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Why 'Casablanca' Sequels Never Work

Features
by Aljean Harmetz
April 3, 2013 12:52 PM
6 Comments
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Sequels are big business.  “Spiderman 24” and “Star Trek 48” will probably grace the box office sometime in the 22nd century since Hollywood is expert at squeezing every dollar from film and digital stones.

Luckily, some movies resist every attempt to find a future for their main characters. “Casablanca” is one of them.

The New York Post reported March 31 that a collector had purchased from the widow of Murray Burnett -- the co-author of “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” the play on which “Casablanca” was based -- a treatment for a sequel that he wrote in the 1980s.

It was neither the first nor the last time that writers would try to find some way to extend the lives of Ilsa and Rick -- with or without Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. After “Casablanca” was a box office success and unexpectedly won the Academy Award as the best picture of 1943, Warner Bros. announced “Brazzaville,” which would star Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and, replacing Ingrid Bergman, Geraldine Fitzgerald as a Red Cross nurse. It was the first of many attempts that went nowhere.

“The reason it never works, no matter how hard they try, is that people have in their heads Bogart and Bergman,” Julius Epstein, who shared an Oscar for the movie’s screenplay with his twin brother Philip and Howard Koch, told me in the 1990s when I interviewed him for my book, “The Making of ‘Casablanca.”  “The new actors may be better, but they’re not Bogart and Bergman.”

Howard Koch wrote a treatment for a sequel that had as its lead character the son of Bogart and Bergman. Presumably the boy was conceived during that dissolve in Rick’s apartment. Epstein went a different way. He tried twice -- in 1951 and again in 1967 -- to turn the movie into a Broadway musical.

“Casablanca” had barely reached theaters in 1943 when Frederick Stephani, a writer-director of the serial “Flash Gordon” (1936), concocted a story in which Rick and Captain Renault (Claude Rains) had been secretly working for the allies. “Casablanca’s producer, Hal Wallis, asked a writer under contract to Warners, Frederick Faust, to assess the story. “The moment Rick becomes, as in Stephani, an agent of the secret police, the interest in his position and character largely evaporates,” Faust wrote in a memo, and Stephani’s story was rejected.

In 1955, Warners tried again, with a television series starring Charles McGraw as Rick. The stories were heartwarming with Rick helping an Arab orphan in one episode. The series lasted seven months.

Warners had more success in 1998 with a moderately well-reviewed novel by Michael Walsh, “As Time Goes By.” Even though Rick was a Jewish gangster and Ilsa’s husband was conveniently killed, words on a page did not have to compete with Bogart and Bergman.

Perhaps the most successful tribute to the movie is not a sequel but a recreation of Rick’s Café in Casablanca. A commercial attaché at the United States Consulate in Casablanca, Kathy Kriger daydreamed about building Rick’s Café. September 11, 2001 changed the fantasy to an obsession.  Watching “Casablanca” once again on September 12, she decided that she could do something about an anti-Arab backlash in America. Within a week she had resigned from the Foreign Service to “create an iconic gin joint” in a city she loved. It took three years to thread her way through the agony of Arab bureaucracy and Arab banks, a journey detailed in her book, “Rick’s Café, Bringing the Film Legend to Life in Casablanca.”

Rick’s Café opened in 2004. According to Jessica Rains, the daughter of Claude Rains, and Monika Henreid, the daughter of Paul Henreid, two of the polyglot group of Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, and Moroccans who have thronged the bar, the food is good too.

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More: Features, Classics, Casablanca

6 Comments

  • Michael Chase Walker | April 9, 2013 10:49 AMReply

    I remember Sydney Pollack's "Havana" with Robert Redford and Alan Arkin being touted as a Casablanca-related offshoot, and then after seeing it wondered why they even bothered. I would like to see musical adapted by the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female Japanese musical theater company that ran from November 2009 through February 2010.

  • Aljean Harmetz | April 4, 2013 2:51 PMReply

    Thanks, Mike. Corrections made

    Edward, I agree. And I have watched, rather painfully, "The Evening Star." Interestingly, bad movies can often be successfully remade. To me, the prime example of a classic book that only became a classic movie the third time it was filmed, is "The Maltese Falcon." There was a 1931 movie with Bebe Daniels, then a 1936 version (titled "Satan Was a Lady") starring Bette Davis. What John Huston did was put much of Dashiell Hammett's pacing and dialogue directly on to the screen, sort of like some painters throw paint at a canvas.

    Jamie, I think "Casablanca" does come close to being a "perfect" movie. As I wrote in "The Making of Casablanca," I think that Howard Koch's idealism was leavened by the Epstein twins' cynicism, and vice versa, so the script got better and better in every version I read.

    Murray, Thanks for your comment. It's a cruel world out there.

  • mike schlesinger | April 3, 2013 7:44 PMReply

    Some corrections: The 1936 serial is simply named "Flash Gordon." "Space Soldiers" was its TV title, to avoid conflicting with a then-current series. The 1955 TV series "Casablanca" did not air weekly, but every third week, in rotation as part of a semi-anthology series called "Warner Bros. Presents." And for the sake of completeness, the 1983 TV series with David Soul merits mention.

  • Edward Copeland | April 3, 2013 6:58 PMReply

    With a film as indelible as Casablanca, there absolutely no point in doing a sequel without at least some of the original cast members available to re-create their roles. Even then, it usually turns out to be a bad idea. If anyone needs evidence, watch -- if you dare -- The Evening Star, the sequel to Terms of Endearment. Only Shirley MacLaine really returned, Jack Nicholson put in a cameo and Miranda Richardson and Marion Ross took over two other parts. Jeff Daniels knew enough to stay away. There's also The Sting II, where somehow Paul Newman and Robert Redford were transformed into Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis. With all the dumb ideas people in the entertainment industry come up with, Ray Bolger singing "If I Only Had a Brain" should play at all industry-related venues and meeting spots on a perpetual loop.

  • MURRAY WEISSMAN | April 3, 2013 6:25 PMReply

    How great to read an Aljean column on a subject she is so expert about.
    Extend my regards to her, one of the best ever NYT reporters

  • Jamie | April 3, 2013 5:58 PMReply

    Every once in a rare while you get a "perfect" movie. Casablanca isn't just Bogart and Bergman. Where could you find another Dooley Wilson, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, or Peter Lorre? The sound, the cinematography, the dialogue and even the history of the time all come together for a film that simply defies either remake or sequel. Just give up and leave it alone to continue to amaze future generations.

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