“Louis, I might have known you’d mix your patriotism with a little larceny.” –– Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) to Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Police Prefect, in the final scene of Casablanca.
IF THAT LINE of dialogue from one of the most beloved and oft-quoted movies of all time sounds totally unfamiliar, good for you. It was written but never used in the final version of the 1942 Warner Bros. classic. Instead, producer Hal B. Wallis chose an alternative quip as the two characters, in the movie’s final scene, are walking across the tarmack of the Casablanca airport: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Julius Epstein, who won an Oscar for the script he co-authored with his brother Philip and fellow Hollywood screenwriter Howard Koch, took the story even further by revealing to me in a one-on-one interview in April, 1992, that “originally Rick’s ‘beautiful friendship’ line didn’t come last. My brother and I had written it as the second-to-last line, followed by ‘You still owe me 10,000 francs.” We felt that was more in keeping with Rick’s character and was the crowning touch to his cynical attitude. Well, Wallis felt otherwise. And so that’s how it turned out.”
There are many trivia stories regarding Casablanca.
* Such as how George Raft and Ann Sheridan had originally been considered for the Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman roles, and how Raft had turned down the script cold. (Earlier he had also turned down scripts for crime films that Bogart accepted to build his career a step at a time.)
* Such as how Ronald Reagan’s name had once popped up as a possible portrayer of Rick Blaine.
* Such as how William Wyler, Wallis’ first choice as director, was too busy playing gin rummy and skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, to even bother to read the script, and hence was dropped from Wallis’ wish list.
* Such as how Lena Horne had been considered for the part of the pianist when it was suggested that Sam’s character be changed to a woman. Manhood, however, prevailed.
* Such as how Otto Preminger (at that time an up-and-coming director) had been considered to portray Major Heinrich Strasser, the villainous Nazi that Conrad Veidt finally etched in acid.
* Such as how director Michael Curtiz had constantly fought with Wallis because he had never been given a completed screenplay.
Ironically, given all of these pre-production uncertainties, Casablanca has remained ubiquitously popular as one of the finest films of the 1940s. Even if its greatness was the result of ingenious talent and just plain dumb luck, given the chaotic conditions that dominated while it was being written and produced, Casablanca went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. (Cinematographer Arthur Edeson, film editor Owen Marks and composer Max Steiner were nominated for the Oscar but did not win.) It continues to capture the fancy of new generations of moviegoers, having given our culture certain catch phrases:
* “Round up the usual suspects” . . . Captain Renault to his police unit, meaning go out and bring in the same old criminals we’re always checking out, but be sure to ignore the truly guilty.
* “Here’s looking at you, kid.” . . . Rick Blaine toasting his lover Ilsa Lund, a tribute to the one you love, spoken light-heartedly but with full sincerity.
* “Play it again, Sam” . . . Although that’s how the line is usually quoted, what Blaine actually said to the pianist in his night club (played by Dooley Wilson) was “Play it.” (Blame Woody Allen for some of the misunderstanding, given how he used “Play It Again, Sam” as the title for one of his films.) What really makes the line important is that it introduced the song As Time Goes By, which became one of the most beloved movie themes of all time, thanks to composer Max Steiner.
* “I came to Casablanca for the waters.” That ironic-sounding line was the beginning of an exchange between Blaine and Inspector Renault as they sat at an outdoor table. Renault is startled: “Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” Blaine’s reply: “I was misinformed.”
Originally Casablanca came into being as a stage play, Everyone Comes to Rick’s, written in the summer of 1940 by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Before the war, in a night club on the Riviera, the couple had heard a black pianist playing the blues. Out of that inspiration sprang their cautionary tale of romance and intrigue with an underlying theme that all men and women had to take a stand in the war to come.
Burnett and Alison created a cynical Casablanca night club owner, Rick Blaine, who is reunited at his Café Americain with an old American girlfriend who slept with him in order to get important letters-of-transit to escape the Nazis. Seemingly indifferent to all causes, the hardened Blaine finally shows his loyal Allied colors by helping his lover to escape with Czech underground leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).
But the play was considered unproduceable because of the blatant sexual attitude of the heroine, and every movie studio had rejected it by the time that Warner Bros. story editor Irene Lee discovered it and, sensing its strong casting possibilities, bought the rights for $20,000, a large sum in 1941 for a property by unknown writers.
Enter Julius Epstein, who at the time was under contract to Warner Bros. with his brother Philip. They had already written Four Daughters (1938), The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) and were considering specialists at writing sparkling, witty dialogue.
“The play had given us a significant and topical theme,” the 83-year-old screenwriter recalled as we sat in his home in Los Angeles, “but the characters needed working over pretty good. Rick’s cynicism had to be heightened. And the American Louis Meredith became the foreigner Ilsa Lund.”
They changed her to European, dropping her sexual-adventuress tone, “because Bergman had been signed to play the role and at the time she projected such a wholesome innocence that no one would have believed she was a playgirl. Of course, this was years before she was morally blackballed for having an affair with Roberto Rossellini and giving birth to his child.”
The Epsteins worked as a team, but when they got briefly sidetracked with another work, “Jack L. Warner got worried and brought in Howard Koch.” Koch, a Warner favorite for having written The Sea Hawk and The Letter (both released in 1940 and both box-office successes), independently produced a draft of his own. Another writer, Casey Robinson, beefed up some of the romantic scenes, which the Epsteins in turn rewrote.
As segments of revised and newly created script pages came and went, Julius and Philip were sometimes writing dialogue at night that was scheduled to be shot the very next day. “One day on the set Ingrid asked me if she was going to run off with Laszlo or Rick. I told her, ‘As soon as I know, you’ll know.”
The Epsteins “had no idea of true conditions in Casablanca in 1942,” admitted Julius. “Later we learned there were no Germans there at all, at least not in uniform. And the letters-of-transit so important to the plot? Totally fabricated. We used whatever seemed to work for entertainment purposes. We didn’t worry too much about reality and focused on the drama.”
There’s a legendary story that one day the Epstein brothers were driving along in their car and were simultaneously struck with an inspiration about that elusive ending. “It’s not legendary, it’s true,” confirmed Epstein. “We were on Sunset Boulevard just below Beverly Glen. We were twins, you know, and we’d often say the same thing at the same instant. We turned and looked at each other and we both said, ‘Round up the usual suspects.’ There was the key to the ending.”
This decision would finally allow Captain Renault, prefect of police, to show his loyalty to the Allied cause and not have Rick arrested for allowing Ilsa and Laszlo to escape in a plane just lifting off the airfield behind them. It also set up the scene for Renault and Blaine to walk down the runway together for one of the most wonderful cinematic fade-outs of all time.
Epstein pointed out that the gambling scene, in which Rick allows a desperate young couple to win money at his roulette wheel in order to have funds to escape from Casablanca, was not in the play version.
“While we were working on the script, my brother’s wife had been gambling in Palm Springs, playing at a cheap roulette table and complaining about her losses. Irritated, the croupier whispered for her to put her chips on 22. She won. He then told her to leave the chips on 22. She won again. ‘Now,’ the croupier told her, ‘take your money and leave and never come back.’ We wrote the scene exactly that way. We even used number 22.”
But, Epstein admitted, “it was just one of many pictures being made at the studio; it seemed no more important than a Bette Davis or James Cagney or Errol Flynn film. No one had any idea how it would turn out. Certainly no one ever predicted its long-range durability.”
Strangely enough, Casablanca was not a smash hit at the box office when it was released into theaters in the early months of 1943 (though it was finished in time for a 1942 copyright date). This despite consistently good reviews and a timing that coincided with the invasion of North Africa and the 1943 Casablanca summit conference attended by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Harry S. Truman, at which strategic operations against Hitler’s Third Reich were finalized.
According to Variety’s list of all-time leading grossers, said Epstein, “the film didn’t even make $3 million after its initial release. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, that it began to take on a cult status when Bogart fans kept turning up. That continued year after year, for they wanted to see it over and over again.”
While Epstein felt that Casablanca emerged from the studio chaos as a “very slick picture,” he once told Hollywood Scriptwriter, a trade publication, that “I don’t think it’s a great picture.” The words he used now were “thoroughly entertaining, one of those times when all the elements came together satisfactorily . . . Why is it so good? One looks to its romanticism, its dialogue, its characters all struggling to escape to a better place, its cast of Warner contract players [Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S. Z. (Cuddles) Sakall]. It’s a combination of all those things.”
As a result of its critical success, plus Wallis’ and Jack L. Warner’s personal enjoyment of the film, the Epsteins were offered a new contract whereby they became producers as well as writers, turning out a string of movies (such as Mr. Skeffington) until Philip’s death in 1952. In all, Julius said, “I served my term without parole for 17 years.”
One final important factor that contributes to the film’s emotional content and nostalgia is its music. Max Steiner, who had written the score for Gone With the Wind, had always been Wallis’ first choice for composer, although Steiner did it begrudgingly because he didn’t initially care much for “As Time Goes By,” the melody that Dooley Wilson (as Sam) was supposed to play when Rick meets Ilsa in the night club. Thereafter it was to be dramatically orchestrated throughout the film to emphasis the love theme.
Time was nothing new, having first been written by Herman Hupfield in 1931 for the stage musical Everybody’s Welcome. In Wallis’ autobiography, Starmaker, he writes that “under great pressure, Steiner produced a rich, romantic score.” For the exciting main theme, Steiner lifted the Moroccan motif he had first created in The Lost Patrol in 1936.
At Wallis’ request, Steiner also incorporated Mexican composer Alberto Dominguez’s Perfidia, a famous melody about love and betrayal. Steiner also used rousing touches of La Marseillaise to dramatize the appearance of Captain Renault and his gendarmes. All of these nationalistic flourishes put the crowning touches to Casablanca.