by Paul Batters
Annina: Oh, monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?
Rick: Nobody ever loved me that much.
One of the most enduring films in the Hollywood pantheon of classic films turns 75 this year on November 26th. It is usually on most people’s list of favourite classic films, not least of all because of one Humphrey Bogart and the beautiful Ingrid Bergman star in it. Not to mention a wonderful supporting cast (Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson) and a delightful soundtrack (who doesn’t swoon a little at ‘As Time Goes By’).
It also endures because it’s a love story – one that does not have a fairy tale ending but speaks of the torture and pain of love far more than if it did. Bogie is all style but emanates even greater substance. It is impossible not to look at Bergman’s face and become lost in her gaze. Set during World War Two, the love story is intertwined with political intrigue, Nazis, ‘causes’ and desperate people during desperate times.
Obviously I’m talking the irrepressible Warner Bros. classic, Casablanca.
Initially released on Nov 26th, 1942 at the Hollywood Theatre, Casablanca proved a massive hit, making Bogart a bona fide star after years of secondary roles. It was the middle Of World War Two and the background to the film would have been very familiar to audiences. War was tearing the world apart with no clear end in sight. If the famous “Le Marseillaise” scene still puts a lump in your throat, can you imagine its’ impact back then? And the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman stands tall above the countless on-screen couples who have declared love for each other.
Yet it has also been called the ‘best worst film ever made’. Pauline Kael called it ‘schlocky’ and Umberto Eco called it ‘mediocre’ by cinematic standards. Vincent Sherman stated the story ‘was crap but what a great piece of crap!’.
And if you really look at Casablanca carefully – you will discover a few strange mistakes and holes in the plot. We’re going to look at some of those things that you may or may not have noticed before. Hopefully, it won’t change your love affair with one of Hollywood’s most enduring films!
- The ‘Letters Of Transit’
The letters of transit seem to be what everybody is after in the film. People want them to get out of Casablanca (the town, not the film) and people want them to stop people getting out of Casablanca. It is the plot device that drives the story forward and is indeed one of the most ludicrous devices every employed – and here’s why.
At that particular point in history, Morocco was indirectly under Nazi control, via the proxy of Vichy France (the turncoat puppet government in the south of France). How would any letters signed by De Gaulle hold any weight? De Gaulle was a Free French leader in exile in London. Anything signed by De Gaulle wouldn’t be worth a free trip!
It’s one of the most ridiculous McGuffins ever used in film. And yet somehow they got away with it. And poor old Ugarte (Peter Lorre) pays a heck of price for them.
- Victor Laszlo
The believed dead and now returned husband of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is a leader of the Resistance. Not only that, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) has escaped from a concentration camp. And of all places to go, he goes to Casablanca – where there are Nazis! They let him walk around, while impeccably dressed, and he even frequents Rick’s Café. Yes they are hoping to catch Laszlo in the act of getting the letters of transit and thus have grounds to arrest him. But what other grounds do these Nazis need? He’s an ‘enemy of the Third Reich’, a leader of the Resistance AND an escapee from the custody of the Gestapo. Grounds for his arrest? As if they need them!
Laszlo’s very open presence is enough of an act of open defiance towards the Nazis. Yet he taunts them openly as well! He openly admits to Colonel Strasser that he knows who the Resistance leaders are across German-occupied territory. And who can forget the famous scene where he encourages the band in Rick’s Café to play “La Marseillaise” over German officers as they sing. Laszlo certainly takes his chances to enrage the Nazis.
It’s also absurd that the Nazis are reluctant to arrest Laszlo to maintain appearances. What appearances? The world is in the thick of the war and the Nazis are not holding back from doing some pretty despicable things. As critic Roger Ebert pointed out, Laszlo would have been arrested on sight.
- The Airport
Have a good look at the airport scene. Go on – take a good look.
Did you notice the following?
It’s very foggy, with a rain-slicked tarmac and Bogart is wearing a heavy trench coat and hat. In Morocco? Even in winter it’s pretty warm in North Africa.
- Rick’s Café Americain
Rick’s Café is one of the swankiest places, resplendent with lovely décor and quite the casino. And the place is packed! With Rick reaching Morocco a short while after being abandoned by Ilsa in Paris (when the Germans arrive en force), how has he managed to acquire enough capital to set up such a place in such a short time?
Casablanca appears packed with a vast array of European refugees – all dressed to the nines, despite losing everything in their home countries and more than happy to drink and gamble at Rick’s, as well as being stereotyped to the hilt. True – many are gambling to make enough money to escape and the sense of desperation is evoked in groups of refugees staring hopefully into the skies as the plane they need to be on leaves. Yet there is still an absurdity to that notion. However, whilst Morocco was a stop over for refugees escaping from Europe, by the time period of the film (December 1941), this was not the case and there were far better methods of getting out of Europe. In fact, by the time depicted in the film, there were very few refugees left in Morocco. Still, it is easy to feel for the young Bulgarian couple which Captain Renault aims to capitalise on and whom Rick ultimately saves.
- Nazis – in Casablanca?
Another inaccuracy – though a minor one. There were no uniformed German troops stationed in Morocco during World War Two. But then Casablanca has a good share of historical inaccuracies; Captain Renault (Claude Rains) talks of the Americans ‘blundering into Berlin in 1918’ but of course that never happened.
- The Script
If at times the players on screen look confused and bemused, it’s because they were. The original script was changed, re-edited and re-written daily for a variety of reasons – partly to please the Breen Office and even the decision on who would get the girl was made late in the piece.
The Epstein brothers, legendary for their nonchalance, wisecracks and irreverence, incredibly even towards their boss Jack Warner, would make some wonderful additions to the script, peppering it with their famous wit. But many writers worked on the film, usually writing material only needed for that day or the next, which was very typical in the industry. In A.M Sperber and Eric Lax’s Bogart, the story is recounted just how the Epsteins worked:
‘They said “we need another scene” and we sat down and wrote it. And we’d take the pages to the set ourselves.
They were asked ‘You mean you brought it, said “Here” and went back to your office?’
Epstein shrugged: ‘It worked”.
He also added that they got no help from anyone and did all their own work.
Despite the confusion, Bogart made the touches that remain immortal, especially the two famous lines, which he improvised from the original:
But all the additions and ad-libs ‘trickled in’ as Sperber and Lax point out, during the weeks of re-writes and constantly changing dialogue. There was an almost daily routine of learning new dialogue and discarding old, leaving tempers tested and often inflamed. Bergman recalled on a number of occasions seeing Bogart and Wallis returning from lunch arguing and Bogart and Curtiz also clashed.
It was also Bogart who won two major points against the director, Michael Curtiz (a feat in itself!) – one, that Rick would not kiss Ilsa one last time before they part and two, that Rick would not shoot Strasser in the back. Such instances certainly helped to make Casablanca a better film than it would have been otherwise.
There are quite a few near-clichés in terms of character and theme as well. The script doesn’t truly allow for character complexity or depth of development. Indeed, the script is filled with characters with familiar tropes– the drunken hero, the enigmatic woman, the loyal friend, the bad guy who comes good in the end and a variety of stereotyped European characteristics. This is true for themes as well – the love triangle, sacrifice, the impact of war and the plight of the desperate.
- A Few Other Minor Issues
There are quite a few problems with continuity. See if you can keep track of the times Bogart’s cigarette changes length in a number of scenes. Not to mention the changes in the detail of uniforms that both Strasser and Renault are wearing. And the much-loved piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) is no piano player. Wilson was actually a drummer and whilst his voice is wonderful, his miming of playing the piano is less so.
Casablanca was not intended to be a masterpiece but was one of many films being made during the days of the studio system. It certainly was an A-film but one of many being made during the period. The fingerprints of some of Warner Bros. best can be found to have touched this film with their indelible mark – the production values of Hal Wallis, music of Max Steiner, the aforementioned gems in the script by the Epstein Brothers, Curtiz’s direction and the nice little touches of humour. I always chuckle when Captain Renault closes Rick’s Cafe because he is shocked to find gambling going on, only to be given his own winnings a second later. And of course it was an attempt at Hollywood escapism during the war with a film set during the war.
For all their expertise and experience, none of them could possibly have guessed that their collaborative effort would result in one of cinema’s most loved films. Yet from all reports, the Warner Bros. creative team knew they ‘had something’ and upon its’ release the film went beyond all initial expectations, breaking gross-taking records and capturing the imagination of audiences – particularly in the face of World War Two.
Both Casablanca’s initial and enduring success is also testimony to the film making process, and that even if a formula is in place, the elements and compounds added to the formula is what counts. The initial roles were never designed specifically for Bogart and Bergman, the now timeless song ‘As Time Goes By’ was going to be edited out and decisions regarding who would sing it was also never assured. As we have seen, despite the countless edits and changes, the magic that makes the movies conjured up a true classic.
What has made it endure is the magic between Bogart and Bergman on screen, the beautiful musical score (with one of cinema’s most famous and heart-reaching songs), the touches (small and large) that added that something special that defines classic film, some fantastic dialogue which gave us some of cinema’s greatest lines, the brilliant and illustrious supporting cast and the very essence of the story that everyone can associate with; the tragedy of love unfounded. Is there anyone that does not hold in his or her heart a tale of having it broken? Or had to let go off a true love? And of course, it is a tale of ultimate love, where sacrifice is made out of true love for someone. Whatever flaws exist in Casablanca, there is something more going on that forever holds us to it.
Like a diamond far overcoming any flaws it may have, perhaps one of cinema’s finest scenes (below) pulls all the magic together. Dooley Wilson’s singing pulls at our heart strings as Bergman’s face conveys all the haunting pain of past love, followed by their seeing each other again. How can one not weep while watching Casablanca?
After 75 years since it first opened, Casablanca has never let go of its’ audience.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history