Casablanca – One of the most celebrated and iconic films in history

Since its release in 1942, Casablanca has grown into such a legend that it almost transcends mere cinema. Its lines of dialogue can be quoted by people who have not even seen the film: “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” and the oft-misquoted “Play it, Sam.”

If Citizen Kane (1941) represents the pinnacle of artistic derring-do and Gone With the Wind (1939) epitomizes the colorful bombast of the American epic, then Casablanca is surely the film that defines cinematic cool.

Loosely based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. A fast-paced, emotionally charged romance set against the tumultuous backdrop of World War II, the film is one of the most celebrated and iconic motion pictures in history.

The plot revolves around “Rick’s Cafe Americain”, a bar and casino in Northern Africa which serves as a way station for expatriates and political refugees at the dawn of World War II. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) refuses to take sides with any nationality, but when a former lover (Ingrid Bergman) and her new husband (Paul Henried) arrive in Casablanca, desperate for visas, he is drawn into the volatile web of political and romantic espionage.

Exceeding expectations, Casablanca went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Curtiz was selected as Best Director and the Epsteins and Koch were honored for Best Adapted Screenplay. Its reputation has gradually grown, to the point that its lead characters, memorable lines, and pervasive theme song have all become iconic, and it consistently ranks near the top of lists of the greatest films in history. In 1989, the United States Library of Congress selected the film as one of the first for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The ingredients that have made Casablanca such a timeless classic are not easy to pinpoint. Produced by Warner Bros. at the height of the Hollywood studio system, Casablanca embraced what is now known as “invisible style.” Rather than dazzling the eye with eye-catching visuals and histrionic acting, it seduces the viewer by creating a seamless, lush universe that gradually envelops the audience. Hardly an effortless accomplishment, “invisible style” required an absolute mastery of the various cinematic elements by its collaborators, including Hungarian director Michael Curtiz (Mildred Pierce, 1945), director of photography Arthur Edeson (The Maltese Falcon, 1941), Art Director Carl Jules Weyl (The Big Sleep, 1946), composer Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind) and soon-to-be-director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, 1972), whose dynamic opening montage invests the film with a sense of political urgency.

It took no less than six writers to transform Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s into Casablanca, taking a conventional exotic romance (patterned after Algiers (1938) and Only Angels Have Wings, 1939) and investing it with a subtle, richly-textured brand of drama all its own.

The first writers assigned to the script were twins Julius and Philip Epstein who, against the wishes of Warner Bros., left at Frank Capra‘s request early in 1942 to work on the Why We Fight series in Washington, D.C. While they were gone, the other credited writer, Howard Koch, was assigned; he produced thirty to forty pages. etings between Rick and Ilsa in the café.

When the Epstein brothers returned after about a month, they were reassigned to Casablanca and—contrary to what Koch claimed in two published books—his work was not used. The Epstein brothers and Koch never worked in the same room at the same time during the writing of the script. The uncredited Casey Robinson assisted with three weeks of rewrites, including contributing the series of meetings between Rick and Ilsa in the café.

Bogart’s line “Here’s looking at you, kid”, said four times, was not in the draft screenplays, but has been attributed to a comment he made to Bergman as she played poker with her English coach and hairdresser between takes.

The film ran into some trouble with Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration (the Hollywood self-censorship body), who opposed the suggestions that Captain Renault extorted sexual favors from visa applicants, and that Rick and Ilsa had slept together. Extensive changes were made, with several lines of dialogue removed or altered. All direct references to sex were deleted; Renault’s selling of visas for sex, and Rick and Ilsa’s previous sexual relationship were implied elliptically rather than referenced explicitly. Also, in the original script, when Sam plays “As Time Goes By”, Rick exclaims, “What the —— are you playing?” This line was altered to “Sam, I thought I told you never to play …” to conform to Breen’s objection to an implied swear word.