Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Casablanca (Warner Bros., 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, after hearing how President Trump was shocked, SHOCKED! to find that FBI director James Comey was leaking information about the Hillary Clinton investigation (10 months ago) so he had to fire Comey immediately, my husband Charles and I watched the classic film Casablanca. This tale of heroic resistance to fascist tyranny and how the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world hasn't been this timely since it was first released at the height of worldwide fascist power in 1942. For earlier moviemagg posts on Casablanca, see

The film Charles and I watched last night was the 1942 Warner Bros. classic Casablanca, which I hadn’t noticed before was quite specifically set in the first week of December, 1941 — just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would catapult the U.S. into World War II. So much has been written about this film (including by me when I’ve watched it before) there’s very little to add about it now except to express awe and amazement that a film that broke so many of the supposed rules of how to make a timeless classic nonetheless became one. The script was based on a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison (who I’ve long suspected ripped off their MacGuffin — the supposedly irrevocable “letters of transit” — from the scene between Tosca and Scarpia at the end of Act II of Puccini’s opera, in turn based on a French play by Victorien Sardou) which never actually got produced in 1936, when it was written, but got snapped up by Warner Bros. as potential story material in case the international crisis that served as its backdrop heated up enough to be of interest to U.S. audiences. The original announcements for Casablanca when Warners finally put it on the production schedule suggested they were going to make it a quickie “B” movie with Dennis Morgan as Rick Blaine, Ann Sheridan as his ex Lois Meredith (an American showgirl who’d got stranded in Europe) and Ronald Reagan as Victor Laszlo. (A number of sources have mentioned that Reagan was at one point announced for the project but have mistakenly claimed he was up for the lead ultimately played by Humphrey Bogart.) As the U.S. actually entered World War II Jack Warner and Hal Wallis decided to up the budget and seek out a major female star, while the writers intensified the story’s tragedy by making the female lead a European, Ilsa Lund, and making her the wife, not just the mistress, of the great freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. They offered the part first to Hedy Lamarr, who turned it down, and then to Ingrid Bergman, who was still hoping to be called for the lead in Paramount’s film of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls but accepted Casablanca as a fill-in project when dancer Vera Zorina was announced for the Hemingway film. (Zorina would start shooting For Whom the Bell Tolls but would quit the project because the film required her to do a lot of scampering up and down hills in rough country, and she was afraid of scarring her legs. Bergman would replace her in For Whom the Bell Tolls after Casablanca wrapped.) Using Bergman required the approval of David O. Selznick, who owned her contract, and Selznick would agree to lend Bergman to Warners only if the studio cast a big enough male star opposite her to make sure Casablanca would be an “A” film. 

George Raft actively lobbied Warner and Wallis for the part, no doubt seeing what boosts High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon had been for Bogart’s career after Raft turned them down — but Warner and Wallis told him, in essence, “After High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon Bogart’s a bigger star than you are!” Warner still had his doubts about Bogart as a romantic lead, and at one point — according to Bergman’s own account — she was in his office when Jack Warner asked, “Who the hell would want to kiss Bogart?” “I would,” Bergman said. Bergman was so much taller than Bogart that he had to stand on a box for their big scenes together so he would appear taller than she, but that was the least of Casablanca’s production problems. The script was hastily constructed and stuck together with baling wire from the contributions of four different writers with radically different agendas: Julius and Philip Epstein did the basic work of adapting the play and constructing a viable movie out of it, and mostly did the scenes of exotic intrigue. Howard Koch (whose memoir is one of the best sources for how Casablanca actually came together, first on paper and then on film) did the political scenes counterpointing democracy and fascism (and creating at least one scene with the real-life irony of Paul Henried as the freedom fighter having that argument with Conrad Veidt as the über-Nazi, when in real life both Henried and Veidt were principled anti-Nazis who had fled Germany when Hitler took over), and Casey Robinson, fresh from the triumph of Now, Voyager (with Bette Davis as the repressed New England heiress who gets a makeover and takes a trip to Europe, and Henried as the local who seduces her and then turns out to be married), was brought in to hone the big love scenes between Bogart and Bergman. (Robinson isn’t credited because at that time he was accepting screen credit only for scripts he wrote entirely by himself; by turning down credit for Casablanca he did himself out of an Academy Award.) 

This baling-wire script was entrusted to a director, Michael Curtiz, who was never considered an auteur but rather what the auteur theorists called “a competent craftsman,” a studio hack who could make films quickly and efficiently and work in a wide range of styles. His main qualifications seem to have been that Warner and Wallis trusted him (he would leave Warner Bros. when Warner fired Wallis shortly after Casablanca was released and work for Wallis’s independent production company which released through Paramount) and he’d worked effectively with Bogart before. What makes Casablanca a great movie and an enduring classic — almost certainly the best film Hollywood made about World War II while it was still going on — is how well the various elements balanced. Other American war movies made during World War II are almost unwatchable today because of the preachiness of the political propaganda inserted into them; this one has just enough of that that we get the point, but mostly the writers show us the Nazi tyranny rather than endlessly having the characters talk about it. One aspect of Casablanca I hadn’t picked up on before last night is how well written the character of Sam, played by Dooley Wilson (a real-life Black singer but not a piano player — he’s obviously faking it and for years he got asked at parties to sing and play “As Time Goes By,” and he had to beg off), is — he’s a character with real intelligence and agency instead of just the usual stupid Black sidekick. (Ironically, just before Casablanca Bogart had made a film called All Through the Night in which he played a New York gossip columnist who goes after a group of Fifth Columnists led by Conrad Veidt, and in that film Bogart also was named Rick and had a person-of-color sidekick named Sam — but in All Through the Night Sam was Asian instead of Black.) Another thing I hadn’t noticed before is that, as great as Bogart and Bergman were in the leads, Warner Bros. had a better actor under contract than Paul Henried who might have made the freedom fighter more believable and made Casablanca an even better film than it is: John Garfield. 

The edition of Casablanca Charles and I watched last night contained some intriguing bonuses, including outtakes and deleted scenes (though these survive only as picture, not sound; though sound-on-film had replaced the pioneering Vitaphone sound-on-disc system by the end of the 1920’s studios in 1942 were routinely recording picture and sound on separate films, then mixing them together to create the final negative and prints) as well as the premiere episode of the TV series Casablanca, shown in 1955 as part of an hour-long weekly series called Warner Bros. Presents and hosted by Gig Young. MGM had done a half-hour show that included clips from their old movies, promos for new ones they were about to release and occasionally a theatrical short adapted for TV. Warners decided to copy this formula but go it one better and turn three of their old movies, Casablanca, Kings Row and the 1947 Western Cheyenne, into rotating series and include an episode of each as part of Warner Bros. Presents. They cast Charles McGraw as Rick Blaine and copied a few shots from the movie — including the famous one where Rick signs a customer’s bill, indicating it’s O.K. to comp him, and we see his hand do this before we see the rest of him — but for some reason they built a new set for Rick’s Café Américain instead of using the original one, and the TV show not only made the Soviets the bad guys but was a lot preachier in its Cold War propaganda than the original film had been in its anti-Nazi propaganda. The disc also contained a cartoon parody called Carrotblanca, starring Bugs Bunny as Rick, Daffy Duck as Sam and a few of the other Warners cartoon characters from the classic era, though it was made in 1995 and isn’t as funny or as moving as a Casablanca cartoon parody would have been “in the day.” It had its charms, though — especially the use of Tweety as the Peter Lorre character, not only in the main body of the film but doing the “That’s All, Folks!” in Lorre’s voice at the end (though given that Peter Lorre actually made a film in which he turned into a raven, the 1963 American-International horror spoof The Raven with Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Jack Nicholson, having Tweety “play” him in this cartoon parody wasn’t altogether out of line!).