JOHN OSTRANDER: Casablanca At 70 – As Time Goes By
AS I SAID LAST WEEK AND THE WEEK BEFORE AND THE WEEK BEFORE THAT – WARNING: I’m assuming that people reading this have seen the movie and thus will be fine with my discussing elements of the plot. If you’re one of those who haven’t watched the movie, do yourself a favor and DON’T READ THIS. See the movie instead and have your own experience with it. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did. If you need a plot synopsis, imdb has a good one here.
This is the fourth and final installment in my examination of the classic Warner Bros. film, Casablanca. Not that I couldn’t go on (and on and on) about it further but I figure there are limits to the patience of all of you out there and I thank you for indulging me thus far in looking at one of my own favorite films.
Possibly yours as well. Roger Ebert has noted that, while Citizen Kane is generally respected more as the better film, Casablanca may be better loved, probably showing up on more all time best lists.
One of the amazing things to me is,that as it was made, most of those working on Casablanca didn’t think much of it. The principle actors were not crazy about it and Ingrid Bergman had a legitimate complaint in that, as production started, no one knew with whom Ilsa was going to go – to Rick or to her husband, Victor Lazlo. By accounts, Claude Rains referred to it as “a piece of crap,” which is startling to me considering the number of classic lines he gets. Paul Heinreid, playing Victor Lazlo, fumed about his part because he felt it would undermine his viability as a romantic lead in other films. Instead, as critic Pauline Kael noted, it defined him as a very stiff actor. Ingrid Bergman found him to be a prima donna.
The script has been used by many people, including myself, as a prime exhibit of how to tell a story. Robert McKee in his amazing book, Story, uses it as an important example in story construction. Yet, there are three scriptwriters credited on the film, a fourth unaccredited writer, and the producer, Hal Wallis, came up with the closing line! What a writing hodge-podge!
Casablanca started with an unproduced, unpublished play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Bennet and Joan Alison. It was bought by Warner Bros. and re-named Casablanca to play off of a previous hit for the studio, Algiers. Hal Wallis came on to produce it and, to my mind, that was key. Wallis superbly did one of a producer’s primary functions – hiring the right people for the right jobs.
He hired Michael Curtiz to direct and brought in the Epstein Brothers – Julius and Phillip – as the principal screenwriters. After the attack of Pearl Harbor, they left the job to help Frank Capra in his series Why We Fight and Howard Koch was brought in to assist, although there are those who claim little or no work of his was used in the film. Casey Robinson, who was unaccredited, added important scenes of Ilsa and Rick in Paris. The Epsteins returned to finish the script.
The Breen Office – the Hollywood Censor – had some problems with the script and so Ilsa and Rick’s love affair in Paris is never shown to be sexual (although we all know it was) nor is Captain Renault trading exit visas for sexual favors (although we all know he did). Ilsa, after all, was a married woman, although she thought her husband was dead. I think both story elements are stronger for their not being explicitly stated. Trust to the audience’s imagination: it’s bound to be filthier than anything shown.
What is also interesting to me is that Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault, is gay. That certainly wouldn’t have been stated but, despite Renault’s compulsive womanizing, I think it’s there. In describing Rick to Ilsa the first time Renault meets her, he says “if I were a woman, I would be in love with Rick.” I think Renault is also deeply in the closet; the above described womanizing is his attempts to hide his homosexuality, especially from himself. He defends Rick to the Nazis, he covers for him, and, in the end, walks away into the night with him. For me, Renault’s sexual orientation just adds another layer to an already fascinating character.
The film is chock full of fascinating characters, right down to small parts like Sascha, the bartender, Carl, the waiter, the jilted Yvonne and on and on. Only three members of the large cast were born in America: Bogart, Dooley Wilson (Sam), and Joy Page as the Bulgarian newlywed Annina Brandel (fun fact – Page was also the step-daughter of WB studio head Jack Warner). The others were all foreign born and many were refugees from Nazi oppression in Europe, which adds to the film’s authenticity. They lived the parts they were playing.
The film was fairly successful when it first appeared and it won three Oscars: scriptwriting, direction, and best picture. Famously, Jack Warner leapt up when the latter award was announced before Hal Wallis could and claimed the prize. It so infuriated Wallis that he would soon quit Warner Bros.
The film would become more highly regarded as time went by with many of the classic icon shots and posters of Bogart coming from it. I have watched it over and over again and gotten something new from each viewing. Its lines are endlessly quoted because they continue to reverberate. It’s romantic, it’s suspenseful, and it has great characters. It was very much a film of its time but it has become a film for all time.
I would love to do something half as good. I’ll keep working at it.
Go watch a great movie. Go watch Casablanca.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell, R.N., CNOR, C.G.