One day on the set of Casablanca, Peter Lorre persuaded a few soundmen to rig up a wire in the room where director Michael Curtiz, much like Claude Rains’ Capt. Renault in the movie, had his afternoon trysts with young women. The whole set heard Curtiz loudly groaning, “Oh, God, yes!” It’s a joke worthy of the film itself: Even as Casablanca exalts romantic love and anti-Nazi idealism, it also mischievously nods to the cynic in the corner who is ready to pop the bubbles of amorous and political righteousness.
The habitual prankster Lorre, born Ladislav Löwenstein, was, like Curtiz, a Central European Jew. Here they were at the edge of far-off America, safe from Hitler, making a movie about European refugees trying to get out from under the Nazis. It was a subject that Hollywood had largely avoided, but now that the war was on Warner Bros. swung into action—Casablanca came out in January 1943, a few months after the Allied invasion of North Africa. But Casablanca was no mere propaganda film: Instead, it came to embody the essence of The Movies, more than Chaplin’s comedies or John Ford’s Westerns or any of the great Hollywood musicals. How Casablanca became the echt Hollywood movie is the subject of Noah Isenberg’s hugely entertaining and insightful book, We’ll Always Have Casablanca.
“We’ll always have Paris.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” “He’s just like any other man, only more so.” “The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” “Play it, Sam” (without the “again,” please). And, of course, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” These words are part of our American heritage, as familiar as the Gettysburg Address. Their combination of stalwart manliness, romance, and wit seems now like the echo of a distant past, when we and the movies were young.
Seventy-five years after Casablanca was released, even cynicism isn’t what it used to be, because there’s no tenderness underneath. In Casablanca, Bogart plays the rebel and jaded individualist: “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he says. But it turns out that being cynical is itself a kind of naiveté. Finally, you do stick your neck out, bruised and bitter as you are, even if as a result you lose the girl—again.
The movie Casablanca is full of Jewish-refugee actors, as the actual Casablanca was full of refugee Jews, stuck in “unoccupied France” after the fall of Paris and trying to escape to the New World via Portugal. But the word “Jew” never appears in the film: America’s war effort depended on Americans not thinking that they were fighting, even in part, on behalf of European Jews. Indeed, in 1943 a substantial number of Americans still blamed the Jews for the war, just as Hitler did.
One of the most colorful of the refugees was Yani “Cuddles” Sakall, who plays Carl the waiter, bumbling and kindhearted, the movie’s equivalent of a Borscht Belt tummler. Sakall was a native of Budapest and a friend of Curtiz from Vienna in the 1920s. On arriving in Los Angeles, he was at first anxious about not knowing English, but to his pleasant surprise he found himself surrounded by fellow Hungarian speakers who had fled from Hitler. A joke was making the rounds: Hungarians would be reminded that “This is Hollywood, here we speak German!”
Another joke was circulating, based on the émigrés’ sometimes-exaggerated claims for themselves: Two dachshunds run into each other on Hollywood Boulevard, and one says to the other, “In the old country, I, too, was a St. Bernard.” Lotte Palfi, who appears briefly in Casablanca as a woman desperately trying to sell her diamonds, subtitled her autobiography I Was Never a St. Bernard.
Much more prominent than Palfi was Conrad Veidt, a non-Jewish German actor who starred in the great silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt had married a Jewish woman and, just before he left Germany in 1933, was said to have written JEW in capital letters when asked about his race on an official Nazi form. Ironically, Veidt paid the bills in 1940s Hollywood by playing Nazis onscreen. His Major Strasser, shot by Bogart at the end of Casablanca, hits just the right note, prickly and commanding rather than fanatical.
Lorre plays the oily, insidious Ugarte, who turns out to be a hero and gets killed in the first reel for his pains. Twitchy and perspiring, puffing on his cigarette, he makes an indelible impression as he wheezes out one of the movie’s best lines. “You despise me, don’t you?” Lorre asks Bogart. (“If I gave you any thought, I probably would,” is Bogart’s cool response.) As in The Maltese Falcon a year earlier, Lorre provided a touch of Weimar criminality, a dark reminder of Hollywood’s Berlin roots: He had starred as a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, which prophetically hinted at a Germany run by leather-coated gangsters.
Sam, Dooley Wilson’s character, is not an émigré, but a racial outsider, and Wilson was praised at the time by African-American critics for refusing to do the stage-Negro routine. Sober and wary, Rick’s truest companion, Sam is never obsequious or buffoonish. When Ilsa refers to him once, out of his hearing, as “the boy at the piano,” today’s viewer winces. But Casablanca is remarkably free of the racism that usually pervaded Hollywood. (Casablanca trivia: Wilson couldn’t actually play the piano, so that part was dubbed. He did sing, though.)
We’ll Always Have Casablanca is a treasure trove of information about the film’s émigré actors, but also everything else you could ask for: the fascinating process of coming up with the script, the cast’s relation on the set, and the movie’s long afterlife in popular culture, right down to the latest SNL parody. Isenberg has produced a delightful page-turner of a book, perfect for every movie fan. He also proves in spades his main thesis: If you love movies, you love Casablanca. Part of the reason is that it was always on television—a vivid memory to anyone who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s. But there are deeper reasons, too.
Casablanca has been called the ultimate studio concoction, and for good reason. Its script and its cast were more important than its director. The very experienced Curtiz did good, solid work, and he got an Oscar for directing, stumbling through the acceptance speech in his comically imperfect English. (Sakall once joked that if you thought Mike Curtiz’s English was bad, you should have heard him try to speak German.) But Curtiz was less influential than the movie’s writers, stars, and producer.
Most crucial to Casablanca’s triumph was the long, slow, contentious development of the screenplay. The seed for the movie sprouted from Everybody Comes to Rick’s, a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Burnett later sued Warner Bros. for rights to the characters he and Alison had created, without success. “Plaintiffs may play it again, but they must do it in United States District Court,” the New York State Supreme Court judge pronounced.
Philip and Julius Epstein, identical twin screenwriters, were the first to work over Everybody Comes to Rick’s and start turning it into Casablanca. In his autobiography, Kirk Douglas claims that the Epsteins were famous lovers because, midway through an assignation, one twin would retire to the bathroom and the other would emerge to replace him, with the woman none the wiser. (Julius Epstein disputes this as “absolutely not true,” saying that Douglas was merely making a bad joke.) Whatever their romantic talents, the Epsteins were crack comedy writers, and they made Casablanca one of the funniest pictures ever to hit the big screen.
The next screenwriter, Howard Koch, found the Epsteins’ screwball comedy too silly and was determined to add a dose of social conscience to the film. It was, after all, an anti-Nazi movie. Finally, there was the romantic angle, and for this the film’s legendary producer, Hal Wallis, brought in yet another writer, Casey Robinson, to beef up the love story. Wallis made sure that the final product had all three elements: sizzling humor, an ageless love story, and a firm political message.
Casablanca owes much of its longevity to the romance between Bogart and the young Ingrid Bergman. Up to this point in his career, the 42-year-old Bogart had mostly played gangsters, most notably the menacing yet vulnerable Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936), Stalin’s favorite movie. Casablanca was Bogart’s first romantic role, a prospect that made him so nervous he spent most of the filming playing chess on set or hiding in his dressing room: “In Casablanca, I kissed Bogart,” Bergman later remarked, “but I never really knew him.”
Bogart in Casablanca has an edge of malevolence, amplified a few years later in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). The thrill of Rick and Ilsa’s reunion is marked not just by Ilsa’s holding a gun on him (briefly), but also his violent fury at having been dumped for Victor Laszlo, her Hungarian freedom-fighter husband. Paul Henreid, who played Laszlo, was bouncing off a spectacularly successful romantic role starring with Bette Davis in 1942’s Now Voyager. But now he had to play second fiddle to Bogart, and he wasn’t happy. In later years, Henreid laughably claimed that he agreed to do the movie only on condition that he would get the girl in the end. In any event, he doesn’t get the girl—Bogart gives her to him, because he is willing to sacrifice romantic happiness for a bigger cause, fighting the Germans.
Bogart’s Rick had a mixture that was something new in the movies: toughness and elegance and, a little further down, kindness and bravery, all under that immaculate white dinner jacket. The Bogartian cocktail was tremendously appealing at the time, and it still is. Isenberg quotes Andrew Sarris’ comment that starting with Casablanca, “Bogart became the thinking man’s patriot … liberal, skeptical, sardonic, suspicious at first but eventually heroic in the service of one unfashionable underdog or another.” Bogart the reluctant warrior for a good cause makes his first appearance in Casablanca, to reappear in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) and Ray’s Knock on Any Door (1949). His heroic decision has its effect even on the hard-to-crack Capt. Renault, in what is probably the most famous movie ending of all time. In the final minute of Casablanca, Renault repurposes his earlier line, “Round up the usual suspects,” and cynicism becomes heroism: the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
At a time when America, a country founded by the descendants of refugees, seems to be teaching itself to hate and fear them, we should all take another look at Casablanca.
Read Leslie Epstein’s memory of his father and uncle’s time at Warner Bros here.