Casablanca (1942)

D: Michael Curtiz
S: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman

There have been two attempts to make a sequel to Casablanca, both times on television, both times a failure. After its success in 1943, winning three Oscars including Best Picture and earning over $4 million at the U.S. Box Office (having been made on a budget of $950, 000), Warner Bros. tried unsuccessfully to pair up some of the talents again and rekindle the magic. The story, from an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, has itself been recycled many times.

The fact is that even if they had wanted to, Warners could not have set out to make Casablanca turn out the way it did. It was a combination of elements and circumstances which produced a work of indefinable appeal which has endured for generations even though tastes and attitudes have changed. One doesn't set out to make a classic, one sets out to make a movie.

Casablanca was a studio programmer produced by Hal B. Wallis (a major player in 1940s Hollywood) and directed by Michael Curtiz, a reliable craftsman who had already helmed hits such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), the latter of which had won James Cagney an Oscar for Best Actor.

The initial casting had Ronald Reagan playing the tough American exile Rick Blaine, owner of a café in neutral Morocco during WWII whose life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of his old sweetheart Ilsa Lund, to be played by Ann Sheridan. Wallis went through several names including Frank Morgan, Michéle Morgan and Heddy Lamar, before fixing on Bogart (who had just proved his worth at Warners in the hits High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (both 1941 and both produced by Wallis) and Bergman (still well rated since Intermezzo in 1936 though not contracted to Warners).

The supporting roles were filled out by other bankable talents including Paul Henreid, fresh from playing opposite Bette Davis in Now Voyager (1942), Claude Rains, an Oscar nominee for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre (both from The Maltese Falcon) and Conrad Veidt (so memorable as the villain in The Thief of Baghdad (1940)).

None of these people set out to play characters who would burn themselves into the popular consciousness, nor were Wallis and Curtiz expecting to be forever remembered for their work here. The Epstein Brothers and Howard Kotch struggled hard as studio hacks on assignment to get the script pages in on time, and did not plan for the fact that because the actors did not know how the film would end that their ambiguous and edgy characterisations would be a major contribution to film folklore and debate ever after.

The final touches to the legend of Casablanca were equally incidental. Musical director Leo Forbstein oversaw the hiring of Oscar winner Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind (1939), Now Voyager) and the selection of two songs 'Knock on Wood' by M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl and 'As Time Goes By' by Herman Hopfeld to be performed by entertainer Dooley Wilson, still in the first year of his film career (he was previously known on stage and radio).

The film premiered in November 1942, but was not released until 1943, leaving to clear to win Oscars for Best Picture (only the second Warners film to do so), Best Director and Best Screenplay and to earn five other nominations. It was critically and commercially successful, and after its release its cast and crew went on to their next films oblivious to the fact that as far as popular memory was concerned, they might never have made another.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.