As time goes by, the Best Picture of 1943 has only gotten better. Celebrate its 75th year with a return to Rick’s Café Américain.
“Casablanca” is synonymous with romance, intrigue, and danger. Back in 1942, it meant little, except to the top brass at Warner Bros., who saw a marketing hook for their movie of the same name in the Allied invasion of North Africa that November. Following its New York City premiere on November 26, the film adaptation of an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s rolled out nationally today in 1943. In time, everybody would come to Casablanca.
Its worth was immediately established. Casablanca was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three, for Outstanding Motion Picture (which went to producer Hal B. Wallis), Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Writing, Screenplay (shared by brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein, and Howard E. Koch). The mystique of Oscar-nominated star Humphrey Bogart, who would emerge as Hollywood’s quintessential world-weary anti-hero, helped fuel its ongoing popularity. And the screenplay still resonates. “But there is no single thing that makes Casablanca endure, or that makes it so ardently loved and appreciated, 75 years after its original release,” says film historian Noah Isenberg, whose book about the film, We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie will be released, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day.
Casablanca has an abundance of heart, heartache, and noble sacrifice. The film offers a compelling love story, as Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, marooned in neutral Casablanca with her husband, Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), must choose between him and her embittered former lover, Bogart’s Rick Blaine, the café owner who possesses the letters of transit necessary for their flight to America. Make that two compelling love stories, as an unexpected bromance develops between Rick and corrupt Vichy official Louis Renault (Claude Rains, also Oscar-nominated). There’s sporadic action involving a heinous Nazi, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), and a classic battle—not involving weapons, but songs, as Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” in Rick’s café are drowned out by a refugee rendition of “La Marseillaise” in a rousingly patriotic sequence. The story comes to life in classic Warner Bros. style, with Oscar-nominated editing (Owen Marks), cinematography (Arthur Edeson) and music (Max Steiner), plus a deep bench of supporting actors including the studio’s “usual suspects,” Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, and European émigrés. In short, much to make a wartime audience, and audiences thereafter, swoon.
Rich with personalities, the film is also rich with dialogue. Spoken as Renault transforms from villain to hero and joins Rick in their “beautiful friendship,” “Round up the usual suspects!” had a “quite wonderful” origin, Isenberg said. “The Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, who provided most of the film’s most caustic, acid-laced lines, and who were known to finish each other’s sentences, were struggling to come up with an appropriate follow-up line to that very sly use of the passive voice in the final act, when Renault (Claude Rains) announces, ‘Major Strasser has been shot.’ They didn’t know what should come next. And so, while driving to the studio one day, somewhere near the intersection of Sunset and Beverly Glen, when stopped at a red light, they both purportedly turned to each other and blurted out, ‘Round up the usual suspects!’”
“Bogie” himself came up with another classic. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” that one has always been attributed to Humphrey Bogart, something that he improvised—possibly an expression he simply liked to say,” Isenberg said.
If you think “Play it again, Sam,” is part of this hit parade, you are, as Rick is of Casablanca’s waters, “misinformed.” That’s not what Ilsa or Rick say as tensions rise in front of Rick’s loyal piano player, portrayed by drummer Dooley Wilson. Blame Woody Allen. “In 1969, during the heyday of the Bogie cult, he wrote and starred in a highly successful stage play with the misleading title Play It Again, Sam—misleading because, as any diehard Casablanca fan will tell you, that line never appears in the original film. Ilsa says, ‘Play it once, Sam’ and ‘Play it, Sam’ while Rick implores, ‘Play it!’ Owing to the success of Allen’s play—it was on Broadway for more than a year—and the Herbert Ross screen adaptation in 1972, the expression somehow stuck.”
Casablanca is movie for all time. Another part of that, Isenberg says, is “the strange and profound pleasure that the film elicits in its viewers upon re-watching it. It almost invites repeat viewing, which perhaps explains why it has enjoyed more television broadcasts than any other film in the history of motion pictures and why it continues to air on Turner Classic Movies with staggering frequency. Warner Bros. is planning a 75th-anniversary theatrical release, and I suspect masses of moviegoers will flock to see it, just as they did when it opened at the Hollywood Theatre in New York City on Thanksgiving Day 1942.”