Casablanca: Love, Truth, and That Cosmic “Hill of Beans” | K. V. Turley | CWR
The 1943 classic offers a deep portrayal of love and the struggle to do what is right in the face of passion and temptation
This Valentine’s Day, there are movie theaters both sides of the Atlantic, in London and Washington DC, showing a film that for many is deemed to be amongst the most romantic ever made. (No, I'm not talking about that movie.) This famous film may be, however, a deeper exploration of the meaning of love than audiences at first imagine. And, as marriage is being attacked from all sides, Casablanca is worth revisiting.
Casablanca is more than just a movie. It is now a legend, almost a myth. Its world is as unreal to us today as, surprisingly, it was to audiences when it was released in 1943. Its background of espionage and world war was always more fantasy than it was historic. It is a hyperreality of sorts, with global conflict providing the backdrop for the deep emotions and the love triangle at the movie’s center.
Timely theme, timeless message
Watching it now, one is struck by how timely its themes remain, how modern its dilemmas, and above all how timeless its message: You cannot do right by doing wrong.
For all its legendary status, it is a movie that was “thrown together” rather than crafted with any foreknowledge—or even much of a plan, for that matter. Its genesis was the 1939 stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick's, by the then-husband and wife team of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The play was a moderate success, enough for it to catch the eye of Hollywood, which was always hungry for properties to turn into movies. Warner Brothers bought it and then turned it loose to its contract scriptwriters, as happened with so many other literary properties. In this case it was first with the Epstein brothers, who added some much needed levity; then it was sent over to Howard Koch, who put in the various political messages (such as they were) before it was bounced back to the Epsteins for some more light relief—and then back to Koch, and so on.
Did they think they were making a classic that would still be viewed some 70 years later? No, probably not. The creation of a 1940s Hollywood production line, Casablanca was just another movie, with little (so it appeared) to set it apart from anything else then in development.
The same lack of any sense of import was true also of the casting of the film's stars. George Raft, not Humphrey Bogart, was the first choice for the male lead. But Bogart was one of Warner’s’ contract stars and Warner had to find something for him to do, so he was eventually attached to the project. Unlike today, when some movie stars are barely willing to make one film a year, screen stars were then just another studio commodity and, like everyone else on contract, were expected to earn their money.
The other star, Ingrid Berman, was desperate to act in Casablanca, but not because of the movie; she was just desperate to escape into the fantasy world of film and away from an unhappy marriage in New York City. And, like Bogart, she was not a first choice; she wasn’t even really a “choice” as she was under contract elsewhere and only at the last minute was reluctantly loaned to Warners. In the end, both she and Bogart did what they had to do; they were distant with each other throughout, both distracted by unhappy home lives, with little by way of friendship between them when the cameras stopped rolling. Whatever chemistry did exist was confined to the screen, and was as fantastical as the movie’s sub-plot of the fabled exit papers needed to escape from Casablanca.
The other actors—Claude Raines, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Paul Henreid—turned up with varying degrees of interest, and did what they always did: gave first rate performances. All were essentially character actors, some of the best around, and they appeared in countless films. Thus, they had the advantage of steady and lucrative work but with none of the associated problems or projected fantasies that afflicted the leads. The film’s director, Michael Curtiz, was a Hungarian immigrant who churned out numerous films, some better than others, for Warners. A friend of the producers, Curtiz was an inevitable choice as director, if considered so on the basis of being a safe pair of hands. So, as the cameras rolled, it was just another movie on the slate, with a budget and a schedule to keep.
The central drama
The movie’s plot is simple enough.