Casablanca turns 75: Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman saga of doomed love endures, as time goes by
After Germany’s occupation of France in 1940, hundreds and thousands of Europeans — aristocrats, celebrities, soldiers and ordinary citizens — fled their homes to escape war, persecution, and poverty. With hope and exit routes slowly evaporating, these refugees sought temporary sanctuary in neighbouring Arab countries like Algeria and Morocco.
So, they began a long, arduous journey through Vichy-controlled France, across the Mediterranean to Oran in Algeria, then by train, road or foot along the northern coast of Africa to Casablanca in Morocco. The more fortunate ones used their wealth and influence to acquire exit visas and a trip to Lisbon in Portugal. From there, they flew or sailed to America and elsewhere.
The Atlantic port city of Casablanca soon became a melting pot of the less-fortunate refugees, anti-Fascist underground fighters, black marketeers, gamblers, criminals, opportunistic Americans and French colonial authorities. Their stomping ground was Rick's Café Americaine, run by a cynical American expatriate with the help of his piano playing sidekick.
One day, a sveltely tailored young woman — of lustrous eyes, beguiling vulnerability and Nordic chic — swings open the door to Rick's "of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world."
And thus begins one of America's most beloved classics: Casablanca.
Michael Curtiz's film premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York on 26 November, 1942 to coincide with the successful takeover of Casablanca by the Allies. The Warner Bros. wanted to capitalise on the free publicity to lure the crowds. 75 years later, this timeless film — made in a timely fashion — continues to endure resonating with generation after generation and lives on in our collective consciousness.
What is your nationality?
Made in the wake of swelling war clouds, it was an emotional appeal for unity against the rising tide of Fascism. It felt so real because the storytellers were themselves a medley of immigrants, some 75 odd of them. It was a refugee love saga made by refugees, of refugees but not just for refugees.
This is, of course, in clear contrast to the isolationist mood of today as we face a global refugee crisis of a similar scale. While Arab nations welcomed refugees escaping the wrath of Nazis and Vichy henchmen with open arms during WWII, in a cruel twist of fortunes, Syrian, Iraqi and Afghanistani refugees — having escaped ruthless militants, weaponised drones and sinking boats — are greeted in even the most liberal European nations with barbed wire fences, tear gas and rubber bullets.
"But the others wait in Casablanca, and wait...and wait...and wait...." remarks the narrator in Casablanca describing the situation of the unfortunate souls stuck in the Moroccan city. But it also illustrates the plight of refugees in the current political climate.
I heard a story once...
Based on a stage play called Everybody Comes To Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, the film was made in some unfavourable circumstances and was set to prove a costly failure for Warner Bros. Its stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman didn't particularly like each other and barely communicated. Neither of them even wanted to be cast in the film in the first place. Bogart was coming off the success of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca was at the bottom of the pile. Bergman yearned for a role in Sam Wood's Technicolor film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, which she eventually nailed.
The script went through numerous rewrites and the producers thought it would tank at the box office. Rumour has it Ronald Reagan was once considered for Bogart's role.
(In retrospect, "I stick my neck out for nobody" would have been an ideal catch-phrase for championing Reaganomics in the 1980s.)
Despite all these production hurdles, Casablanca was filmed within three months grossing $3.7 million after its initial theatrical release in the US.
Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name
So, where were we? Oh yes. The young woman — Norwegian emigre Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) — arrives at the nightclub accompanied by her Czech resistance fighter husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). And it just so happens she's also an old flame of the establishment's owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), who has since turned into a jaded nihilist killjoy.
The story goes Ilsa met Rick in Paris and expectedly, there was the Paris-enabled intense chemistry and they soon fell in love without much knowledge of each other's past. Then, the damn Nazis invaded France and the blacklisted Rick was forced to flee to Marseille. But, of course, he wouldn't go without Ilsa. So, she agrees to meet him at the train station and then mysteriously leaves him in the lurch. But she does send him a farewell note that she can never see him again.
*SPOILER ALERT* The mystery is that she ditched Rick after learning her husband — whom she had secretly married and believed to have died in a Nazi internment camp — was alive and kicking. *END SPOILER*
Rick doesn't know this of course and the jilted lover slowly and gradually turns into a disgruntled cynic. With Gestapo officer Major Heinrich Strasser hot on the couple's trail, Ilsa and Victor desperately need Rick's help to secure letters of transit that will allow them to leave the country.
(Note: The all-important 'letters of transit' is clearly a MacGuffin, a plot device that serves no further purpose than to drive the story forward.)
But their reunion in Casablanca throws his life into emotional turmoil after Ilsa confesses she's still in love with him but is torn between the two men.
Who does she chose: the selfless Czech partisan or the hardened American expat? With danger lurking around every bend in the seedy North African town, how will she manage to escape? Will Rick seduce her away from her husband or will he sacrifice his new chance at happiness for the greater good?
“It’s still the same old story. A fight for love and glory...”
With a magical concoction of superb pacing, faultless casting and inspired writing, Casablanca represents the epitome of the Hollywood studio film. The characters are well drawn out and quotable. Bogart may not be everyone's idea of a leading man but he captures Rick's disenchantment and agony admirably. Bergman lights up each scene with her presence. Claude Rains is charming as Captain Louis Renault. Conrad Veidt as Major Heinrich Strasser makes for an ideal villain, Nazi enough for you to hate and not too caricaturish.
On the surface, Casablanca is a war-torn romance about two tragic lovers who lose each other and then find each other again with just the right amount of corny. But look underneath, you'll see a propaganda vehicle for American entry into World War II. Although, the evils of Fascism are sanitised for mainstream consumption.
We'll always have Paris
Max Steiner, of Gone with the Wind fame, uses previously written melodies and his original score perfectly to emphasise each scene's atmosphere. For a film made in the 1940s, the transitions are quite smooth. The music from Sam's piano vibrates with an undercurrent of amorous nostalgia. It allows the patrons of the nightclub to cope with their anxieties and temporarily forget that the world is at war with itself. Herman Hupfeld’s 'As Time Goes By' is such an integral part of the narrative as Ilsa repeatedly requests, “Play it once Sam, for old time’s sake.” For Rick, the song symbolises their love affair in Paris and forbids Sam from playing it in his nightclub as it is a painful reminder of their separation.
When the Nazi soldiers take over Sam's piano to sing Die Wacht am Rhein, a German patriotic anthem, the nightclub's patrons sing the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise," with swelling passion and defiance to drown out the sounds of the competing Nazi chorus. It ends when Rick's spurned ex-lover Yvonne, redfaced with guilt for consorting with the Germans, shouts "Vive la France!" and "Vive la démocratie!" as tears glisten down her cheeks. It is easily the film's most exhilarating scene.
Amidst refugee crises and polarising political rhetoric, Casablanca unites us. And amidst surging infidelity and divorce rates, Casablanca offers hope for reconciliation.
Casablanca will continue to capture the imagination of film lovers and live on in our hearts even as time goes by.