Two wars contributed to the movie's fame. Its launch in 1942 coincided with US forces landing in North Africa, and with Roosevelt and Churchill meeting in Casablanca. During the Vietnam War, when Harvard's art cinema ran it repeatedly as the culmination of a season of Bogart films, a ritual developed in which the audience chanted favourite lines, especially the witty sparring between Bogart and Claude Rains. Apart from the performances, the idealistic theme struck a chord among the youth, as Rick declared: 'The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans.'
In 1983 the British Film Institute judged Casablanca the best film ever made. Yet its stars, Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, when they first met, thought the dialogue ridiculous and the situation unbelievable. Bergman was especially upset at having to portray 'the most beautiful woman in Europe' because, as she remarked: 'I look like a milkmaid.'
Generously illustrated, Aljean Harmetz's book is rich with anecdotes and biographies: Bergman neglecting her family, caring only for work; Bogart, after years of playing a crook 'with a handy little black automatic', feeling 'baffled' by this romantic role; the producer, Hal Wallis, wanting a woman for the singer, preferably Lena Horne, and disliking Curtiz's choice of Dooley Wilson. Wilson, however, whose Sam would become as celebrated as Bogart's Rick and Bergman's Ilsa, couldn't play the piano; this was done by Clarence Muse.
Claude Rains's story is especially striking. Born in poverty in London in 1889, he had a Cockney accent and a speech impediment. Nevertheless, aged 11, he was type-cast as a ragged urchin in Sweet Nell of Old Drury at the Haymarket. The great actor-
manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree took him on as call boy and prompt, and paid for his elocution lessons. The result - a voice that ranged from ironic to insinuating, from charming and sophisticated to sinister, and which contributed to his reputation for scene-stealing in movie after movie - was much in evidence in Casablanca.
The twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein wrote the initial script, which was based on an undistinguished play. Casey Robinson sharpened the romantic relationship between Ilsa and Rick, and gave more significance to Sam. Koch's work eventually led to his being witch-hunted into exile during the McCarthy years.
Filming through a fierce heatwave, the cast had to endure the strain of not knowing what was to happen next, as daily rewrites were delivered. Bergman claimed she had no idea whether she was to go off with Bogart or with Paul Henreid. In fact, the director and writers had agreed on the sacrifice ending; the problem was how to make it work - as Rick tells Ilsa towards the end, it is still a story without an ending.
Harmetz's research leads at times to some over-meticulous detail, but her book left me eager to watch the movie again, while wondering whether the wealth of background knowledge might undermine my enjoyment. However, from the opening sequences, with Rick playing a solitary game of chess just as Bogart did each day between takes, the tension never slackened; Arthur Edeson's photography - from the dark of Rick's pain in Casablanca to the light of his happiness in Paris - was enhanced, as was the underscoring of mood and character by the composer, Max Steiner (who, incidentally, disliked 'As Time Goes By'). There were touches introduced by Curtiz, such as Sidney Greenstreet swatting flies. Bergman was more impressive than I recalled - certainly no 'milkmaid' - and, of course, she never uttered the words, 'Play it again, Sam', which were Woody Allen's. As Ilsa, she simply said: 'Play it, Sam.' And Rick's concluding line to the cynical Captain Renault as they walk off into the fog was as magical as ever: 'Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.'
In short, I have joined the aficionados, among them Billy Wilder, who said that Casablanca was the 'most wonderful claptrap', yet: 'No matter how sophisticated you are and it's on television and you've seen it 500 times, you turn it on.'Reuse content