Today – Wednesday, May 16, 2018 – has been declared “National Classic Movie Day.” In that spirit, I want to tell you about my favorite movie, Casablanca, and why I enjoy it so much.
First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.
Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had a torrid love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.
Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), to Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and to brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.
SPOILER ALERT!!! If you’ve never seen the movie, be aware that the rest of this article will discuss plot points that will give away key aspects of the film.
First – here’s the original trailer for the film.
So, what’s the big deal? Why do I (and so many others) love this movie so much, and consider it among the best ever made? Well, I can’t speak for others, but for myself, here are three things that I appreciate.
The Movie’s Backstory
Casablanca started out as an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Bennett and Joan Allison. In the process of turning that into a movie script, the writers couldn’t decide on what to do with the characters. Does Rick help Lazlo escape with his wife? Do he and Ilsa get back together, but send Lazlo on his way? Back and forth the arguments went. Just giving them the documents they needed to get away seems so, well, anti-climactic. And just handing someone a piece of paper is not exactly dazzling filmmaking.
The Epstein brothers had been assigned to handle the screenplay, but then they were called away to another project, so Howard Koch took over. The brothers would later return to help complete the work. All of this further added to the confusion about finding a good ending for the film. Somehow, though, it all works. In spite of the back-and-forth (or perhaps because of it), the movie just works.
The movie also benefitted from the war news. The Allies had invaded North Africa in late 1942, and President Roosevelt went to Casablanca in January, 1943, to meet with Winston Churchill, so the film took advantage of that free publicity. Its initial release was in New York in December, 1942, with the general release in early 1943.
Another factor that I and lots of other fans really appreciate is that many of the extras who were “customers” at Rick’s – including several with speaking parts – were actually themselves refugees from Europe. Some of them had even been interred at Nazi concentration camps during the 1930s, before making their way to this country. Their accents – not to mention the passion they brought to this anti-Nazi film – added a layer of authenticity that simply could not be imitated.
Another thing that I really appreciate is the crackling, rapid-fire dialogue. This film holds the distinction of being the greatest source of lines of any movie on AFI’s list of the Top 100 best movie quotes. From “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris,” from “Round up the usual suspects,” to “This is the start of a beautiful friendship,” everyone has a favorite Casablanca quote.
Here’s an example from a conversation between Rick (Bogart) and Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault –
Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.
Rick: It was a combination of all three.
Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Of course, there’s one line that’s often misquoted. No one in Casablanca ever, EVER, says, “Play it again, Sam.”
Of all the great things about this movie, my favorite is the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.
Until now. In one transformational moment, he makes the decision to take a stand. In this scene, Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano, and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs, and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval – watch for his affirmative nod. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing together, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”
Remember, many of those actors were Europeans; some had been imprisoned by the Nazis, others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”
Remember, too, that when this movie was made, the outcome of the war was still very much up for grabs. But the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is very real.
I love this movie, and I appreciate this opportunity to share it with you. Thanks for reading.
Now, I think I’ll go make some popcorn, put my feet up, and one more time watch Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and the rest, in the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. I’ll listen again as Sam sings, “As Time Goes By.” And I’ll rejoice as the good guys win again. Because we’ll always have Paris.
And once again, here’s looking at you, kid.