By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
(Note: This past month, in honor of the movie’s 70th anniversary, Warner Bros. Studio and Turner Classic Movies sponsored screenings of Casablanca in several hundred theaters all over the United States. The only other motion pictures to have been honored in such a way are The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story—all of which seems a good excuse for us to re-publish the following article.)
CASABLANCA—The Making (and Near Un-Doing) of a Classic
If ever a film project needed divine intervention, it was this one. The production had started shooting without benefit of a completed script and a list of stars whose continued availability depended on what is referred to in contracts as “acts of God.” Speaking of which, only the drunken Greek god Bacchus could have masterminded the miracles that kept this film afloat—for it was well beyond the purview of either mere mortals or sober gods.
For openers: right up until almost the first day of shooting, George Raft was trying to ace Bogart out of the starring role. Making matters worse, Jack Warner suddenly went into his “creative” mode, and seriously toyed with the idea of using Ronald Reagan (!) and Hedy Lamarr (or Ann Sheridan) in the roles later so beautifully played by Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman.
Bogart had another pressing problem. He was committed to Columbia Studios to do Sahara, and the picture’s start-date was fast approaching. The deal was a complicated one: Warners was to borrow Cary Grant to do Arsenic and Old Lace while Bogart did the desert epic. Since Grant was at the time a far bigger name than Bogart, Jack Warner was keen to make the trade—even if he had to use Bugs Bunny (yet another Warner Bros. contract player) for the male lead in Casablanca
Finally, however, Sahara was rescheduled and Bogart ambled into Rick’s Café Americain to deliver the performance the cinema demigods had destined him to play. But for the first several weeks of shooting, the actor must have thought himself more cursed than blessed. His main nemesis (other than the script, which sometimes never arrived more than thirty seconds before the scenes were actually to be shot) was a Hungarian director given to violent explosions and noontime trysts in his dressing room—which left little time for instructing his actors.
Toward the end of the schedule Bogart was enjoying a rare day off when the director, Michael Curtiz, frantically called him back to the studio for a single shot. Arriving on the set and getting into his white tuxedo, Bogart was told all he had to do was nod into the camera, and he would be excused for the rest of the day. “May I ask why I am nodding and to whom?” Bogart sweetly asked, by now toying with the idea of strangling the Hungarian.
“Actors!” Curtiz screamed, “They want to know everything. Just nod and go home!”
Bogart did so, and thus unknowingly triggered what became one of the most stirring scenes in movie history. He had nodded to give the okay for his orchestra to play “La Marseillaise” and drown out the Germans who were singing one of their marching songs.
A more serious problem came up during the final scenes at the airport. Curtiz, by now desperately annoyed with his entire cast, told Bogart to draw his revolver and shoot Conrad Veidt (the actor playing the suave Nazi, “Major Strasser”) the moment Veidt started for the phone to stop the flight that would take Bergman and Henreid off to the safety of America.
“Have the major draw on me first,” Bogart suggested. “Otherwise, it’s cold-blooded murder.” After an argument that went on for hours, Curtiz glumly (and luckily) relented.
Another ticklish situation immediately ensued. What would the Claude Rains character do when the police arrived moments later? It was a sticky situation, what with the “dead” German major lying at his feet. Curtiz toyed with the idea of simply hiding the major’s body. But here the beleaguered screenwriters had a noble inspiration.
“Major Strasser has been shot,” Rains blithely informs the arriving gendarmes. Rains looks at Bogart. Bogart studies Rains. The tension thickens, as we wonder whether Rains will finger Bogie. Then the glorious clincher: “Round up the usual suspects!”
The film is filled with wonderfully outrageous dialogue. Early on, Bogart, nursing a badly bruised heart (thanks to Bergman having left him just as the German army marched into Paris) is approached by his current paramour. “Where were you last night?” she asks. “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember,” he replies. “Will I see you tonight?” Bogart pauses for only a moment. “I never plan that far ahead.”
The closest shave with disaster came in the very last scene, where Bogart is trying to ship Bergman out with Henreid before the Gestapo can arrest the underground leader. Yet even at this critically late stage of the game, nobody knew just how the final scene should be played.
Curtiz improvised. First take: Bergman turns to Henreid: “I’m staying with Rick. I love him. I once left him to go back to you, but I can’t do it again.” Whereupon “Rick” (Bogart) confesses to the general assemblage that he’s a hopeless alcoholic who sometimes stays drunk for days on end. In other words, he’s a woefully bad bet for a permanent relationship. Luckily, even as this self-pitying Goulash ala Curtiz was being served up, the screenwriters arrived with the latest rewrites. The scene was redone, and the stirring finale we know and love today was finally filmed.
Casablanca is at heart a story of noble sacrifice, and had Bogart tricked Henreid out of Bergman at the end of the film, I doubt that the picture would have gone on to enter the pantheon of timeless movie classics.
But the hassles continued even after filming had been completed. The eminent composer Max Steiner (of Gone with the Wind fame) hated the song, “As Time Goes By.” Hal Wallis, the producer, wanted the song in the picture and tried hard to convince Steiner. The composer remained unmoved. “But you haven’t given me any real motivation for why the song should be used,” wailed Steiner. I’ll give you plenty of motivation,” Wallis roared. “If you don’t use it, you’re fired!” The song stayed in the picture.
Yet, sadly, it’s the sort of film Hollywood seems unable or unwilling to make anymore. But then it was the product of another era—of a clear-cut, black and white period, before the world went gray and became vastly more complicated. By way of a poetic salute to their forever-lost relationship in that final poignant moment at the airport, Bogart said to Bergman, “We’ll always have Paris.”
Today, as movies and standards of morality move in new and troubling directions, we have at least one consolation. We’ll always have Casablanca.