By Craig Leask
Casablanca was one of those movies which that, for whatever reason, just lucked out more due to circumstance then planning. No one involved in making Casablanca had any idea the film was going to end up becoming a highly successful American classic, with the most identifiable quotes and ranked by Roger Ebert as the greatest film ever made. For those involved at the time it was simply another Warner Bros. release. Oh, it had a stellar cast – no question about it – with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet – a venerable dream team of talent and chemistry. It was made on a very tight budget, during the onslaught of WWII with labor and material shortages, and was thought of as just another film – one of hundreds being released each year.
The movie was based on the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison which was based upon Burnett’s observations during a 1938 visit to German occupied Vienna. Burnett and his wife Frances were there to help Jewish relatives smuggle money out of the country. The anti-Semitic propaganda and atrocities they witnessed greatly disturbed the pair and for Murray planted the seeds of a plot for an anti-Nazi, pro-French Resistance play. Leaving Vienna, the pair journeyed through the south of France, happening upon a nightclub which catered to a multinational clientele, which included many exiles, spies and refugees. A black pianist entertained the diverse crowd with the latest jazz renditions. This entertainer would later become the prototype for Sam.
In the summer of 1940 the Burnett’s returned to the United States and, six weeks later, the 27-year-old teacher had completed the play entitled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” with the collaboration of co-writer and friend Joan Alison. Although written for Broadway, the play was never picked up, purportedly in part due to the insinuation that Ilsa had slept with café owner Rick in order to obtain the necessary letters of transit to reach America. Although it was widely known that sex was being exchanged for favors, suggesting it in a play (or a movie) in 1940 was strictly forbidden.
This is where timing plays an important and serendipitous role. Upon failing to find a producer for their very timely play, Burnett and Alison were considering other options for the play which they strongly believed in, yet could not sell.
On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor leading to the entry of the United States into WWII. At this precise moment, Warner Brothers story editor Irene Diamond was in New York evaluating Burnett and Alison’s script as a possible movie. It was perfect timing as all movie studios were suddenly racing to capitalize on the event, and identify and develop patriotic pictures. With story analyst Stephen Karnot, Irene convinced Hal Wallis to purchase the rights to the story in January 1942 for $20,000 ($360,000 in today’s dollars). A record amount paid for an unproduced play, especially for one by unknown authors (by comparison, Warner Brothers had paid $8,000 for The Maltese Falcon which at the time, was a bestselling novel).
The venture was quickly renamed Casablanca in an effort to leverage the success of the 1938 hit Algiers and production commenced on May 25, 1942 (missing the original start date of April 10).
The United States’ entrance into WWII also brought with it the limitations of rationing, and on the use of the preferred airport locations. As a result the majority of Casablanca was filmed at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California, including the closing scene on the tarmac where Rick and Ilsa part ways. This scene had been scheduled to be completed at the Van Nuys Airport in Van Nuys, California, however as the film was being made during WWII, the studio was not permitted to film at the airport after dark for security reasons. To complete the scene within the confines of the sound stage and with a constrictive budget, a small cardboard cutout of a Lockheed Model 12 Electra Junior airplane was incorporated using perspective, fog to blur the appearance and “little person extras” to make the plane appear legitimate. Despite the documented facts that this was how the scene was completed, Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida secured a real Lockheed 12A for its attraction “The Great Movie Ride” claiming it was the actual plane used in the film.
Rationing, building supply restrictions and staffing implications surrounding the war effort led to the reuse of most sets from other films. The street used for the exterior shots had recently been built for 1943 film The Desert Song and was redressed for the Paris flashback scenes. These scenes were interspersed with stock footage of Paris to tie them into the story. Rick’s Café Américain was one of the few original sets built for the film and was based on the interiors of the Hotel El Minzah in Tangiers, Morocco.
The only scene not filmed at the studio was the opening scene, which depicts Nazi officer Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) flying past a nondescript airplane hangar. This shot was completed at the Van Nuys Airport. The airport hangar had just been utilized in the 1939 Laurel and Hardy comedy The Flying Deuces. Incidentally, the hanger was relocated to a Los Angeles parking lot in 2007 with plans for it to be restored and re-envisioned as a Moroccan-themed restaurant at Van Nuys Airport. The rapidly deteriorating original façade is still awaiting its rebirth.
Casablanca premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City on November 26, 1942. The release having been rushed to capitalize on the Allied Invasion of North Africa which occurred on November 8, 1942 and started the Naval Battle of Casablanca (November 8-12, 1942). Casablanca went into wide release on January 23, 1943, by happenstance capitalizing on the Casablanca Conference (January 14 to 24, 1943), a high-level strategy meeting hosted by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Anfa Hotel in Casablanca.
Per the title, the story takes place in Casablanca, Morocco, which during the war was under French rule. The city became one of the last exiting points for numerous Europeans gathered awaiting transit after fleeing Nazi occupation. For the purpose of the film, the Vichy Government, the French Regime which controlled the area, required difficult to obtain letters of transit for foreigners to book passage and leave the country. The oh so rare and valuable letters of transit required by so many of the characters in the film did not in fact exist. The idea for the letters was created purely as a plot motivator devised by the movie’s screenwriters and accepted by viewers as fact.
The story centers in and around a café (Rick’s Café Americain), it’s proprietor American expatriate Rick Blaine (Bogart), and the stories surrounding the various characters who pass through the café’s doors. Key are Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who is in possession of two stolen letters of transit he is attempting to sell; Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance leader and his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who are looking to purchase said letters; Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), a fellow expatriate and owner of the nearby café “The Blue Parrot”, who also dabbles in the Casablanca black market; and Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a Nazi commander on the trail of Laszlo . Complicating the story line is the relationship between Ilsa and Rick, her ex-lover whom she now needs in order to assist her husband’s escape to continue his work with the resistance. Before the letters can exchange hands however, Ugarte is arrested by the Vichy guard under the command of Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains). Finally, piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson), who’s character, although never fully explained, is fiercely loyal to Rick and has a history with both Rick and Ilsa.
To add authenticity to the range of secondary roles in the film, producer Hal B. Wallis hired actors who had first-hand experience of the war and of Nazi brutality – many were Jewish and had spent time in concentration camps.
Like many movies in production, certain classic elements of Casablanca nearly didn’t make the cut – particularly the iconic song. The score for Casablanca was written by Max Steiner (known for the scores of Gone With the Wind and King Kong). Steiner did not like “As Time Goes By” which was written by Herman Hupfeld and demanded it be excluded from the film. Fortunately, Bergman had already completed the scenes with Sam and had cut her hair for her next role (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1943), which meant the scenes could not be re-shot and the song stayed. “As Time Goes By” spent 21 weeks on the hit parade following the film’s release.
The film faced many hurdles with the Motion Picture Production Code Administration (the Hollywood self-censorship body) which was extremely powerful at the time and opposed the implied sexual favors required by Captain Renault of his applicants for transit letters, and the suggestion that Rick and Ilsa had had a previous sexual relationship. Further to this was the choice of endings – the option of having Ilsa leave Laszlo for Rick was quickly quashed as the Code forbade having a woman leave her husband for another man. The challenge then became not whether Ilsa would leave with Laszlo, but how this outcome could be effectively orchestrated, and how this scene could properly wrap up the movie. A tall order for the writers to be sure.
The ultimate ending of the film came after all other possibilities were exhausted, leaving but only one choice – Rick had to send Ilsa out of the country on the plane with Laszlo, thereby ending the love triangle and forcing the three to carry on working towards their own noble causes. This ending was decided so far into production that Bergman worried openly about how to play her scenes as she did not know whether Ilsa would end up with Rick or Laszlo. Ultimately, the movie’s message relays that the work required by the resistance in supporting the Allied war effort far surpasses the love of two individuals.
Casablanca’s true appeal surrounds the stories of those few individuals, passing through a café during a complex time and place, and the sacrifice of two lovers placing duty before their own happiness.
Casablanca was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including Best Picture and, according to the American Film Institute, remains one of the most popular films ever made.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.