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Casablanca

by Peter Bogdanovich
September 18, 2010 11:44 AM
11 Comments
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There is no more enduring cosmic lucky accident in picture history than the 1943 Warner Bros. classic World War II romantic foreign adventure, Casablanca (available on DVD). “Most of the good things in pictures,” John Ford said, “happened by accident.” When he told me this, rather offhandedly, he was in his seventies and had directed nearly 140 films while I had directed one, and was more than a little surprised by his comment. Ford was Orson Welles’ favorite American director and when I repeated the old man’s remark to Welles, his eyes brightened as he confirmed the statement with an inspired, “Yes!” He paused and then added, excitedly, “You could almost say a director is a man who presides over accidents!” Now, after doing a score of other films, I’ve found that these are two key words-of-wisdom and have amazingly complex layers of meaning, the more pictures you make. Ford, who was always terse in his remarks, even elaborated once: “Sometimes you have good luck on pictures; most of the time you have bad luck.” And luck, ultimately for the Greeks, came from the Fates who, as we know, are either with us or they’re not. When you are making a movie, you feel part of a larger, unstoppable adventure, over which you only have so much control, and the rest is, as Jeff Bridges succinctly puts it: “The hand you get dealt.”

It stands also as the single favorite vindication of the Hollywood studio system, circa 1912-1962, because there is no other way Casablanca could have been made and worked as well. Yet if you remove any single element, the whole thing falls apart. Just imagine someone other than Humphrey Bogart as Rick——say, George Raft, who turned down the role. Raft was a much bigger Warner Bros. star at the moment and had far more leverage with studios on choice of material. Bogart was assigned the picture and had no way out of doing it, even though the script was not in good shape when filming began, and there were constant revisions coming in throughout shooting. This can have on actors the positive effect of freshness, no one having time to over prepare. But it can also make them anxious and unhappy. Now subtract Ingrid Bergman, who had to be borrowed from David Selznick, which means the role could have more easily gone instead to a contract player like Bette Davis or Ida Lupino.

When they asked Bogart how come he had never been so romantic in a movie before——Casablanca was the film that made Bogart an A-list leading man——he responded very wisely, “If you have someone who looks like Ingrid Bergman looking at you as though you’re adorable, you are.” Bogart was referring, at least in part, to Bergman’s first close-up, upon getting Sam to pay “As Time Goes By”; it must be the longest-held closeup in pictures--it goes on and on--of her at her most gorgeous, looking off with troubled adoration of Bogie.

Imagine Howard Hawks directing--he was offered the script before contract veteran Michael Curtiz; Hawks used to refer to Casablanca as “that musical,” mentioning the scene at Rick’s nightclub where everyone stands and sings along during the playing of France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” in a face-off with a bunch of Nazis. “I couldn’t do stuff like that,” Hawks said. But Curtiz who, because he had no discernible artistic personality, had no compunctions about doing whatever the script called for, and generally with considerable dispatch. As the studio system fell apart, so did Curtiz' career. Hawks would have done his own version of A Night at Rick’s, the script’s original title, but it wouldn’t have been the Casablanca we know and love. It would have been To Have and Have Not, which Hawks made with Bogart a couple of years later and which some of us know and love even more than Casablanca. Another lucky force in the directing area was the impact of the estimable Don Siegel’s second-unit, montage and insert work on the picture; this was his department at Warner Bros. from the early ‘30s to the mid-‘40s, and had a great deal to do with the general verve and vitality of Warner’s major pictures in those years.

Then there’s all those extraordinary supporting actors, each under exclusive Warner Bros. contracts: Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, S.K. (“Cuddles”) Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet, Marcel Dalio, plus an attractive and likeable second lead, Paul Henreid. An international cast——English, French, German, Hungarian, Russian, Swedish——a Hungarian director, a North African setting created entirely on the American back lot. The recipe is intriguing, add the “coincidence” of the real Casablanca becoming the rendezvous for that highest level World War II conference of the Allies just before the release of the film, and you realize this was a movie greater than the sum of its parts. The selfless message--that “The lives of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans” compared to the enormous struggle against oppression then raging around the world--needed to get out there, and clearly the Fates were around to help that happen.

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11 Comments

  • dalton trogdon jr. | June 16, 2014 5:01 PMReply

    Dear Peter, That is just magic.I have said that about films I love.Cosmic accident is another way to say that.Some just soar above the rest and I have to wonder,why? I would love to hear you comment on the Lonesome Dove film with John Wayne,James Stewart and Henry Fonda that you were to direct in 1972.Not having a chance to see what could have been is an unhappy Cosmic accident indeed.

  • Alan K. Rode | January 18, 2011 3:02 AMReply

    Peter, Love your piece, but have to take mild exception with a pair of statements
    1. I don't believe that George Raft turned down Casablanca even though Hal B. Wallis indicated such in his ghostwritten bio near the end of his life. Casablanca was a Bogart vehicle all the way. Per Hal Wallis's response of 4/13/42 to Jack L.Warner's 4/2/42 suggestion to replace Bogart with Raft:

    "I have thought this over very carefully the matter of George Raft in Casablanca and I have discussed it with Mike, and we both feel he should not be in the picture. Bogart is ideal for it and it is being written for him, and I think we should forget Raft for this property. Incidentally, he hasn't done a picture here since I was a little boy, and I don't think he should be able to put his fingers on just what he wants to do when he wants to do it"

    2. "As the studio system fell apart, so did Curtiz' career." Well, not entirely. The Breaking Point (1950) was one of his best WB pictures, but Jack L.Warner pulled the plug on promoting it because of John Garfield and the Blacklist. The schmaltzy White Christmas (1954) was a huge box office hit as the first Vistavision picture from Paramount. Curtiz might not have been Wyler, Ford or Hawks, but he wasn't that far behind.

  • Stephen | December 13, 2010 3:59 AMReply

    You can get a taste of what the film would have been like with a different cast by listening to the 1944 Lux Radio Theatre version - with Alan Ladd, Heddy Lamarr and John Loder in the lead roles. (Its available on the internet.) Ladd and Lamarr are actually okay, but not as good as the originals - and the support cast are not even in the same ball park.

  • Bob MacLean (http://robertmaclean.blogspot.com/) | December 6, 2010 3:37 AMReply

    Make that, of course, 1942.

  • Bob MacLean (http://robertmaclean.blogspot.com/) | December 6, 2010 3:36 AMReply

    Can you hear the cheers from 1943 audiences? Major Strasser: Can you imagine us in London? Rick: When you get there, ask me. Major Strasser: How about New York? Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.

  • Bob MacLean (http://robertmaclean.blogspot.com/) | October 31, 2010 6:01 AMReply

    And by the way, here’s my favorite version of the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FogmcygI3A&feature=related.

  • Bob MacLean (http://robertmaclean.blogspot.com/) | October 31, 2010 5:51 AMReply

    It did need to get out there. Casablanca was made, almost like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, to explain the war to Americans. It’s an allegory. Rick is isolationist America—“I stick my neck out for nobody”—until he does. In all things, even in love, he’s a businessman (“A frank for your thoughts.” “In America they’d bring only a penny.”), but when he sells his bar and Signor Ferrari wants Sam thrown in he says, “I don’t buy or sell human beings”—the very issue that was, to use Griffith’s phrase, the birth of the nation.

    And each of the other men has an allegorical (which is to say one-to-one) meaning: the Gestapo major, the Czech underground, the Russian bartender—and Vichy France as a discarded bottle of water. The women on the other hand (are you listening girls?) are symbols, self-contradictory, bearing richer ranges of meaning. Yvonne may love Rick and flirt with the Russian and sleep with the German but she’ll lead the Marseillaise passionately enough to get the bar closed.

  • Stephen | October 3, 2010 1:25 AMReply

    I agree with the above poster about the singing of "Les Marseillaise". I get goosebumps every time I watch that scene, it's so brilliant. The film definitely feels like it has no head unlike films by more the artistically-minded directors you mention, but you hit the nail on the head. I love every bit of this film, I could watch it any time. But at the same time, it bust be a massive thorn in the sides of those who swear by the auteur theory.

  • Allen | September 23, 2010 6:13 AMReply

    Couldn't agree more Peter. Just dead on casting, with terrific pacing, and a great score. Bergman couldn't be more beautiful. And am I the only one who laughs at Rick's line that follows, "Is that cannon fire, or the pounding of my heart?" What a man's response. In closing, I let my high school students watch this at the end of the year last semester and they loved it and were glued to the end. Ages 15-18. How many movies of that period (or any time, for that matter) could do that to a group of teens itching for summer break?

  • Chris | September 22, 2010 8:02 AMReply

    Casablanca is one of my top 5. When I got my first VCR in '81, I practically burned down the heads watching it over and over.

  • Mickey Fisher | September 22, 2010 1:04 AMReply

    This is one of those perfect films that is every bit as wonderful today. Everyone fits their roles like the proverbial gloves and it is one of the most inspiring movies ever made. To me, the scene where they outsing the Germans speaks volumes. It's sticking it to Hitler, and is one of Hollywood's greatest scenes.

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