Thursday, 06 December 2012

You Must Remember This …

As Casablanca celebrates its 70th birthday, Melonie Clarke reveals the fascinating, and often surprising, backdrop that turned it into an unforgettable classic

Written by Melonie Clarke
On 26 November 1942, as the Second World War raged across the globe, a film called Casablanca premiered at the Hollywood Theatre in New York City. It went on to become one of the best-loved films of all time – 70 years on, it is as popular as ever. In fact, next week, the famous piano from the film is to be auctioned by Sotheby’s, and it could sell for as much as £1.2m.

The cast list was impeccable, a Who’s Who of present and future Hollywood greats: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson. Even the minor parts were played by stars. The film was based on an unpublished play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Warner Bros bought the rights for $20,000, the most anyone had paid for a work that had not been produced.

Julius and Philip Epstein, who became the first Academy Award-winning twins; along with Casey Robinson – who chose to remain uncredited for his work on the film, thereby doing himself out of the Academy Award – worked on the script.

Not only does it contain some of the best lines in cinema history, but it skilfully produced a piece of Second World War propaganda that actually worked.

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The story is relatively simple. Expatriate Rick Blaine (Bogart) is living in Casablanca in 1941. He is the owner and manager of the nightclub and gambling den Rick’s Café Américain, a favourite haunt of everyone, from Nazi officials to refugees trying to reach the United States.

But one refugee, Resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, really needs Rick’s help. Unfortunately, Rick’s not in the habit of sticking his neck out for anyone, especially when that someone is married to his ex-lover, Ilsa, whom we soon discover once broke his heart.

Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, however, offers herself in exchange for her husband’s safe transport out of the country – and our two protagonists fall in love all over again to the melancholy tune As Time Goes By (which very nearly didn’t appear in the final cut as Max Steiner wanted to compose an original song). The big question of the film, however, is whether they will find their happy ending.

Following Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart was quickly established as the romantic lead and went on to star in films including The Big Sleep, Key Largo and African Queen.

For Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca was the springboard that launched her career. Later, she won three Academy Awards – for Gaslight, Anastasia and Murder On The Orient Express. Known as ‘Sweden’s illustrious gift to Hollywood’, she had always wanted to become an actress and, after finishing formal schooling, Ingrid’s first role was the non-speaking part of ‘girl standing in line’ in a 1932 Swedish film.

After a three-year break, while she dabbled in stage acting, Ingrid’s next role was a speaking part in the 1935 film Munkbrogreven. This was the first of several films that year, which established her as a class actress, and Gone With The Wind producer David O Selznick soon signed her.

Her first film working under Selznick in the US, Intermezzo: A Love Story, was a huge hit and, despite early concerns about her being too tall, not speaking English well enough, and even having thick eyebrows, Bergman became a star.

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Interestingly, neither Bergman nor Bogart was particularly enthusiastic about Casablanca. In Charlotte Chandler’s biography of the star, she quotes Bergman: ‘I was never talented in selecting for myself the best or most successful films. A film I definitely would not have selected was Casablanca, and it is my bestloved film.’ In fact, the two actors refused to rehearse their parts together before filming began. ‘That was not very constructive because we never did anything about it, except go to the set and do our best,’ Ingrid recalled.

Ironically, of course, it was the film that cemented their status as Hollywood icons. In fact, their on-screen chemistry was so intense that Bogart’s wife accused him of having an affair with Bergman several times.

Unfortunately, Casablanca would be the first and last time that they worked together.

So, as the film celebrates its 70th birthday, here are some of the extraordinary facts behind Casablanca, one of the greatest movies of all time…
  • Producer Hal B Wallis insisted on Bogart for the part of Rick, declaring that he had found the next big star of Hollywood.
  • Piano-playing character, Sam, was very nearly played by a lady. Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald were considered for the part.
  • Paul Henreid, who played heroic anti-Nazi leader Victor Laszlo, did not want to appear in Casablanca. He was concerned that playing a secondary character would ruin his career as a romantic lead.
  • Dooley Wilson (Sam) was a professional drummer and faked playing the piano for the role. u Director Michael Curtiz’s Hungarian accent often caused confusion during filming. He asked a prop man for a ‘poodle’ to appear in one scene. The prop man searched for a poodle while the crew waited. He found one and presented it to Curtiz, who screamed ‘A poodle! A poodle of water!’
  • Many of the actors who played the Nazis were German Jews who had escaped from Nazi Germany.
  • Rick never actually says ‘Play it again, Sam’. Instead, he says, ‘You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it!’ Ilsa says, ‘Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By’. It is thought the confusion arises thanks to Woody Allen’s 1972 film Play It Again, Sam.
  • After the film’s release, As Time Goes By stayed on radio’s Hit Parade for 21 weeks. 
  • Joy Page, Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson were the only American-born actors in the credited cast.
  • The difference in height between Bogart and Bergman changes throughout the film because Bergman was taller than him. To create the illusion that it was vice versa, in some shots Bogart stood on a box and sat on a pillow.

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  • Hal B Wallis didn’t want Bogart wearing a hat too often as he thought it made him look like a gangster.
  • Warner was the first Hollywood studio to be so open about its opposition to the Nazi regime, and the first to prohibit its films from being distributed in Nazi-occupied territories.
  • The Epstein brothers finished their screenplay three days before the film began shooting.
  • When President Franklin D Roosevelt returned from a wartime conference in Casablanca, he asked for a screening of the film at The White House.
  • It is never revealed why Rick cannot return to America. Julius J Epstein said, ‘My brother and I tried very hard to come up with a reason why Rick couldn’t return to America. But nothing seemed right. We finally decided not to give a reason at all.’
  • The chess game in the movie was a real game Bogart was playing by mail with his friend during the course of filming.
  • A $100,000 insurance policy was taken out on Bogart, in case he died during the film’s production.
  • No one knew until filming the last scene, whether Ilsa would end up with Rick or Laszlo. During the course of the picture, when Bergman asked director Michael Curtiz which man her character was in love with, she was told to ‘play it in between’.
  • Bergman considered her left side as her better side, and as much as possible this was the one photographed throughout the film.
  • Even on its 70th birthday, Casablanca is still ranked third on the American Film Institute’s 100 best movies of the last 100 years.

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