It did not look or even sound like a Warner Bros set. An aura of anxiety hung over the actors, most of them recent arrivals to the U.S. Between takes there were urgent off-screen conversations about relatives who were stranded overseas. Even the director, with his limited command of English, was on the phone coping with family crises abroad. The set itself was a ragged replica of a destination in North Africa which, even as the shoot began, was being targeted for attack.
Casablanca, released exactly 75 years ago, was a classic love story but it was also a movie about refugees, starring a cast of refugees. Hence it’s intriguing to revisit it this week as Donald Trump’s revised travel ban grabs headlines once again.
“I stick my neck out for nobody,” was one of Humphrey Bogart’s classic lines, but the movie itself was about people sticking their neck out — a contrast to the mood of today. Many around the world see Trump’s initiatives as a signal that “we don’t want you, we don’t need you” (“I am the only cause I’m interested in,” in the words of Bogart’s Rick.)
Casablanca, though remembered for its romantic scenes, was also an emotional cry for unity among people fighting the rising tide of Fascism. The polyglot cast of characters assembled by Jack Warner for his under-the-radar film symbolized that unity — a theme deftly explored in a new book titled We’ll Always Have Casablanca written by Noah Isenberg, director of screen studies at the New School.
Casablanca was, of course, a giant hit and ranks high on lists of all-time “favorite movies.” In its time, however, it also represented a bold political statement; it was fiercely anti-Nazi, a position anathema to other studios, and it turned attention to the plight of millions of Jews stranded by travel bans, while carefully avoiding their direct mention.
On a business level, the film vaulted Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to the rank of superstars — a position they both found unsettling.
Despite its mythic status, Casablanca, like most Hollywood movies, had a messy start — as messy as the city itself. The city of Casablanca was ruled by a tense coalition of French and Nazis; at the studio there was a stand-off between Warner, the studio autocrat, and his powerful production chief Hal Wallis. The movie — Rick’s story — started life as a play written by two obscure New York school teachers (Joan Alison and Murray Burnett) who for years had tried and failed to get it produced.
Fascinated by its setting and central character, Warner acquired the play, having never read it, assigning it to two young writers, Julius and Philip Epstein, known best for movies like Strawberry Blonde and No Time For Comedy. Wallis, the fierce producer who assigned himself the project, wanted more drama and less comedy, so the rewrite was passed along to a succession of studio staff writers including Howard Koch and Casey Robinson. The rewrite ritual continued into actual production, triggering credit disputes that continue to the present. They were further complicated by Bogart’s claim that he had improvised some of the great one-liners.
Still, Bogart, the eager contributor, had almost failed to get the part, as Isenberg’s book reminds us. Warner favored George Raft, a tough guy who had been “discovered” working as a chauffeur for prominent mob figures. Wallis opposed the Raft idea, however, as well as vetoing Ronald Reagan, whose press agent had been planting items claiming he was the favorite. Similar intrigues surrounded the role of Ilsa. Studio casting mavens favored Ann Sheridan, while Warner doted on Hedy Lamarr, a somewhat wooden sex goddess who was under contract to MGM. Wallis and his director, Michael Curtiz, had a better idea. They felt that a young Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman, showed greater promise, only to find that she, like Lamarr, was under contract to another production entity run by David O. Selznick. The determined Wallis ultimately came up with a payoff of $125,000 to Selznick to pry her away.
Neither Bogart, then 42, nor Bergman, 27, were thoroughly at ease with the characters they were portraying. Bogart came from a wealthy family, was educated at patrician prep schools and had long resented being typecast as a thug (King Of The Underworld). Still, while eager to “stretch” as Rick, he was skittish over his romantic dialogue. He also disliked the classic ending; “stars get the girl,” he argued, they don’t give them away.
Bergman, by all accounts, in turn had difficulty accepting the rather stiff, unsmiling Bogart as her onscreen lover. The two maintained a studied distance during the shoot — there were no cozy rehearsals or comfortable off-camera exchanges. Bogart was also discomfited finding himself virtually the only American in a cast of 75 that was dominated by refugees. (Dooley Wilson, who sang “As Time Goes By,” was a fellow New Yorker). Curtiz was from Hungary; Paul Henreid from Vienna; Claude Rains and Sidney Greenstreet from London; and Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt from Austria and Germany, respectively. During breaks many chatted in German about relatives and loved ones who were seeking asylum. They knew that reality was overtaking the story. Indeed, one week after the film’s opening, allied troops invaded Casablanca.
Despite the film’s relevance, or perhaps because of it, Wallis, the producer, was harassed repeatedly by Joseph Breen and his motion picture censors. Their two principal fixations: The hint that “letters of transit” out of Casablanca were exchanged for sexual favors (Rains’ lines on the subject were considerably softened), and that Rick and Ilsa had engaged in “illicit sex” during their Paris encounter. Even the line that “we’ll always have Paris” seemed traumatizing to the censors. Murders were acceptable in movies of that era but trysts were not.
To be sure “we’ll always have Paris,” like many other lines in Casablanca, achieved a certain immortality. Possibly no other movie in history has matched that legacy. Even the several writers, who fought for years over their credits, must have understood that their quarrels didn’t amount to a “hill of beans.”