A Beautiful Friendship

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.

11 thoughts on “A Beautiful Friendship

  1. Saw it as a teenager and thought “hmmm, nice old movie…..now I see where the cliches come from”. Didn’t see it again until last year. Was amazed at how good it is. Saw so much that I had I missed the first time I viewed it. So many distinct, but not over the top, characters. And how deep the characters are.

  2. A time when being a celebrity meant you were expected to keep your clothes on in public, and your Communist propaganda relegated to cocktail parties in New York.

  3. My all time favorite movie. You can put “It’s a Wonderful Life” where the sun don’t shine.

  4. What Golfdoc said.
    And not to threadjack, but in another stark reminder about how time goes by, I note that it was 41 years ago today that Yes released “Fragile”.

  5. All the characters in Casablanca — the good guys anyway — make sure, painful sacrifices, and the return they hoped for was uncertain. Their sacrifices got them, not victory, but hope and the knowledge that they were doing the right thing. It is easy to see how this resonated with film audiences in 1942. 1942 was a very bad year for the Allies. It is encouraging that modern audiences still enjoy Casablanca for the same reason that audiences in 1942 enjoyed it. There are still things on this Earth worth giving up success, love, and life for.

  6. “Indeed, much of the movie’s flow wasn’t nailed down until the final edit.”

    This is so important; Ingrid told the producer/director that she didn’t know who she was supposed to be in love with, Rick or Laszlo. She wanted some guidance from them. They didn’t know, because the script really had not been finished yet. So they told her to wing it.

    So that great ambivalence in her was a by product of the script not being completed. Torn between two lovers, lol. One of the great screen performances, just because they hadn’t finished the script.

  7. Fabulous movie. Like Mitch, I watch it every chance I get. There are so many moving parts, great humor, great ethics. No beauty ever graced a screen like Ingrid Bergman, especially in this movie. Humphrey Bogart was at the height of coolness. Brains and beauty collide into wonderful art in this film.

  8. It is easy to see how this resonated with film audiences in 1942. 1942 was a very bad year for the Allies.

    That’s one thing that always strikes me when I watch Casablanca — things were very much in doubt in 1942.

    Also, if you ever have a chance, go see Casablanca in a movie theater.

  9. There’s nothing like it, but if I may be so bold as to suggest a companion piece, there’s a film called “Algiers,” made in 1938 (seems like a different world, though), starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamar, that served as inspiration for “Casablanca.” While a notch lower in quality, it has some heartbreaking moments. I might also note (I keep telling people this; I’ve probably said it here too) that Sigrid Gurie, who plays Charles Boyer’s cast-off mistress, was the real-life fraternal twin of Norwegian resistance hero Knut Haukelid, one of the original “Heroes of Telemark.”

  10. In the same spirit is Robert Duvall’s speech some 50 years later as Uncle Hub in “Second-hand Lions” on what it means to be a man:

    Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil. And I want you to remember this, that love…true love…never dies. You remember that, boy. Doesn’t matter if they’re true or not because those are the things worth believing in.

  11. Best. Movie. Ever.

    I’ve read that Casablanca was written as it was being shot and two endings were actually written (the one, and the other for those who have never seen this masterpiece). The actors reportedly arrived on set not knowing how the movie was going to end.

    A masterpiece of cinematography, and the unconquerable Rick Blaine has been my hero for years.

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