Rush job, mess by committee, standard-issue sausage-factory punch-out, Casablanca was based on an unstaged play, Everybody Comes to Rick's. A bunch of writers had their hands in the script: The Epstein twins, Julius and Philip (both Penn State grads), and Howard Koch would win one of the film's three Oscars.
The script was so unready that the film had to be shot in sequence - each shot in order as it appears in the film. Even the final line - "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" - was last-minute, credited to producer Hal Wallis. It was slated for a summer 1943 release. But when the Allies launched Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, on Nov. 8, 1942, David O. Selznick had Casablanca rushed to its debut at the Hollywood Theater in New York on Nov. 26, 1942 - Thanksgiving Day. The real Casablanca had fallen to the Allies only 16 days before.
So what elevates this piece of "hokum," as Warners script scouts called it, into a 1943 Best Picture, oft-mentioned on All-Time Best lists, a four-hanky cultural treasure?
It's the itchy agony in Humphrey Bogart's eyes; Rick's conversion (or is it?) from cynicism to moral knighthood happens right there. It's the gauzy, blinding breathlessness of Ingrid Bergman. Their wrought emotions contrast with those of the staid Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the death's-head Conrad Veidt (as the hatable Major Strasser), and the merrily corrupt Claude Rains as Louie.
It's threat, loss, and above all, sacrifice. Rick, Ilsa, and Victor all are willing to (and all do) sacrifice love to a cause. Small outbursts of violence punctuate the smoky Rick's Cafe, small signs of the gigantic carnage across the world. A key is Joy Page, as Annina Brandel, a Bulgarian girl agonizing between moral purity and sleeping with the police to get her papers.
Shot almost entirely indoors, Casablanca is shadows in small rooms packed with refugees. Not just the characters - the actors. Many of the supporting players had fled the convulsed Europe of Hitler. (Veidt himself had fled Germany, with an SS death squad after him because of his anti-Nazi activities.) Those pent-up passions surface in the "battle of anthems" scene, in which Nazis bellow "Die Wacht am Rhein" while the house band booms "La Marseillaise." Accounts of the filming report tears that weren't acted.
I used to teach this film to my students at Lafayette College. They were not into black and white, or the schmaltz . . . but then . . . they came under the spell. In their end-of-term evaluations, many named Casablanca their favorite flick.
A lot of people do. All in all, Casablanca is one of life's best excuses for a night out with popcorn and your baby by your side. Like tonight.
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @jtimpane.