“In the good old days, when the studio factories stretched across Los Angeles under an achingly blue unsullied sky, the end of production of one film was barely distinguishable from the last hours of the film that had been finished a week before, or the film that would be completed two weeks later.
Warner Brothers Studio had commissioned Casablanca, & production ended on 3/8/42. Nobody involved was unhappy that the filming was finally over. Most of the actors hadn’t liked each other. The director, Michael Curtiz, had been as vicious & rude as ever to his crew & bit part players. The war made it impossible to film real aircraft so Bogart had said goodbye to Bergman in front of a plywood plane on Stage 1, with fog pumped in to disguise the phoniness. The film had started in May, & the screenwriters were still writing (& writing & re-writing) dialogue in mid July. The actors were edgy, & Bogart lashed out more than once on set. He made 3 other films that year, & admitted to having much more fun on “Across the Pacific”. Bergman had taken the role in Casablanca only because she had been turned down for the role she really wanted, that of Maria in “For whom the Bell Tolls”. She lived to work, and was beside herself with joy to receive a call from casting on 3/8 to say she was being recalled & she was now Maria. Six other films were shooting at Warner Bros the week Casablanca – neither the most important or expensive – was finished. It cost $1m. Compare that to Air Force ($2.7m), Edge of Darkness & The Adventures of Mark Twain cost over $1.5m each, even The Desert Song (updated with Nazi villains) cost $1.2m. Altogether seven writers worked on the script, the cinematographer & film editor were men who happened to be available the week production started, & the film’s most famous line was written weeks after shooting had finished.
Like most of the films made under the studio system, Casablanca was an accumulation of accidents. It was finished 3rd August & Edge of Darkness took over the sound stage August 4th. “One in & one out” as Rick Blaine would say when Ilsa walked back into his life. It had itself taken over the sound stage from TDS. A few signs & two live parrots turned the French Morocco of the heroic freedom fighter El Khobar into the French Morocco of heroic freedom fighter Victor Lazlo. Half a dozen bit players with foreign accents got a full weeks work by straddling the two films. More than half the films made by Warners in 1942 dealt in one way or another with the war, a bonanza for actors who had fled from Berlin & Vienna. The cast of Casablanca was filled with those Jewish refugees, many of them playing Nazis.
Casablanca was a mosaic of fortune – good & bad. Michelle Morgan wanted $55,000 to star in the film. Warner Bros secured Bergman for $25,000. Both young actresses had been successful in their initial American films (Morgan in “Joan of Paris”). Bergman had followed “Intermezzo” with three mediocre offerings, but Casablanca made her a star. Would it have done the same for Morgan, whose career ended after three films ? The composer Max Steiner hated “As time goes by” & wanted it replaced with one of his own. Bergman had, however, already had her hair cut short for the part in FWTBT & could not re-shoot the necessary scenes. The script writers, brought re-written scripts to the set every day. – did this contribute to the films success because Bergman was confused about what & how she should feel towards Bogart – or in spite of it ? Bergman came from the school of acting that said a character had to be nurtured & built, she hated improvisation. Bogart was more relaxed about it, but nevertheless miffed that his self evident sex appeal was only discovered in Casablanca, & that only because of the screen chemistry with Bergman. Three weeks after the conclusion of filming, Curtiz would shoot a new scene, a police official announcing the murder of two German couriers, in an attempt to add some drama to the film’s first few moments. Bogart would record a new last line. Two were trialled – “Luis, I might have known you’d mix your patriotism with a little larceny”, & “Luis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. The story editor crossed out the more cynical line & sent the other over to Curtiz. When recorded by Bogart, he surely could not have imagined that the words he was reciting would become one of the most famous last lines in film history, or because of Casablanca, he could replace Errol Flynn as Warner’s top box office star.
Like most productions, Casablanca ended with a whimper. On the last day in early August, Bergman & Henreid spent 40 minutes on French Street, doing silent shots. Curtiz filmed them from the point of view of Bogart, who was already down at Newport on his boat, hiding from his wife who was convinced he was having an affair with Bergman. For the rest of the day, Curtiz took 79 extras from central casting & filmed them as refugees running from the police in the opening scenes of the film. The other actors had also scattered. Rains returned to his farm. Veidt to the golf course. Lorre & Greenstreet were on holiday, Wilson meanwhile was back with his family in Hollywood.
With appropriate symmetry for a film that encapsulated both the idealism that Americans brought to the war & the forced renunciation of private lives that the war had brought to them, Casablanca entered the studio system on 8/12/41 – the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour – & departed – draped with an Academy Award for Best Picture in the spring of 1944, when the allies were poised to liberate Europe.
As one of the scriptwriters, Howard Koch, said in 1989, “I’ve always had a mystical feel about Casablanca. That it got made itself somehow. That it needed to be made & that we are all just conveyors on the belt, taking it there. I’ve had calls from people who have seen the film more than 50 times, because it means that much to them. Of course, it’s just a film, but it’s really more than that. It’s become something that people can’t find in values today”
There are many better films than Casablanca, but possibly none more loved, & certainly none better in demonstrating Americas mythological vision of itself – tough on the outside, moral within, capable of sacrifice & romance without denying the individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism. No other film has reflected both the moment it was made & the psychological needs of audiences decades later. It’s potent blend of romance & idealism just couldn’t be made today. There are too many characters too densely packed, & the plot spins in a hard-to-catch-your-balance circular way instead of walking a straight line. It was an accident, of course, to blend a theme and half a dozen actors, an old song & a script full of cynical lines & moral certainty into the 110 minutes that have since settled deep into the psyche – but a happy one.
© DJM 2018