In 1943, “Casablanca” won three Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture. Today, 75 years after its release, the film is still considered a classic.
On Warner Bros. back lot in Burbank on May 25, 1942, the first day of shooting for the new film “Casablanca,” the production schedule called actors Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Dooley Wilson to the set at 9 a.m. to shoot a flashback scene set in Paris, where the romance between Rick and Ilsa began.
Seventy-five years later, the film has been screened more times in theaters and on television than any movie in history. At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s still shown every Valentine’s Day.
“It’s the most romantic, wonderful movie in the world,” one woman said at the showing.
“Casablanca’s” iconic moments remain part our cultural vocabulary.
“People who have never even seen the movie, they quote the lines,” said Noah Isenberg, director of screen studies at the New School in New York. He’s also the author of the book “We’ll Always Have Casablanca.”
“To this day, it’s probably the most widely taught screenplay in screenwriting courses. It’s just extraordinary,” Isenberg said.
Released on Thanksgiving Day 1942, “Casablanca” was a wartime romance. But it was also a subtly political movie from Warner Bros., the same studio that had made the first overtly anti-Nazi film in 1939, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.” Groucho Marx called Warners “the only studio with any guts.”
“Warners was in fact bucking an isolationist trend in the U.S.,” Mason said.
“Absolutely,” Isenberg said. “There was fear within this very strong, vocal, isolationist faction in Congress that what was happening in Hollywood and specifically under the auspices of Warner Bros. was a threat to American peace.”
In “Casablanca,” Rick embodies that isolationism at first, even as fleeing refugees fill his Moroccan cafe. The scenes shot on Warners’ back lot still feel strikingly urgent, perhaps because nearly all of the 75 actors in the film were immigrants themselves.
Peter Lorre from Hungary, Paul Henreid from Austria, and even Conrad Veidt, who plays the Gestapo major, had been a silent film star in Germany, but fled his home country with his Jewish wife.
“The Jewish question is never addressed in the movie, but it’s really kind of everywhere in the film,” Mason pointed out.
“It’s latent. It percolates like a number of other things. It percolates beneath the surface,” Isenberg said.
One of the few American-born actors in the film, Wilson plays Sam. The piano player in Rick’s Cafe has no last name, but a pivotal role.
“In his own way, Sam is also a very bold character for his time,” Mason said.
“Absolutely,” Isenberg said. “Rick’s best friend, his travel companion, his confidant, and that was really, really extraordinary.”
In reviewing the film in 1943, The Amsterdam News, New York’s African-American newspaper, said the movie “is one every colored person should make it his business to see, since no picture has given as much sympathetic treatment and prominence to a negro character.”
As performed by Wilson, “As Time Goes By” would become the film’s most enduring torch song. In Johnny Depp’s words, it is “the national anthem for brokenhearted lovers.” Sam’s piano from Rick’s Cafe sold at auction in 2014 for $3.4 million. Ironically, Wilson didn’t actually play the piano.
Bogart, 42 when he took the part, was known for his tough guy characters. But “Casablanca” would transform him into a romantic lead and Warner Bros.’ highest paid actor. For Bergman it was also a breakout role.
“But off screen, Bergman and Bogart, they really didn’t have much chemistry at all,” Isenberg said.
“I think Bergman often said, ‘I kissed him, but I never knew him,’” Mason said.
“That’s a famous, famous quote, and it’s a wonderful one. I think it says a lot,” Isenberg said.
Writers Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch won an Oscar for their screenplay. But they had some help.
“’Here’s lookin’ at you, kid’ was not in the script?” Mason asked.
“No,” Isenberg said. “As far as we know that was a line that Bogart liked, perhaps one that he used even off screen. And to this day, it’s attributable to him.”
Another memorable line was not in the original script. After shooting wrapped, producer Hal Wallis was unhappy with the ending. Three weeks later in a memo, Wallis wrote two alternative last lines.
“And he brought Bogart and Claude Rains back in to do voice-over in that last sequence we see in the film,” Isenberg said.
They would chose this one: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“It’s one of the most famous lines in the history of motion pictures,” Isenberg said.