You Must Remember This:
As time goes by, 'Casablanca' is still the most beloved movie of them all
By Jay Carr
The Boston Globe, April 26, 1992 p. B31
It's still the same old story. Maybe more so. "Casablanca" - returning Friday to the Brattle Theatre in
Harvard Square, where the Bogart cult was launched when the film was revived in 1957, was never a great
film, never a profound film. It's merely the most beloved movie of all time. In its 50-year history, it has
resisted the transmogrification of its rich, reverberant icons into camp. It's not about the demimondaines
washing through Rick's Cafe Americain - at the edge of the world, at the edge of hope - in 1941. Ultimately,
it's not even about Bogey and Ingrid Bergman sacrificing love for nobility. It's about the hold movies have
on us. That's what makes it so powerful, so enduring. It is film's analogue to Noel Coward's famous line
about the amazing potency of cheap music. Like few films before or since, it sums up Hollywood's genius for
recasting archetypes in big, bold, universally accessible strokes, for turning myth into pop culture.
It's not deep, but it sinks roots into America's collective consciousness. As a love story, it's flawed. We
don't feel a rush of uplift when trench-coated Bogey, masking idealism with cynicism, lets
love of his life, fly off to Lisbon and wartime sanctuary with Paul
Henreid, while he strolls into the mist
toward Brazzaville with his corrupt French police pal, Claude
Rains, drawling, "Louis, I think this is the
beginning of a beautiful friendship." Part of what's wrong is that you believe
Bogart: Although you certainly
believed his earlier bitterness came from pain, you're now quite convinced that he and
Rains will have a good
time, trading ironic repartee, understanding one another fully, neither making uncomfortable demands on the
Apart from the fact that Paul
Henreid's Victor Laszlo is such a saint that he's irritating, you don't want to see
Bergman's Ilsa Lund go off with him. She's so obviously strong - and strong-willed - that you're
disappointed to see her just knuckle under and go off and do what she's supposed to do. Her appeal is
precisely that she'll let her feelings lead her to what she's not supposed to do, namely love
Blaine. Ilsa's pain adds to her poignancy. But mainly you're feeling more than a little let down by her
genuflection to idealism. You feel passion is being subordinated to an abstraction. You want her to
second-guess Rick and not go. "Casablanca" leaves the heart feeling cheated. And it's hardly
greatest role. Even though her face mirrors real ambivalence (she didn't know which man Ilsa would wind up
with until almost the end of shooting), she's more complex and psychosexually interesting in
"Notorious." And Rick is a little too accepting of the idea of losing her.
So if "Casablanca" really can't be said to be one of film's great love stories, what is it? Several things. When
it opened, late in 1942, "Casablanca" was said to be a lucky movie, its popularity ascribed to topicality and
timing - with insufficient credit given to the way creative lightning could strike under chaotic conditions any
time a studio gathered under its roof a band of combustible creative types. The Allies' successful North
African offensive, launched at Casablanca in November, caused Warners to move up the premiere. Shortly
afterward, Roosevelt and Churchill held a summit conference there. So the real Casablanca, by staying in the
news, fed the resonances of the film. But patriotism is only the most obvious of several powerful claims
"Casablanca" has made on audiences.
Movies, so central to American life, shaped the American mind, and "Casablanca" is as much about movies
as about romantic adventure. It taps our love of movies, our involvement with them, our dreamy bondage by
them. Some movies innovate. "Casablanca" culminates. It brings to a peak the between-the-wars imperative
that one was obliged to live life with a sense of style. The style at work in "Casablanca" is marked by witty
poise, by the sophistication of cafe society between the wars, with its white linen suits and baccarat in private
rooms - and also its helplessness before corruption, its impotent sleekness. One of the many extraordinarily
potent resonances comes when we notice that the croupier at Rick's is played by Marcel Dalio, the same
Dalio who played the nervous aristocrat dancing on the edge of a crumbling world in Jean Renoir's "Rules of
the Game" in 1939. There are more than a few homages to French films of the period.
But it's the insistence of "Casablanca" on the importance of style, exemplifying it in the character of Rick, that
has caused "Casablanca" to tilt toward Bogart over the years. That and his way of standing outside
institutions and calling his own shots to his own moral code - which, as the film quickly makes clear, includes
some bravely defiant idiosyncrasies, such as OK'ing IOUs, but refusing to cash the check of an obviously
solvent Berlin banker. And after the film's revival - to an audience with its collective ear cocked to the winds
of existentialism emanating from the Deux Magots on Paris' Left Bank and the alienated howl of the
American Beats - it was revelation. Bogey singlehandedly solved the biggest problem facing any young
generation: how to keep your integrity and still be cooler than everyone else in sight. Even when making light
of fighting for the right losing causes in Spain and Ethiopia, he stays cool - replying, when asked his
nationality, "I'm a drunkard."
It's his controlled exterior that makes Rick's wild romanticism acceptable. With his pouchy, watchful eyes,
perpetual cigarette, black bow tie and white dinner jacket, his cynical crust fooled nobody - least of all
Bergman's Ilsa. He talked a good game of noninvolvement, but obviously he was nuts about her, still
wounded deeply by her abandonment of him after their fling in Paris (the flashbacks were skilled montages
by Don Siegel, who went on to become a well-known director in his own right). His is the emotion you feel
when they meet up again in his club, over Dooley Wilson's piano - that source of so much garbled legend.
Neither he nor Ilsa ever said "Play it again, Sam" to Wilson. What she says, after entering the club with her
Resistance-hero husband, whom she believed dead when she took up with Rick in Paris, is, "Play it once,
Sam, for old time's sake. Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.' " Rick, rushing over, says, "Sam, I thought I
told you never to play it." Then he notices Ilsa. They exchange a long look. Later, when Rick is sitting at a
table after hours (muttering, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine"), he
masochistically asks Sam to play: "You know what I want to hear. You played it for her. You can play it for
me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it!"
Max Steiner, the film's musical director, didn't want the song. It was there only because Murray Bennett, the
teacher who wrote the unproduced play (with Joan Alison) on which the film is based, liked it.
wanted to drop it, and may have succeeded - except that Bergman had already cropped her hair for her
next film, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and retakes were impossible. So it stayed.
Actually, Wilson - the only cast member ever to have played the real city of Casablanca - couldn't play the
piano. He was a singing drummer. (Studio musician Elliott Carpenter dubbed the piano-playing.) Wilson and
Bogart were the only American-born members among the leads. There's evidence on both sides, but on the
whole it leans away from the story that Ronald Reagan was
Jack Warner's first choice for the role of Rick.
George Raft - who made the mistake of turning down roles that Bogart capitalized on in "High Sierra" and
"The Maltese Falcon" - campaigned for the role, but it was Bogey's from the start.
Producer Hal Wallis first considered
Ann Sheridan for the female lead, then
Hedy Lamarr. French actress
Michelle Morgan was Warner's first choice. But she wanted $
55,000, and Warners got
David O. Selznick, who owned her contract, for $ 25,000 plus the use of
Olivia de Havilland's services for
one film. Philip Dorn was Paul
Henreid's only serious competition for the role of her freedom-fighting
husband. Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet had a lock on their high-profile, corruption-tinged
roles, but Otto Preminger was
Wallis' first choice for the role of Major Strasser, the Nazi officer played by
Conrad Veidt. Even Wilson was an afterthought. Wallis first thought of women -
Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald
and Hazel Scott - before settling on Wilson.
Workhorse Michael Curtiz, himself a refugee from Hungary, and the director of 42
Warners films in a
decade, was assigned the film after William
Wyler, Vincent Sherman and William Keighley turned it down.
When Howard Koch, one of the writers, pointed out inconsistencies to him, Curtiz is reported by Koch to
have answered, "Don't worry what's illogical. I make it go so fast nobody notices." It was more a case of
nobody making much of the flaws, the biggest of which has the precious exit visas everybody's chasing bear
the signature of Resistance mainstay Gen. Charles De Gaulle - a name not likely to be cherished by the
collaborationist Vichy government running Casablanca. When the film won best picture, best director and
best screenplay Oscars, Curtiz' broken English rose to the occasion. He said: 'So many times I have a
speech ready, but no dice. Always a bridesmaid, never a mother. Now I win. I have no speech."
Many writers contributed to the script. Oscar winners Koch and brothers Julius and Philip Epstein figured
most prominently in a lineup that included Aeneas McKenzie, Wally Kline, Jerry Wald, Casey Robinson and
Wallis himself, who wrote Bogey's curtain line. Most of the best-known and most-quoted lines came from
the Epsteins - "Round up the usual suspects," and the exchange between Bogart and
Rains: "I came to
Casablanca for the waters." "Waters? What waters? We're in the desert." "I was misinformed." Or
like to think you killed a man. It's the romantic in me." (Koch and Julius Epstein are the only "Casablanca"
principals still alive.)
Somehow there was something fitting about "Casablanca" being born in a kind of chaos that paralleled that
coursing through the flossy raffishness of Rick's Cafe. "Everybody Comes to Rick's" was the title of the
original play, with its crossroads-of-the-world atmosphere. These days, as the film's 50th anniversary
approaches, everybody writes about Rick's. The movie's flaws never did matter. What mattered then, and
matters even more resonantly now, is its evocation of a yeasty, corrupt atmosphere from which self-respect
could somehow be won, or won back. The cynical Rick would have loved the result of an experiment by
writer Chuck Ross in 1982, detailed in American Film magazine. Changing its name back to "Everybody
Comes to Rick's," Ross sent the story to 217 agencies. Most returned it unread. Of the 85 who did read it,
only 33 recognized it. And yet, as an example of potent iconography under pressure, it has seldom been
matched and never been surpassed. First, last and always, "Casablanca" remains a triumph of stance.
© 1992 The Globe Company