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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hal Wallis' Casablanca

Casablanca title card.
In choosing the ten best American films of all time (06-17-12), I positioned the Hal Wallis film, Casablanca at number seven. For most critics, the film is more a sentimental favorite than a great work of cinematic art. However, if you were to choose the movie having the most memorable dialogue, it would be hard to justify any other film. The American Film Institute features six quotations from the film in their list of top 100 of all time (far more than any other film): "Here's looking at you, kid," "...I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "Round up the usual suspects," "We'll always have Paris," "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," but not "Play it again, Sam." That famous line is actually, "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'." No one is quite sure where the iconic shorter version came from.
Bogart and Bergman: Rick and Ilsa
Casablanca and Dr. Strangelove are undoubtedly the two best "B" movies of all time. Nearly all films are collaborative efforts. Dr. Strangelove was not so much, Casablanca was more so than most. Casablanca was the title Warner Brothers gave an unproduced play by Murray Bennett and Joan Alison they called, Everybody Comes to Rick's. The screenplay adds three more names, the Epstein twins, Julius and Phillip, as well as Howard Koch. Then there's the film's producer, Wallis, and its director, Michael Kurtiz. And if you want to include all the 1942 A-list cast, the group of collaborators grows even larger, but certainly Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman must be mentioned. That makes nine film making personalities having a direct impact on Casablanca as a work of art.
Meet the Epsteins of Casablanca.
The two most important figures in making Casablanca the iconic period piece it has become were not the film's producer or director of even its two stars, but the Epsteins (above). They were thirty-three at the time. Pearl Harbor was still front-page news, the war was not going well for the Allies, and the nation was still rubbing its eyes from the Great Depression. After Pearl Harbor, Wallis lost them to Frank Capra for a time while they worked on Capra's Why We Fight series. Howard Koch took their place and produced some forty pages of dialogue, much of which the Epsteins later decimated. Like many twins, the Epsteins were two who thought as one, lobbing possible dialogue back and forth like tennis balls. Virtually every memorable line from the movie was their work. Production began in April of 1942 with the film being shot in sequence simply because the second half of the script hadn't yet been finalized. Three months later it was "in the can" at a cost of just over one million 1942 dollars ($75,000 over budget).

The Coconut Grove, Ambassador Hotel, Hollywood, 1943. Jack Warner grabbed
the Casablanca Best Picture Oscar before Hal Wallis could even rise from his seat.
Casablanca was nominated for eight Academy Awards. It won three, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Bogart and Claude Rains lost out in the acting categories. Ingrid Bergman wasn't even nominated. It was successful, raking in $3.7 million in its initial release, far more than Warner Brothers or any of its collaborating filmmakers expected. In no way does it compete in the realm of all-time box-office revenue. However, most of the movie's success in recent years has come from TV and home video where it has been a perennial favorite, ranking number one as the most rerun movie on television.
Bogart and "Sam" (Dooley Wilson) with the club's "toy" piano.
Wallis considered Ella Fitzgerald for the part of Sam...(Samantha?)
It's likely one of the reason the movie "works" so well on TV is its low-budget look and feel. Shot in color on location, the story would have seemed pretentious. A Turner colorized version has been roundly panned by critics and viewers alike. Moreover, there is little in the way of memorable cinematic imagery in the screenplay or as a result of Curtiz's direction. The fog-shrouded final scene may stand out in our minds, but even then, the moist atmospherics were all done on a studio soundstage with a cardboard airplane and midget extras. The fog was simply to cover up the cost-saving shortcuts. Only one scene was shot on location (the nearby Van Nuys, California, airport). The "atmospherics" which made the movie memorable all rested in the screenplay and the cast of veteran actors Wallis brought to the table at Rick's Café Americain.
Rick and Ilsa at the airport with their fog-shrouded, cardboard airplane.
Bogart and Bergman would seem to be an inspired casting, but in fact, it came largely by accident. No one can accurately predict movie chemistry. Ann Sheridan and Hedy Lamar were also considered. Wallis got Bergman as the result of an earlier trade with her "owner" David O. Selznick, who wanted Warner's Olivia De Havilland for GWTW. However, chemistry aside, Paul Henreid, Claude Raines, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre were not just competent (all that was really expected of them), but each, in their own way, was indelibly memorable. And that's where the war-time storyline and carefully crafted script came into play. Except for the screenplay, it would be easy to write off Casablanca as simply a "happy accident." However, the movie was handcrafted to be precisely the right story at precisely the right time and right place. Down through the years it has come to epitomize that beleaguered time and place with a "love versus virtue" romantic quandary young people, and those who were young people in 1942, have taken as their own; as Rick put it: "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."
Final showdown on the tarmac-- Hans Twardowski (in a minor role as a German officer), Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Bogart, and Bergman.

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