Casablanca is a movie about fate and choices.
It’s fitting, then, that Casablanca‘s journey to the screen was a mix of fate and choices.
On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, finally bringing the United States into the Second World War. One day later, on December 8th, a story analyst in the Warner Bros development department received a manuscript to an unproduced play. It was called “Everybody Comes To Rick’s”.
Many of the story’s elements instantly jumped out to the analyst as being eerily relevant. Perhaps chief among them was the cynical indifference embodied by its lead character, Rick. Like America herself, Rick was ambivalent to take sides in the war. Set in the summer of 1941, the story takes place at a time when the United States was still neutral and unengaged. As Rick puts it, “They’re asleep all over America.” But like America, Rick would eventually be forced to wake up.
The analyst’s final report enthusiastically recommended that this story be immediately put into production, saying:
- “Excellent melodrama! Colorful, timely background, tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, and sophisticated hokum. A box office natural for Bogart, or perhaps Cagney in an out-of-the-usual role, and Mary Astor.”
While that description reads like a great summary of the film we’ve all come to know and love, the play manuscript went through an extensive overhaul in its adaptation. Using the play’s narrative as the basic spine, producer Hal Wallis hired four different screenwriters to mold it into the story that he wanted to tell, with the themes that were important to him.
First were the Epstein twins, Julius J. and Philip G., a brother duo with a strength for comedy and experience working for Orson Welles on his radio productions. Then came Howard Koch; he was brought in to beef up the script’s dramatic stakes and social consciousness. And finally, writer Casey Robinson developed the romance, although he remained uncredited.
To bring these writing voices together, Wallis hired director Michael Curtiz. Primarily known as an action filmmaker with big hits like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Curtiz was a bit of a gamble for something with deeper thematic ambitions. Indeed, he wasn’t the first choice.
But after legendary director William Wyler turned the gig down, Wallis tapped Curtiz because of his inventiveness with camera movement and lighting, his knack for visual symbolism, and the ability to blend diverse styles into a cohesive aesthetic.
Casablanca would launch Curtiz’s career into another realm, leading to further successes like Mildred Pierce and the enduring holiday classic White Christmas.
The production, while not tumultuous, was in a constant state of flux, starting with the last minute casting of the young, mostly unknown Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman. Even the lead, Humphrey Bogart, was a replacement for the originally announced Ronald Reagan.
Primarily known as a baddie, Bogart was a risk for a romantic lead, but no one could’ve made Rick – a tough guy wrecked by a broken heart – that real, or that iconic.
Daily rewrites were common throughout production, including several passes at the now classic ending. In fact, as an inside joke, the writers gave Bogart a line as a nod to the fact that they were constantly rewriting the final act, when Rick says to Ilsa of their romance, “It’s still a story without an ending.”
The shoot wrapped late summer of 1942, and the film was scheduled for release in January 1943 release. But then, current events triggered a rush in post-production to make a world premiere of November 26th, 1942. Why the urgency? Because the new premiere date coincided with the Allied invasion of North Africa, the region of the film’s setting. It was the studio’s way of supporting the war effort. (It was a savvy marketing move, too.)
Casablanca went on to win three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Curtiz, and Best Adapted Screenplay. And as time has gone by over the 75 years since, we’ve been playing it again and again and again.
Watching it today, we can see visual motifs that future directors would later emulate. Notable among them: Steven Spielberg in his Indiana Jones series. Curtiz’s use of single-take dolly moves – starting on one subject, then tracking to another, and eventually ending on another subject, all without cutting – is a staple of Spielberg’s entire career.
Curtiz also used subtle visual cues to foreshadow narrative. For example, the first time we see Rick he is playing chess. Much later, the film’s final act is, fittingly, entirely driven by Rick playing a complex chess game with everyone’s lives and fates.
But perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in our contemporary viewing – and this point can’t be stressed enough – is that Casablanca was made and seen during World War II, not after it. It wasn’t a period piece. It was contemporary and current, and that’s how people first experienced it. That’s the context in which it was told.
At the time of the film’s release, the fate of the war and the world was very uncertain. Casablanca played in theaters 18 months prior to the D-Day invasion, long before that crucial turning point. A Nazi Europe wasn’t merely a possible future; it was the actual present reality.
So when we see expressions of patriotism in this movie, ones that still get people choked up to this day (including me), we must remember that they were portrayed in very uncertain times. That uncertainty makes them all the more inspiring and substantial. The “dueling anthems” scene in Rick’s Cafe is particularly powerful; that moment was a true act of courage, resolve, and defiance.
The late, great film critic Roger Ebert defined “a classic” as being a movie he couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing again. He then added that, for him, Casablanca fits that definition perhaps more than any other movie in history.
Listed at #2 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the greatest American films of all time, second only to Citizen Kane, this enduring work celebrates its 75th Anniversary as one of the greatest films ever made.
Here’s looking at you, Casablanca.