Here’s Looking at You Kid: “Casablanca” Turns 75 Years Old

Casablanca

“Casablanca,” that quintessentially Hollywood concoction of romance, intrigue, cynicism, idealism, quips and patriotism, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.  Frankly this comes as a surprise because when I originally saw it during college it ALREADY seemed 75 years old.  I just did the math and when I first saw “Casablanca” in 1973, it was barely 30 years after the premiere – the chronological equivalent of someone watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” today.

But if “Ferris Bueller” still seems fresh, contemporary, and in tune with today’s zeitgeist, “Casablanca” in the 1970s clearly belonged to a distant era.  In its values, “Casablanca” comes from a time of seriousness-of-purpose, old-fashioned heroism, and sacrifice.  In the 1970s, we lived in a post-Sixties world of selfishness and me-first-ism.  Not much has changed, which makes the movie as other-worldly and refreshing today as it was 40 years ago.

I’ve rewatched “Casablanca” more than any other movie (and what does it mean when the five movies I’ve watched over and over – “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “My Girl Friday,” and “Casablanca” – were all made within ten years of each other in the Golden Age of Hollywood?)  It particularly appealed to me as a college student coming of age in an un-heroic time.  There’s something about sacrificing yourself for a greater goal that appeals to young men, especially if you can be as tough and steely as Humphrey Bogart.  Indeed, Woody Allen made an entire movie (“Play It Again Sam”) about how he could be more like Bogart.

But just as “The Catcher in the Rye” says something different to you when you’re 55 than it does when you are 15, so too does “Casablanca” resonate differently now that I’m a much older adult.

The first thing I noticed on a recent reviewing was that it’s just about the most watchable and sly propaganda movie ever made.  It premiered on November 26, 1942, less than a year after American entry into World War II.  Of course we know now how the war turned out but in the dark days of 1942, it was not so obvious.  Hitler was at the peak of his powers, France was still occupied by the Germans, and there was no guarantee that the Allies would be able to liberate Europe. Told through the prism of a love triangle, “Casablanca” rallies America to the cause of anti-Fascism, offers hope that decency will prevail over evil, and even excuses the isolationism that initially kept America out of the war.

Here’s the basic plot:  It’s December 1941, just days before Pearl Harbor, and we’re in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, which is choking with refugees fleeing the Nazis.  America is still neutral and so is our protagonist, Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart), who runs a popular nightclub called “Rick’s Cafe Americain.”  Once an idealist, fighting with the anti-Fascists in Ethiopia and Spain, Rick is now an embittered shell of his former self, telling anyone who inquires “I stick my neck out for no man.” He is clearly a stand-in for the United States, which had idealistically embraced World War I as the “war to end all wars,” only to see Europe become even more dysfunctional than before.  Like Rick, the disillusioned America had become inward-looking and isolationist.

We soon learn the cause of his bitterness.  In the early days of the war he’d been in love with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who’d left him the day the day the Germans marched into Paris to occupy the city.  It turns out she’s secretly married to a famous Czech Resistance leader, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), whom she thought was dead but who turned up alive just before she went to meet Rick at the Paris train station (although Rick doesn’t know any of this).

Rick and Ilsa

Rick and Ilsa during happier times in Paris

As refugees on the run from the Nazis, the Lazlos turn up at Rick’s café, asking for help so Victor can continue the fight for freedom, and he initially refuses because he thinks Ilsa had played him for a patsy in Paris.  But Rick regains his idealism and willingness to help when 1) Ilsa confesses that she still loves him, and 2) Victor offers to help Rick and Ilsa escape because he loves her enough to let her get free, even if it’s with another man.

In the end all the cynicism falls away when Rick realizes there are still others with pure hearts and that he hadn’t been duped by love after all.  And of course the Nazis are brutes too, so there’s that.  In the climactic scene, he sends the Lazlos on the plane to Lisbon and he and his friend Captain Renault (Claude Rains) escape to a Free French garrison somewhere in the desert.  Just like the United States itself, Rick has shrugged off his temporary neutrality and regained his purpose in the world.

The above summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the convoluted plot or to the moment in history that “Casablanca” represents.  In 1942, half of France was directly occupied by the Germans, while the other half and its North African territories were governed by the unoccupied puppet government led by Marshall Petain in Vichy France.  In other words, although the Germans are pulling the strings in the background, the city of Casablanca is still nominally under French control, which supposedly explains why Victor Lazlo, one of the Gestapo’s most wanted targets, somehow manages to walk around unmolested.

There’s also a convoluted subplot about two “letters of transit” signed by General de Gaulle himself that are sort of like a “get out of jail free” card for whomever is carrying them (of course it’s ridiculous to think to think that letters signed by Charles de Gaulle, the enemy of the Vichy government, would entitle the bearers to anything but a trip to a concentration camp.) This is a great bit of Hollywood hokum and the pivot around which the whole movie turns – who will get to use them and go free?  The more you watch the movie the more you groan at this creaking plot device.

One thing you never groan at, though, is the snappy dialogue. When the American Film Institute produced a list of the 100 greatest lines in movie history, Casablanca let the list with seven, including many that have entered the lexicon of everyday life.  Watching the movie for the first time is like reading the bible or Shakespeare: “Oh that’s where that saying comes from!” Some of the best-known quotes include:

  • “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  • “Round up the usual suspects.”
  • “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
  • “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”
  • “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
  • “We’ll always have Paris.”
  • “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

Here they are in context in 38 seconds:

But it’s not just one-liners that make the writing a delight.  Except for the very serious Nazis and the even-more-serious Lazlo, all the characters are witty or mordant.  They’re living on the edge, which generates a live-for-today mentality.  Rick’s wit is bitter – when asked for his nationality, he says “I’m a drunkard.”  Captain Renault, the chief of police, is a deeply amoral hedonist, caring only about surviving and exploiting pretty refugees. When the Lazlos come looking for Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the original owner of the two letters of transit, they discover he died in jail, which prompts Captain Renault to quip, “I am making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”

That the script ever came off at all is a miracle in its own right.   Julius and Philip Epstein (the uncles of Red Sox and Cubs general manager Theo Epstein!!!!) started writing the movie in early 1942, only to drop the project to work for Propaganda Czar Frank Capra.  Howard Koch, another writer, was brought on to finish it, unsuccessfully, so the Epsteins returned to write the final scenes even as the movie was being filmed.  In other words, when production started, no one knew the ending. Even by Hollywood’s factory-town approach to movie-making this was slapdash.  But Warner Bros. was in a hurry to get the movie into theaters as soon to keep up with current events.  As it was, even though the movie was set to open in spring 1943, it actually premiered in November 1942 to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca. It went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between Roosevelt and Churchill.

As great as the writing is, the movie’s great emotional climaxes are musical.  The scene in which Lazlo leads the patrons and employees in singing “The Marseilles” is one of the most inspiring moments in cinematic history.  Whenever I feel the need for a little pick-me-up, I play this clip:

The other famous musical scene is when Ilsa comes into Rick Café for the first time, sees the piano player Sam and asks him to play “As Time Goes By,” the song he played for her and Rick in Paris.    (It’s in this scene where the line “Play it Sam” gets mangled in the public’s imagination as “Play it again, Sam,” which is the name of the Woody Allen movie.)  The scene is pure 40’s romanticism at its best.  By the way, you can make an interesting comparison to the passivity that the Ingrid Bergman character displays in both scenes: in one she’s in awe of her heroic husband, but in the other she’s musing about her lost love.

Somewhat surprisingly, “Casablanca” went on to win a Best Picture Oscar in 1942, “surprising” because even then it was considered high-end schlock.  (I mean, those letters of transit?  Really??!!)  And it more or less faded away as cinema moved first into Technicolor, then into the feel-good Fifties, and finally the counterculture Sixties.  In the Sixties World War II seemed very far away and no longer talked about it, even though many of our fathers had actually served in the war.

The resurgence of “Casablanca” was closely tied to a reappreciation of Bogart himself.  After “Casablanca” Bogart became a major movie star, winning the Oscar for “The African Queen” and marrying the very young and very sultry Lauren Bacall.  But all that smoking and drinking did him in and he died of lung cancer in 1957, a relic of old Hollywood.

But he was rediscovered by French intellectuals in the late 50s and in “Breathless,” one of the most influential New Wave films of the era, the protagonist, wanting to be cool, sees a Bogart still and tries to imitate him.

Once French intellectuals adopted Bogart, college students followed suit, with the first beachhead at Harvard.  Legend has it that when the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge played “Casablanca” during exam week, the Harvard students would stand and sing during “The Marseilles” scene, a proto-“Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience.

Understanding Bogart is key to understanding the appeal of “Casablanca.”   I ended up doing my senior thesis on Bogart, when I graduated from college in the mid-seventies and I still thank my adviser Eleanor Ilgen for letting me focus on a non-traditional topic.  I did make one fundamental error, though.  My topic was Humphrey Bogart as a cultural icon in the 1940s, but what I should have done is studied him as a cultural figure in the 1970s.  The more interesting question would have been what was it about him that appealed to us in the Seventies?

My girlfriend at the time assured me that she thought Bogart was sexy, but I always found that hard to believe.  He didn’t achieve real stardom until he was in his Forties and wasn’t conventionally handsome.  He had that lisp, was overly sarcastic and looked like he’d led a pretty tough life. But he did have that sense of “cool” that attracted the French.  Cool is the ability to do socially-approved activities effortlessly and with diffidence and Bogart was full of diffidence.

Bogart exuded a new form of masculinity too.  Before the existential neuroticism of James Dean and Marlon Brando, there was the world-weary, disillusioned Bogart.  Primarily a creation of urban America, Bogart was full of repressed violence and rage at a society that had seemingly lost its honor.  In “Casablanca” he’s more than happy to shoot anyone who will stand in his way, even as he doesn’t particularly care if he gets shot himself.  When Ilsa pulls a gun and tries to force Rick to give up the letters of transit (there they are again!) he says, “Go ahead and shoot.  You’ll be doing me a favor.”

In the end, Rick/Bogart does the heroic thing, sacrificing his happiness so Lazlo’s underground activities can continue.  Poor Victor Lazlo.  All he did was lead the Resistance to the most serious threat to liberal democracy the world has ever seen and he’s portrayed as a bit of a stiff – no where near as interesting as the more flawed, struggling Rick.

If you’ve never seen “Casablanca,” by all means do so. And if you haven’t see it in the last ten years, go watch it again.  It’s a classic for a reason.  It’s not my favorite movie from that era and I no longer consider Bogart a role model, but there’s still something seductive about the imagined world that it conjures: exotic but accessible; heroic but witty; sexy but glamorous.  We should all live in Hollywood movies.

Some random thoughts:

Not a good movie for feminism.  Ilsa Lund is passivity itself and has no agency of her own during the whole movie.  At one point she even tells Rick that he’ll have to do the thinking for all of them.  On the other hand, she is amazingly beautiful.

I’d like to see a movie made of the Victor Lazlo story — in other words, the same story from his perspective, not Rick’s.  I’m sure he’d be a lot more sympathetic and Rick would seem like a jerk.

— The cast included only three Americans — Bogart, Dooley Wilson who played Sam the piano player, and Joy Page, who played a Bulgarian refugee.  All the rest were Europeans who were themselves on the run from the Nazis, which lent an air of authenticity to the movie.  The story goes that during the singing of the “Marseilles” these exiles were so moved that there were barely acting when you see them crying.

In my thesis I made what I still think is a pretty good point, which is that it was inevitable that Rick would leave Ilsa at the airport because the theme of men alone dominates in American literature.  Rick’s closest relationships are with Sam, the black piano player, and the scoundrel Captain Renault.  There are few male protagonists in American fiction who end up happily-ever-after with a woman and when Rick and Renault take off for the desert to join the Free French it’s just like Huck Finn lighting out for the territory to avoid being “sivilized” by his Aunt Polly.  The ability to do that kind of analysis is what you get for your liberal arts education.

No one expected “Casablanca” to become one of the most beloved films of all time but this was not a movie that went unregarded in its own time.  Here’s the opening paragraph from the New York Times’ review in 1942: “Against the electric background of a sleek cafe in a North African port, through which swirls a backwash of connivers, crooks and fleeing European refugees, the Warner Brothers are telling a rich, suave, exciting and moving tale in their new film, “Casablanca,” which came to the Hollywood yesterday. They are telling it in the high tradition of their hard-boiled romantic-adventure style. And to make it all the more tempting they have given it a top-notch thriller cast of Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veldt and even Claude Rains, and have capped it magnificently with Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and a Negro “find” named Dooley Wilson.”

Ever had a Champagne Cocktail?  Me neither, but they are guzzling them at Rick’s.  Here’s the recipe: “Place a sugar cube* in a chilled champagne flute, lash it with 2 or 3 dashes of bitters (Angostura or Peychaud’s), fill the glass with brut champagne or other, cheaper, bubbly (peasant!), and squeeze a lemon twist on top.”

— Words to live by:  “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

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2 comments
  1. John Burke said:

    But Warner Bros. was in a hurry to get the movie into theaters as soon as possible to capitalize on the recent Three Power Summit (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin) in Casablanca.

    How so? “Casablanca” premiered in November 1942, but the Casablanca conference did not happen until mid-January 1943? Also, of course, Stalin did not attend the Casablanca meeting.

  2. Excellent question, John. You are right about Stalin not being there. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the timing: “Although an initial release date was anticipated for spring 1943,[87] the film premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City on November 26, 1942, to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca.[6][88] It went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt.” I’ll fix that in the text. Thanks for the correction.

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