actor to Paul Lukas in the more personal wartime film “Watch on the Rhine”, while Claude Rains’ morally ambiguous work lost to the more lovable Charles Coburn in “The More the Merrier”. When “Casablanca” was announced as Best Picture, producer Hal Wallis started to get up, but Jack Warner rushed the stage and accepted the award. This led to Wallis’ resignation from Warner Bros. after 21 years with the studio.

Other notes

  • One of the things I enjoy most about this blog is researching famous Hollywood stories to see if they actually happened. More often than not, the claims are half-truths that depend on perspective rather than out-right falsehoods. Ronald Reagan may have been considered for Rick, but Humphrey Bogart was everyone’s first choice. And although the script was being rewritten throughout production, the ending (which is faithful to the original play) was established in early drafts, so it’s more likely that Ingrid Bergman was confused over who Ilsa truly loved rather than who she would ultimately end up with.
  • There’s something special about “Casablanca” from the very beginning. The film is neither groundbreaking nor revolutionary, it just had the right people in the right roles at the right time. A+ talent, mixed with serendipity.
  • The best line no one ever quotes, “I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.”
  • Also making his sole appearance on the NFR is Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser. Veidt was a silent film star in his native Germany and, like many “Casablanca” cast members, fled to America to escape the Nazis.
  • In addition to this movie’s mix of genre, it has a perfect blend of romanticism and cynicism. The love story is romantic and emotional, but Rick’s general wryness helps keep things grounded.
  • Like you need me to tell you how good Bogart and Bergman are in this film. He’s wonderfully complex and she’s masterfully cryptic. Both of them inhabit their characters so naturally is it any wonder they are forever associated with Rick and Ilsa?
  • Shoutout to Paul Henried, fresh off his romantic turn in “Now, Voyager”, playing filmdom’s greatest third wheel. He knew he was playing a “stiff” and he allegedly didn’t get along with anyone, but Henried successfully lobbied for above-the-title billing and received film immortality for his troubles.
  • The Blue Parrot is the “Gary’s Old Towne Tavern” to Rick’s “Cheers”.
  • Speaking of, Sydney Greenstreet is not very convincing as an Italian who has embraced the Moroccan culture. Anyone can wear a fez.
  • Rick is a perfect example of a character that is defined by his actions rather than his words. There’s the occasional piece of expositional dialogue (like his pseudo-catchphrase “I stick my neck out for nobody.”) but the key moments of understanding Rick’s character come in moments of silence; his non-reaction to Ugarte’s arrest, his nod to the band, etc.
  • Oh no, it’s the “Le Marseillaise” scene. I’m not crying you’re crying.
  • This happens every once in a while: the same character actor appears in two films I’ve covered in the same week. This time it’s jolly Hungarian actor S.Z. Sakall (erroneously credited here as S.K. Sakall) as Rick’s headwaiter Carl. He’s one of the professors in “Ball of Fire”.
  • I forgot how many of the iconic lines come in the last 10 minutes; “We’ll always have Paris.”, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, “I drink your milkshake!” You’d think these lines would be distracting due to their oversaturation, but if anything, hearing them again in their proper context makes them stronger.
  • They should never end up together and there should never be a sequel. There, I said it.

Click here for Part 2 and the Legacy of “Casablanca”!

14 thoughts on “#228) Casablanca (1942)”

  1. Wait! What? There was no such thing as a letter of transit? I’ve watched that movie probably 20 times and read two books on the making of “Casablanca” but this is the first time I’ve heard that letters of transit, on which the whole plot revolves, didn’t actually exist. #mindblown #rethinkingeverything

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