Playing it over and over again: how Casablanca was made

The story behind the movie that defines the movies is one of immigrants, timing and a “son of a bitch” director.

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For many, Casablanca is not just any old movie but the old movie. When Woody Allen was looking for a heroic exemplar for his nebbish cineaste in Play it Again, Sam, it was to Bogart’s Rick Blaine that he turned. When Nora Ephron wanted to illustrate the practicality of women in When Harry Met Sally, it was Bergman’s example she held up (“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca married to a man who owns a bar”). The source of endless spin-offs, parodies and skits, from the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca to Saturday Night Live, Casablanca is the movie we go to when we want to invoke movieishness itself, the dream factory at full tilt, a heroic foil to our mock-heroic age. As Umberto Eco put it in Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage, “It is movies”.

This cultural ubiquity has entailed a certain sniffiness from critics, whose estimation has tended to chime with the Warner Brothers script reader who first assessed the screenplay: “Excellent melodrama. Colourful, timely background, tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, sophisticated hokum.” The Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, fully paid-up members of the cult of Bogie, none the less preferred his films with Howard Hawks and John Huston. Even Pauline Kael called it “a movie that demonstrates how entertaining a bad movie can be”. And that is how most approach it: as camp, endlessly screened in revival houses such as Harvard’s Brattle theatre, where it played from 1957 to audiences of student activists thrilling to its dramatisation of doing the right thing in a world turned upside down. At one screening in the late Sixties, according to the New Yorker’s David Denby, during the final reel the sound failed and the audience, speaking as one, recited the actors’ words for them, finishing the film up to its famous last line, “Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

That kind of quasi-religious devotion is not, generally, inspired by hokum. “Despite the artificial nature of the film it still speaks with uncommon poignancy to the exile condition,” writes Noah Isenberg in We’ll Always Have Casablanca, a devoted history of the film and its afterlife in countries such as Hungary and East Germany, where uncut versions of it circulated like samizdat. Nearly all of the 100-plus actors and actresses in the film were immigrants hailing from more than 34 different nations. Bogart was the lone American; you also had Bergman (Sweden), Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet (England), Paul Henreid (Austria), Conrad Veidt (Germany) and Peter Lorre, originally from Slovakia by way of London, who said that, like Brecht, he had changed countries “oftener than our shoes”. Hungarian SZ Sakall, who played the head waiter, lost three sisters to the concentration camps.

The director Michael Curtiz, himself a Hungarian Jew, cast them all personally, incorporating some of their stories into the movie: the trading of jewellery for exit visas, the presence of pickpockets. There were so many German Jews playing the very Nazis they had fled that German was frequently spoken on set, which was known as the International House. When the time came for the scene in which Victor Laszlo defiantly sings “La Marseillaise”, one character actor noticed everyone was crying: “I suddenly realised they were all real refugees.”

It’s customary to regard the release of the film on 26 November 1942, less than three weeks after General Patton’s forces landed in French North Africa, prompting Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle to issue the Casablanca Declaration, as the one of the greatest publicity coups ever to befall a film – “General Eisenhower has merely served them well as an advance agent” remarked the New Yorker. The original play on which it was based, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by the Jewish teacher and playwright Murray Burnett, was a piece of opportune reportage. In 1938, Burnett and his wife took a tour of Europe as it geared up for war. They found Vienna rife with anti-Semitism and, on the road to Monte Carlo, a smoky nightclub with a black pianist working old standards to an audience of refugees and military officials of every nationality – “a great contrast to the tragedy and tears”, wrote Burnett.

The film’s timely dramatisation of Bogart’s change of heart, “at first wary and independent, then changing incrementally until it headed in the opposite direction”, in the words of his most recent biographer Stefan Kanfer, would prove definitional for America: a big block of national myth as hefty as that of its founding.

Another café serves as a creative nexus point in Alan K Rode’s doorstopping new biography of Curtiz: Café New York in Budapest, a rowdy 24-hour bohemian hang-out not far from the Danube, where the young film director Mihály Kertész mixed with artists and card players, film writers, fakers and physicists: “Everyone knew everyone,” in the words of the film historian László Kriston, “they all screwed the same chorus girls and got drunk together and worked and argued.”

As a child Kertész slept four in a room with his brothers and, as a teenage acrobat, developed great physical agility. When snapped up by Warner Brothers for one of his silents in the summer of 1926, he anglicised his name to Michael Curtiz and spent ten days living at a Los Angeles county jail to learn about the criminal justice system in time for his first assignment, a thriller called The Third Degree. “When I finish I know more about jail system and American criminals than the Technicolour director they pay big dough to tell me about such things,” he said in his pigeon English which, said David Niven, was “a source of joy for all of us” during the shooting of The Charge of the Light Brigade. A sign hung on the door of Curtiz’s soundstages read: “Curtiz spoken here.”

About the only upside of being bawled out by Curtiz on set was that you frequently never understood him. “It would be inaccurate to say that everyone on Curtiz’s set loathed him,” writes Rode at one point. With damning fair-mindedness, the portrait of the director that emerges is of a cruel and mercurial autocrat, a kind of Hungarian Otto Preminger, who drove his cast and crew to breaking point – The Charge of the Light Brigade killed at least three horses, the flood sequence in Noah’s Ark drew 38 ambulances. “He can be a real son of a bitch to the bit players,” noted Bogart, who threatened to walk from the set of Casablanca at one point unless the director “shut up”.

Curtiz was no Oskar Schindler-like saviour. Casablanca was the result of alchemy by acrimony, with the Epstein brothers supplying its snappier dialogue (“I am shocked, shocked, to learn that gambling is going on in here”), its politics coming courtesy of Howard Koch, its love story and ending fleshed out by Casey Robinson, with ad libs from the actors (“Here’s looking at you, kid”) while they stood waiting for the day’s pages to be handed over.

Casablanca is best described as cinematic magic that occurred accidentally on purpose,” writes Rode in pointed rebuke of the film critic Andrew Sarris, for whom the picture was merely the “happiest of happy accidents” and Curtiz “the most divisive exception to auteur theory”. Auteur theory’s point-man in America, Sarris could no more countenance the idea that it might be the theory rather than Curtiz that is at fault – placing him in the “Lightly Likeable” category – than the old communist apparatchiks could conclude that their system was at fault rather than the people.

Curtiz was a “cinematic genius” said the screenwriter Robert Buckner who could “make a picture when he didn’t know what it was about”. How can you proclaim your boy an artist, his every work bearing his imprint as breath animates the body, when he is responsible for films as wildly different as the tough-knuckled Angels with Dirty Faces, the sweeping Charge of the Light Brigade, the effervescent The Adventures of Robin Hood, the svelte Mildred Pierce, and the most dearly be-loved film of all time, Casablanca. Oh, and White Christmas?

On the other hand: The Adventures of Robin Hood! Mildred Pierce! Casablanca! White Christmas! Film directing careers do not come more bejewelled. Curtiz makes the film critic’s job harder. No Catholic guilt. No recurring themes, according to Rode, except a recurring commitment to “realism”, whatever that means: for Rode it seems to mean that Curtiz’s pirates were hairier than the next guy’s.

“I want you to forget all this crap about composition because if the story is no good you can take the composition and stick it!” Curtiz was instructed during the making of Light Brigade by Warner’s thrifty production head Hal Willis, who drummed any technical grandstanding out of him. Curtiz was forced to reduce the number of dollies, and learn how to cut in camera. And yet it was precisely this creative rough-housing that resulted in Casablanca, and the film’s remarkable blend of the tough and tender. As Olivia de Havilland said of Curtiz, “Oh I guess he was a villain but he was pretty good.”

Maybe our duty to Casablanca is to rescue it from the ghetto of camp and recognise in it what the novelist Erich Maria Remarque called “the refugee glance – an imperceptible lifting of the eyelids, followed by a look of blank indifference as if we couldn’t care less.” Beneath that show of indifference, beats Bogart’s sturdy heart. 

Tom Shone is a film critic and author of “Blockbuster” (Simon & Schuster)

Casablanca: the Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie
Noah Isenberg
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £25

Michael Curtiz: a Life in Film
Alan K Rode
University Press of Kentucky, 704pp, £38.50

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war