Updated: May 24
Here’s looking at everyone’s favorite comfort film.
Maybe it’s no accident that Turner Classic Movies has shown Casablanca multiple times while everyone has been staying at home (including its next airing, Saturday, May 23rd, at 8 pm ET). Few films inspire more comfort, more warm feelings, than this 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid as a cynical nightclub owner, the woman he once loved and her husband, all forced to figure out their feelings amid Nazis and the Moroccan desert.
Indeed, if you’re seeking 102 minutes of pure escapism, it doesn’t get much better than Bogart at his romantic best, Bergman torn between two exceedingly different men, and moments of comic relief delivered by Claude Rains, S.Z. Sakall and other members of the perfect supporting cast. But ultimately it’s the story that’s at the heart of Casablanca’s appeal, how Bogart’s Rick Blaine is torn by the arrival of a woman who broke his heart, but he chooses to be noble because he recognizes the greater good – and as he’s welcomed back to the fight by Henreid’s Victor Laszlo, post-World War II audiences also know that the real-life good guys won in the end.
Almost 80 years after its release, Casablanca is a beloved film for these and other reasons – and perhaps one of its best elements is that, unlike such blockbusters as Gone With the Wind or 1963’s Cleopatra, no one had any sense during production that they were making something “important.” Whether you watch Casablanca tonight or stream it another time, here are several fun facts to keep in mind about the film that routinely tops lists as everyone’s all-time favorite:
The Play’s the Thing … Unless it Will Make a Better Movie.
Casablanca is based on Everybody Comes to Rick’s, a stage play written in 1940 by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The New York-based writers got some nibbles among the theater community for their first completed script, but a few of its plot points – including a lead female character named Lois, whose attitude about love was far more brazen than Bergman’s Ilsa – made Broadway producers a bit skittish, so the duo sent their script to Hollywood for consideration.
The script landed on more than a few desks until it caught the eye of Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis, who was keen on stories that highlighted anti-fascism themes in the early 1940s. He bought all rights to Everybody Comes to Rick’s from Burnett and Alison for $20,000 – not close to the $50,000 David O. Selznick paid Margaret Mitchell for Gone With the Wind, but still a princely sum in those days.
“What in Heaven’s Name Brought You to … Lisbon?”
Burnett and Alison originally had set their story not in Casablanca, but in Lisbon, reportedly because they liked the idea that Portugal’s coastal capital might be the final stop for refugees heading to America. Wallis, however, seemed to prefer the sultrier Moroccan locale, though he had other reasons as well – more on that in a moment.
That Ronald Reagan Story? It’s a Myth.
Among Casablanca’s many bits of trivia is the often-bandied story that Ronald Reagan initially was considered for the role of Rick, and you’re likely among those who have rolled their eyes at such an idea, if only because it’s difficult to envision anyone but Bogart in the role. But Wallis evidently felt the same way, as he wrote in his memoirs that he always pictured Bogart in the part – and besides, at the time Casablanca was in the early stages of production, Reagan had already accepted an officer’s commission in the U.S. Cavalry Reserve, and almost immediately after the release of King’s Row, he was called into active duty.
If You Love Carl the Waiter, Thank the Rewrites.
S.Z. Sakall’s Carl, who seems to take such good care of Rick – and vice versa – didn’t exist in Burnett and Alison’s play. It’s believed he was added by Julius and Philip Epstein, the twin brothers whose writing tended to add touches of wit and humor to scripts that included The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Male Animal, both made the same year as Casablanca.
Yvonne Outlived Everybody.
Madeleine Lebeau’s Yvonne was included in the original script, though among the concerns of those who read the play was her unabashed attitude about her relationship with the man at the heart of the story: “Rick has no soul, but he’s nice to sleep with,” she says at one point. Rick’s relationship with Yvonne in the film withholds such details, though it’s clear from Lebeau’s performance that Yvonne’s passion for Rick made the leap from the play to the screen. Lebeau also is believed to have been the longest-living member of the Casablanca cast: She died in Spain in 2016 at the age of 92.
Sam’s Signature Song Was Written More Than a Decade Earlier.
Dooley Wilson’s rendition of “As Time Goes By” is an integral element of Casablanca, but it wasn’t written for the film. The song was written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931, and was first recorded by Rudy Vallee that same year. It was part of Burnett and Alison’s original play because the song was a favorite of Burnett during his college days, so when they were working on the plot device of the female lead requesting the song she and Rick loved from the piano player, “As Time Goes By” was Burnett’s choice. Following Casablanca’s release, “As Time Goes By” was reissued by RCA Victor – but not with Wilson singing the song, as a musician strike that lasted from 1942 to 1944 prevented a new recording. Rudy Vallee’s original recording enjoyed new life thanks to the film; it became a number-one hit.
If You Don’t Cry During “La Marseillaise,” You May Be Dead Inside.
Among many iconic moments of Casablanca, a sure favorite is when Henreid’s Victor asks the café’s orchestra to play “La Marseillaise” to both protest and drown out the sound of the Nazi officers’ impromptu rendition of “Die Wacht am Rhein” – the whole café joins in, quieting the Nazis and causing them to sit down in defeat. But there’s another, far more poignant layer to the scene when you learn that several members of the supporting cast, and many extras, were European refugees themselves: Sakall was born in Budapest, for example, while Lebeau was born in France, and Leonid Kinskey, who played Sascha the bartender, hailed from St. Petersburg, Russia. So when they’re singing for France’s freedom, it’s more than just acting. The tears in Lebeau’s eyes take on a whole new meaning.
Conrad Veidt Would Play a Nazi on One Condition Only.
Born in Berlin, Veidt was known for being staunchly anti-Nazi, and Germany knew it. He and his wife emigrated to the U.K. in 1933 and then moved to Hollywood in 1940. He reportedly had it written into his contract that he only would play a Nazi on the condition that the character was a villain with no redeeming qualities – Major Heinrich Strasser unquestionably fits that bill.
Ilsa’s Brooch Looks Really Familiar.
Screen Chic has covered this detail in a previous story about Joseff of Hollywood, which crafted the jewels for Casablanca’s costume designer, Orry-Kelly – but it’s perfect to include here as well. The brooch worn by Bergman for her entrance in the film, a swirl and fringe of crystals, also can be seen in at least two other Warner Bros. films: on Ilka Chase roughly midway through Now, Voyager, also made in 1942, and on Joan Crawford in 1945’s Mildred Pierce.
The Release of Casablanca Was Timed with War Maneuvers in Mind.
Casablanca is a wonderfully entertaining film, filled with romance, humor and an undeniable feeling of victory, but it also was crafted with propaganda in mind, a story meant to create U.S. support for Allied troops, with filming commencing just six months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While the film originally had been set for a 1943 release, it was moved up to late November 1942 to coincide with the Allied Forces’ ultimately successful invasion of North Africa. It’s notable, though, that in 1942, no one could safely predict the war’s outcome, which also adds another layer to Henreid’s last line, “This time, I know our side will win.”
Eight Oscar Nominations Was a Nice Surprise.
While it’s a legend and a favorite among classic-film fans, few who worked on Casablanca anticipated its initial or long-term success. In Bergman’s 1980 autobiography, My Story, she wrote, “Every morning we said, ‘Well, who are we, what are we doing here?’ And Michael Curtiz, the director, would say, ‘We’re not quite sure, but let’s get through this scene today and we’ll let you know tomorrow.’”
The film enjoyed positive reviews overall and a successful release, but nothing phenomenal; Casablanca was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1943, after the musical This is the Army in the number-one spot, followed by For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Song of Bernadette. But Casablanca bested the latter two to win Best Picture at the 1944 Academy Awards, while Curtiz also took home Best Director, and the Epsteins, together with Howard Koch, won Best Screenplay. Casablanca captured five other Oscar nominations, including Bogart for Best Actor (he lost to Paul Lukas for Watch on the Rhine) and Claude Rains for Best Supporting Actor (Charles Coburn for The More the Merrier took home that prize); Bergman, however, wasn’t recognized with a Best Actress nod, likely because her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls netted that nomination. But she also lost that year, to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette.
If You’re a Fan of Casablanca, Head to the Academy Museum This Winter.
Among the iconic items that can be viewed when the Academy Museum opens on Dec. 14th, 2020, will be perhaps the most famous doors in movie history: the doors of Rick’s Cafe Americain, seen here, to be included in a second-floor gallery installation titled “The Studio System.” The wood and glass doors were purchased at a 2014 Bonhams auction for $115,000.