One of Hollywood’s most perfect and enduring classics
I’ve heard it said that out of chaos comes art, and the film “Casablanca” can be used as supreme evidence to support that claim. While in production, this film had daily script changes and no ending, yet it turned out to become one of the most beloved and enduring films in history. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards (winning three including “Best Picture” and “Best Screenplay”) and even made it to #3 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list of “The 100 Greatest American Films Of All Time”. This film has it all - a stellar cast, romance, drama, intrigue, action, humor, and suspense. It’s pure entertainment through and through, encapsulating the best of a Hollywood movie.
“Casablanca” takes place during WWII in Morocco’s exotic Casablanca, a haven for all sorts of sordid international refugees desperately trying to get letters of transit to Lisbon en route to America. The story follows a triangle of star-crossed lovers - “Rick Blaine”, the owner of “Rick's Café Americain”, the beautiful and somewhat mysterious “Ilsa Lund”, and “Victor Laszlo”, a resistance leader in the fight against Hitler. It is no sweeping epic, there are no monumental technological breakthroughs, awe-inspiring special effects, or earth-shattering themes (although the film is about redemption, and how if you love someone you have to set them free), and the plot can even get a bit convoluted at times. But none of that matters one iota. While working on it, the cast and crew didn’t expect it to be a hit, thinking of it as just another film in the assembly line of studio jobs. While it might have seemed like just another run-of-the mill film during production, little did they know it would become the definitive example of an endearing Hollywood studio film. It is a whole-heartedly satisfying movie - funny, moving, and technically flawless. I am constantly fooled by “Casablanca”. If someone asked me if I like it, I would say “yes” with no display of excitement. Yet every time I watch this film I realize how much I love it!
Like other consummate classics such as “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”, “Casablanca” had a stormy production. Filming began with only the first half of the script, so they shot the film in sequence (something very rarely done). As they kept shooting, there were almost daily script changes, and no one (including the actors, director and writers) knew how the story would end. Despite the messiness and confusion, the script works, and works so well, writers Julius and Philip Epstein, along with Howard Koch all won “Best Screenplay” Academy Awards for it. The film was directed by cinematic maestro Michael Curtiz, one of Hollywood’s most successful and best technical directors. I wrote more about Curtiz in my “Mildred Pierce” entry. Unlike directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, or Federico Fellini, Curtiz didn’t have an identifiable personal visual style. However, just about all his films were expertly directed, and “Casablanca” is no exception. This film is so streamlined and engaging, it runs like clockwork. For his expert direction, Curtiz won an Academy Award as “Best Director” for “Casablanca”, his only win out of four official nominations (he also received an unofficial “write-in” nomination for the 1935 classic, “Captain Blood”).
At the core of “Casablanca” is Humphrey Bogart who stars as “Rick Blaine”. Bogart, also known as “Bogie”, became an icon, legend, and the ultimate movie star. Even with his trademark slight lisp and nasal voice, he became one of the top stars in Hollywood history and was voted the #1 Greatest American Male Screen Legend on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list. While he is certainly one of the most famous actors to emerge from classic Hollywood, I don’t think he's given full credit for his actual acting skill. Due to his tough guy persona, he’s thought of more as a star and archetype than an actor. His stoic face makes it easy to overlook the abundance of truthful emotion in his eyes. However, while watching “Casablanca” you can clearly see a prime example of his talent in his final scene alone with “Ilsa”. If you can pull your focus away from Ingrid Bergman for a second (not an easy task) and look at Bogart’s eyes, you will clearly see his immense talent. He is exploding under the surface with emotion. Bogart is perfect as the cynical, enigmatic “Rick” whose tough exterior hides a kindhearted, sensitive interior. For his perfectly layered performance, Bogart received his first “Best Actor” Academy Award nomination. He would garner two more nominations - one for “The Caine Mutiny”, and one for “The African Queen” (for which he would win his only Oscar).
Humphrey Bogart began as a stage manager. One night he had to go on stage to fill in for an actor, and from then on began acting in theater. He eventually made it to Broadway working vigorously playing mostly juveniles or romantic supporting roles - often to mixed reviews. His first feature film was opposite Spencer Tracy (also in his film debut) in John Ford’s 1930 comedy, “Up the River”. Tracy would become Bogart's lifelong friend and drinking partner, and is credited with coining the nickname, “Bogie”. It would be their only film together. In his early film roles Bogart is very different than the Bogie film goers are used to watching, as he mostly played nondescript, stiff-shirt types. Everything changed when he returned to Broadway for the 1935 production of “The Petrified Forrest” starring Leslie Howard (who I mention in “Gone With the Wind”). It was Bogart’s first major Broadway role, and he played against type, playing the villain “Duke Mantee”. When giant film star Leslie Howard was to make the film version of the play, he threatened not to make the film if Bogart wasn’t cast along with him. Bogart got the part and was so convincing in the film (which also starred Bette Davis), that it started his screen tough guy image. Typecast, he would continue to play supporting roles, mostly villains, until his breakthrough in 1941’s “High Sierra” as a gangster you cared about, and it made him a household name. Two films later (also in 1941) he would star in John Huston’s classic directorial debut, “The Maltese Falcon” as a private investigator named “Sam Spade”, another career defining role - this time making him a star and freeing him from only playing bad guys.
The following year came “Casablanca”, where Bogart showed a romantic and tender side for the first time, which was enough to make him a leading man and solidify his top star status for the rest of his life. His portrayal in “Casablanca” would become his most iconic role, and by 1946 he would become the highest paid actor in the world. In 1944 he starred opposite newcomer Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not”. They began a relationship, even though she was 25 years his junior, and ended up marrying in 1946. They would make three additional films together ("The Big Sleep", "Dark Passage", and "Key Largo”) and become one of cinema’s preeminent duos, both on-and-offscreen. Together they were vocally political, and were among a group of actors who protested against the HUAC investigations during the McCarthy Era. Theirs was a very loving and successful marriage until Bogart’s death. In addition to the films already mentioned, Bogart appeared in many other classics, including "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", "Beat the Devil", "In a Lonely Place", "Sabrina", "Angels with Dirty Faces", "The Barefoot Contessa", "The Desperate Hours", and his final film, "The Harder They Fall” in 1956. He left an indelible mark in films, bringing a new sort of tough guy hero to the world. He was married four times, all to actresses, the most famous being his final marriage to Bacall. He had two children (both with Bacall) the second of whom he named Leslie, in honor of Leslie Howard who gave him his break in “The Petrified Forest”. Humphrey Bogart died in 1957 at the age of 57.
If you ever wondered what exactly was a Hollywood movie star, just watch Ingrid Bergman who stars as “Ilsa Lund”. Not only is she ravishing to look at and immensely talented, but she also exudes that elusive and mysterious star quality from start to finish. Bergman displays so much truthful emotion one can’t help but be moved while watching her. And while she gave countless dazzling performances in many classic films, she is most fondly remembered for this role. It is the only time she would work with Bogart, and their chemistry is intoxicating, and is a large part of why this film works so well. Her warm tenderness and somberness bring out the sensitive side of Bogart to a degree I don’t think he ever again showed. The Swedish Bergman was a couple inches taller than Bogart, and in their scenes together he had to stand on blocks and sit on pillows to make him appear taller than her. “Casablanca” was not an easy job for Bergman. As the script wasn’t finished while shooting, no one knew which man “Ilsa” would end up with. According to her fascinating autobiography, “My Story”, when she asked who “Ilsa" is supposed to be in love with she was told, “We don’t know - just play it well… in-between”. A very difficult feat which Bergman aced. And the way she handled it makes the film even more intriguing. Two endings were intended to be shot - each in which she ends up with a different man. After shooting the first version, they knew they didn’t need to shoot an alternative. Every time I watch the film I find it amusing that the characters twice refer to a story without an ending - almost like an inside joke. Watching Bergman’s performance, you would never know her insecurity about how to play the romance. She is superb. I wrote more about Ingrid Bergman (one of my favorite actresses) in the “Notorious” entry, the third post on this blog.
A reason “Casablanca” so easily moves the heart, are the inspired performances by pretty much everyone in the film. That could be because this mostly international cast was filled with actors who ended up in Hollywood fleeing the Nazis. Of the film’s credited actors, only three were born in the United States (Bogart, Dooley Wilson who played “Sam”, and Joy Page who played the young Bulgarian refugee). Paul Henreid who stars as “Victor Laszlo” was one of those who fled his homeland, and he is perfect as the heroic leader of the resistance, offering strength, sophistication, and certainty into the mix. In actuality, he was anti-fascist and anti-Nazi. Born in Austria, Paul Henreid began studying theater in Vienna under famed director Max Reinhardt. He started appearing in mostly German and Austrian films in 1933. Because he was emphatically anti-Nazi, his assets were seized and he became an official enemy of the Third Reich. In 1935, he left Austria and began appearing in British films, including MGM's classic 1939 British production of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”. Henreid moved to the United States in 1940, appearing on Broadway and in films. His breakthrough role was opposite Bette Davis in the classic 1942 film “Now, Voyager”, which made him a star and romantic lead. Because of that success, he was reluctant to accept the role in “Casablanca” (which came immediately following “Now, Voyager”), feeling it was a step backwards, as Humphrey Bogart was the male star. However, Henreid was given star billing along with Bogart and Bergman, so he accepted the role. This film, along with “Now, Voyager” are the two roles for which he is best remembered. Like Bogart, he was one of the protesters against HUAC, but Henreid’s career suffered because of it, and he was blacklisted from the major studios for five years. As a result, starting in the mid-1950s, he would work mostly on television. His other films include "Of Human Bondage", "The Spanish Main", "Song of Love", "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", "The Madwoman of Chaillot", and his last film "Exorcist II: The Heretic" in 1977. He also became a producer and a director, directing television shows and films, including the 1964 classic thriller, “Dead Ringer” staring his friend Bette Davis. He was married once. Paul Henreid died in 1992 at the age of 84.
Claude Rains is brilliant as “Captain Louis Renault”. A magnificent and versatile actor, he brings much of the film’s humor and emotion. Rains excelled both in villain and sympathetic roles, making him the perfect choice for “Captain Renault”, as we keep trying to figure out who’s side he is on. He is so believable and endearing that for this role he received his second of four “Best Supporting Actor” Academy Award nominations (his other three were for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "Mr. Skeffington", and “Notorious”). He was one of only a few character actors to become a full-fledged movie star (many of whom are in this film). He appeared in over 70 films and TV shows - from dramas to horror to historical costume epics. He is an actor I love, and wrote briefly about (along with Ingrid Bergman) in my “Notorious” entry. He was married six times. Claude Rains died in 1967 at the age of 77.
Conrad Veidt plays “Major Heinrich Strasser”, the epitome of the sly, sinister Nazi you can’t help but hate. Funny, because in actuality he was devoutly anti-Nazi. Conrad Veidt was a German born actor, who became a huge success in silent films. He is best remembered as the lead in the 1920 silent German expressionist masterpiece, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (a film I love), along with his starring roles in 1928’s "The Man Who Laughs” (this role inspired the character of “The Joker” in the “Batman” comics), and the 1919 classic "Different from the Others" (which is noted as one of the first sympathetic depictions of homosexuality in movies). In the early 1930s he had a Jewish wife and stood with the Jews as their rights were being taken away by the Nazis. Being a prominent actor, he was given a choice to renounce his wife and join the Nazi Party. Instead, in a mandatory racial questionnaire for German film industry workers, he wrote “Jew” as his race (even though he wasn’t Jewish), putting his life and career at risk. After that, he and his wife moved to England in 1933 where he continued work as an actor, speaking English, German, and French. In this period he most notably appeared in three films by the extraordinary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -“The Spy in Black”, “Contraband”, and as “Jaffar” in “The Thief of Bagdad”. In 1941 he and his wife moved to Hollywood. Realizing he’d be typecast as Nazi’s, he stipulated in his contract that any Nazi he portrayed must be a villain. Some of his other Hollywood films include "A Woman's Face", "Above Suspicion", "Nazi Agent", and "All Through the Night" also with Humphrey Bogart. He was married three times, including the marriage to his Jewish wife Ilona in 1933, which lasted until his death. Conrad Veidt appeared in over 100 films, and “Casablanca” was his next to last, as he died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 1943 at the age of 50. Even though he wasn’t the star, he was the highest paid cast member in “Casablanca”.
“Casablanca contains many of Hollywood’s best character actors, and Sydney Greenstreet, who plays “Signor Ferrari”, is one of them. This gifted British born actor became very well known for playing deliciously imposing, often menacing characters. Although he appears in “Casablanca” briefly, you get a taste of the crooked, sinister types he excelled at portraying. Sydney Greenstreet was an accomplished stage actor for most of his life. He refused to make films, caving in when he was 61 years old. His first film was “The Maltese Falcon” (also with Bogart and Peter Lorre), for which he received a “Best Supporting Actor” Academy Award nomination (his only). “Casablanca” was his fourth film. Greenstreet was often paired with Peter Lorre, who also appears in “Casablanca”, although they have no scenes together. He and Lorre had thrilling chemistry and made nine films together, often playing partners in crime. Greenstreet made just over twenty films in his eight year film career, retiring from films in 1949. Other classics in which he appeared include "They Died with Their Boots On", "Christmas in Connecticut", "Passage to Marseille", "Flamingo Road”, “Hollywood Canteen”, and "The Mask of Dimitrios". He was reportedly the inspiration for the character of “Jabba the Hutt” in the “Star Wars” films. He married once, until his death. Sydney Greenstreet died in 1954 at the age of 74.
Peter Lorre, who plays “Signor Ugarte”, is another of Hollywood’s most well-known character actors. He was an actor with a distinct persona - a peculiar voice, bulging eyes, and an eccentric emotional manner. How can you not love Peter Lorre?! He only appears briefly in “Casablanca”, but makes enough of a mark to experience how unique and marvelous he was. As “Ugarte” he is nervous, likable, funny, and a little creepy - all traits Lorre often brought to his characters. Peter Lorre was born in Hungary, and began his stage career in Austria and then Germany where he worked with legendary German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Lorre began appearing in German films in 1929, and hit international fame starring in the classic Fritz Lang film “M” in 1931. Lorre was Jewish, and with the rise of Hitler he left Germany and ended up in London for a period. While there, he was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 classic, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, after which he moved to Los Angeles and began appearing in Hollywood films. At first he mostly worked in “B” films, including eight films in which he starred as detective and spy “Mr. Moto”. Lorre's career had a giant boost when he was cast in “The Maltese Falcon” in 1941, alongside Bogart and Greenstreet. From then on he worked steadily in films and some television until he died. He was adept at comedy and drama, and other classics of his include "Arsenic and Old Lace", "The Beast with Five Fingers”, "Secret Agent”, "The Mask of Dimitrios", "Beat the Devil", "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", "Around the World in 80 Days", "Silk Stockings”, and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. Because of his individual style and characteristics, Lorre was one of Hollywood’s most imitated and loved actors, and has even been paid tribute to in songs and cartoons. You will definitely see him again in upcoming films in this blog (as you will with most of the cast of “Casablanca”). He was married three times. Peter Lorre died in 1964 at the age of 59.
Dooley Wilson became immortalized with his role as “Sam”, the singing piano player in “Casablanca”. It’s no wonder his rich, soulful version of “As Time Goes By”, a song originally from 1931, was “Rick” and “Ilsa’s” song. “As Time Goes By” has become synonymous with Wilson and “Casablanca”. Wilson didn’t play the piano so his playing was dubbed. He is thoroughly convincing in the film, making you believe his long friendship with “Rick” and tentativeness with “Ilsa”. Dooley Wilson was a singer and actor who began in minstrel shows, vaudeville, and Broadway. He appeared in just 19 films from 1939 until 1951, sometimes in bit parts and sometimes in more substantial roles. Some of his classics include “Cabin in the Sky”, "Stormy Weather", "Knock on Any Door", "No Man of Her Own", and "Passage West”. “Casablanca” is the role for which he is best remembered. He was married twice. Dooley Wilson died in 1953 at the age of 67. While “Casablanca” helped catapult the song “As Time Goes By” into becoming a standard sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand, Wilson sings the definitive version. At the time of the film there was a musician’s strike so Wilson wasn’t able to record it commercially. Instead, the original 1931 recording by Rudy Vallée was re-released and became a #1 hit. “As Time Goes By” was ranked #1 in AFI's 100 YEARS...100 SONGS “The 100 Greatest American Movie Music” list. Max Steiner who composed the film’s score, brilliantly intertwines the song throughout the score.
And last but not least, in a "blink and you'll miss her" part, is Norma Varden. She plays the wife of the man whose wallet is stolen at the start of the film. I’m pointing her out because she is a face that appears in many classic films, and you will definitely see her again. An actress of British theater and films, when Hollywood called she moved there and began a very prolific career in smaller roles in films and television, appearing in classics such as "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", "The Sound of Music", "Doctor Dolittle", "Witness for the Prosecution", "National Velvet", "Random Harvest", "The Major and the Minor”, “Strangers On a Train”, “I Love Lucy”, and a recurring role in the 1960 TV show, “Hazel”. She always had a delightful presence and is fun to spot! Norma Varden died in 1969 at the age of 90.
Also nominated for Oscars for their work in “Casablanca” were Arthur Edeson for “Best Cinematography”, Owen Marks for “Best Film Editing”, and Max Steiner for “Best Music Score”. I wrote more about Max Steiner in three previous posts, “King Kong”, “Mildred Pierce”, and “Gone With the Wind”.
This film is fun, fast-paced, moving, and memorable. It is so enjoyable you can watch it again and again. Whether you’ve seen it twenty times or never, you are in for a real treat. Here is one of Hollywood’s most entertaining and legendary films, “Casablanca”! Enjoy!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
One powerful scene in “Casablanca” is the “battle of the anthems”. Filming it was very emotional for the people on the set, since many of the extras in the scene were actual refugees brought in by Curtiz for that scene. It is very moving and very potent to watch.
“Casablanca” is filled with iconic lines of dialogue, six of which made AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes “The 100 Greatest Movie Quotes Of All Time” list - the most of any film. Those six lines are:
Ranked at #5 - "Here's looking at you, kid.”
Ranked at #20 - "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Ranked at #28 - "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By’.”
Ranked at #32 - "Round up the usual suspects.”
Ranked at #43 - "We'll always have Paris.”
Ranked at #67 - "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
The line “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By’” is often misquoted as “Play It Again Sam”. The misquotation was even the title of a Broadway play and 1972 film, which was a kind of homage to “Casablanca”. Both were written by and starred Woody Allen.
All the scrambling and stress of coming up with the film’s ending paid off. The final scene of “Casablanca” became perhaps the most famous and iconic final movie scene in history!