It was seventy years ago today that Casablanca made its New York debut.
The movie – which started as a script for a never-produced play, “Everybody Goes To Rick’s” – was by no means a sure thing. Its production, under director Michael Curtiz, was almost legendary for its difficulties; the script was being revised constantly during shooting, both for plot reasons and to satisfy objections from the “Production Code Administration”, the industry’s standards and practices board that enforced the “Hays Code” that governed the morals shown in American movies up through the sixties; the references to Major Renault trading sex for visas, and Rick and Ilse’s fling in Paris, were originally treated much less elliptically than in the final cut.
Indeed, much of the movie’s flow wasn’t nailed down until the final edit. The immortal closing scene was very nearly augmented by a “real” ending that showed Rick and Major Renault on a ship full of troops – US and Free French – bound for Africa. This was cut – thankfully – due to Claude Rains’ unavailability – not the only case where a schedule difficulty helped preserve the movie we finally got…
…which was, in its purest form, a parable for what America really stood for on the world stage. We, like Rick, preferred isolation – but could be swayed by an overwhelming moral argument.
And what an argument it was. The moment when you started to have the faintest hint that Humphrey Bogart’s cynical, hard-bitten, paleo-noir “Rick Blaine” might have a soft spot (carefully hidden under layers of callouses and scars) for the underdog maybe one of the most gloriously, over-the-top manipulative scenes in cinema:
At first viewing, it’s a “U – S – A! U – S – A!” style adrenaline rush with the French – who were sympathetic figures to Americans back then – filling the starring role. The more you watch it, the more layers it has. Listen to the way La Marseillaise joins in over the Germans’ Die Wacht Am Rhein, as seamlessly as a nightclub DJ would beat-and-key mix them together.
The scene would make a granite countertop emotional.
I had not watched a lot of old movies, beyond the annual ritual of “Wizard of Oz” when I was a kid. I had little concept of what the golden age of Hollywood had meant, or been. The movie absolutely gobsmacked me.
And it was thirty years ago last New Years Day that I first saw Casablanca. And I never really recovered. I’ve watched it dozens of times, maybe a hundred. Back during college, I saw it so many times that I could recite the dialog along with the movie.
For starters – and it should surprise nobody that a 19 year old would notice this – but you can count the stars in movie history more radiant than Ingrid Bergman on one hand, with a couple of fingers left over.
The boy meets girl (spoilers follow), boy loses girl during a Nazi invasion, boy finds girl in North Africa, boy loses girl to charismatic underground leader, boy has a shot at getting girl back but uses that to trick her and boyfriend into leaving to carry on the fight while he heads off to fight the Nazis is an oldie but goodie – and has never been done better.
It was thirty years ago this past New Years Day that I first saw Casablanca.
And it’d be hard to show us a role that is a greater American archetype than Bogart’s “Rick”.
God knows how many people died of lung cancer decades after seeing Casablanca as a kid – because yes, in the hands of Humphrey Bogart, smoking was cool. It did make you more suave, hard-bitten, dangerous-looking. I was tempted to take up the habit after seeing the movie my first couple dozen times.
And there has never been a cliffhanger ending like Casablanca’s. I won’t spoil it. But if you haven’t seen the movie, you are shirking your duty as a culturally-literate American. Please see to this immediately.
So my evening plans are set, anyway.