(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 23, 2018.)
Seventy-five years ago today, the film Casablanca, one of the most popular movies of all time, was released nationally after premiering in New York City on Thanksgiving Day, 1942, as World War II raged. It went on to win Oscars for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay. Writing in the Belfast Times in 2016 after the last surviving cast member died, Paul Whitington said: “Maybe there are better films than Casablanca, but there are probably none better loved.”
Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film was shot at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California, except for the final scene, shot at Van Nuys Airport. It was based on a three-act play, unproduced at the time, Everbody Comes to Rick’s, written by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had come to power, and by 1938 Europe was in turmoil as Germany was growing stronger and more threatening. That same year against the advice of friends, Murray Burnett and his wife visited Vienna, Austria, a country which had just been absorbed by Germany. There Burnett, a Jew, witnessed first-hand the increasingly violent anti-Semitism and learned of the escape route the Jews were taking: from Austria to Marseilles in southern France, to Morocco in North Africa, to Lisbon, Portugal, and finally—with luck—to the United States.
Burnett, an aspiring playwright, conceived of the idea for the play when they traveled to southern France and visited a smoky nightclub near Nice in which they saw emigrants, speaking many different languages, all listening to a black pianist from Chicago.
Once acquired by Warner Brothers after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Harry and Jack Warner realized its potential as a patriotic war drama. Harry especially was not afraid to use film to strengthen patriotism and to combat Nazism. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor in 1938, he said he saw it as his duty “to educate, to stimulate, and to demonstrate the fundamentals of free government, free speech, religious tolerance, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly ….”
In Congressional testimony in 1941, Harry insisted that fascism was indeed a global threat—a preview of the spinning globe at the start of the movie. After the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8, 1942, Warner Bros. accelerated the release of the movie, capitalizing on the name of the city of Casablanca, Morocco, appearing in the news. It premiered on November 26, 1942, at the Hollywood Theater in New York City, selling 31,000 tickets in the first week and grossing $255,000 ($3.5 million in today’s money) during the 10-week New York run.
The two main characters in the film were played by Humphrey Bogart, one of the few Americans in the cast, and Swedish-born Ingrid Bergman. Bogart, 42, had already played in nearly 50 Hollywood films, playing mostly gangsters or thugs. While he had also played rugged, razor-backed characters, playing the role of Rick Blaine allowed him to play a romantic, understated, cynical hero. With his trench coat and brimmed hat, he achieved international stardom.
Ingrid Bergman, 27, had arrived in America just three years earlier and had appeared in merely a handful of Hollywood movies. She played Ilsa Lund, Rick’s former lover who had jilted him in Paris years earlier. Arthur “Dooley” Wilson, another rare American in the cast, played “Sam,” the pianist at Rick’s Café Americain and Rick’s staunch friend.
In a movie with so many great scenes and with so many great—if sometimes corny—lines, it is challenging to select the best scenes. My three favorite include: the scene in the Café in which the two competing groups, the Nazi officers versus all others, sing their nationalistic songs; the scene in the Café in which Ilsa Lund asks Sam to play the old love song, “As Time Goes By;” and, of course, the final scene in which Rick shows his true colors. With the Nazis pursuing, Rick turns to Ilsa and says: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Though produced in the middle of a world war three generations ago, Casablanca continues to speak to us today with its themes of love, multi-faceted heroism, resistance against tyranny, persecution of minorities, the flight of the persecuted and their yearning for freedom.
For further reading: Noah Isenberg, We’ll Always Have Casablanca.
Note: Watch for news of the upcoming screening of Casablanca, hosted by yours truly, at the Jane Pickens Theater and Event Center. Until then, “here’s looking at you, kid.”
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.