When the cameras stopped rolling on the “Casablanca” set on August 3, 1942, with the film’s premiere set for later that Fall, no one, particularly the actors and production crew, thought the movie would be long remembered. For them, it was just another film in the can, quickly shot in a little over two months for a total cost of just over one million dollars. And the cast and crew didn’t get along all that well, with Ingrid Bergman impatiently awaiting a phone call on the set that would award her the more coveted role of Maria in the film version of Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls.”
As we now know, of course, that little movie about how America fought World War II in a little out-of-the-way gin joint in Morocco has become one of our most beloved films, consistently making Top Five lists and generating countless pop culture references. Its most famous line, “Play it again, Sam,” was in fact never uttered in that form. Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, instructs his piano player, Sam, to “Play it,” and Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, begs Sam to “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake . . . Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By’ . . . .Sing it, Sam.” To his credit, Woody Allen took this oft-misquoted line and made his marvelous 1972 movie, “Play It Again, Sam,” as a tribute to the Bergman-Bogart love story.
According to Aljean Harmetz’s encyclopedic and engrossing 1992 book, ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS: THE MAKING OF CASABLANCA–BOGART, BERGMAN, AND WORLD WAR II, “There are better movies than Casablanca, but no other movie better demonstrates America’s mythological vision of itself–tough on the outside and moral within, capable of sacrifice and individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism. No other movie has so reflected both the moment when it was made–the early days of World War II–and the psychological needs of audiences decades later.” She goes on to say that “It was an accident, of course, that Casablanca blended a theme and half a dozen actors, an old song and a script full of cynical lines and moral certainty, into 102 minutes that have settled into the American psyche.” No one saw this coming in the Fall of 1942, and it has taken seventy-five years for this film to become embedded firmly into the American psyche in ways the original cast and crew would not now recognize.
There have been many attempts to analyze the quintessential appeal of this long-ago movie, including Harmetz’s book. One of my favorite observations appears in Thomas Foster’s READING THE SILVER SCREEN: A FILM LOVER’S GUIDE TO DECODING THE ART FORM THAT MOVES (2016)–a book everyone with even a passing interest in movies should read. Foster asks us to rewatch Casablanca, paying careful attention to what he calls the “closed-door trope.” It seems our beloved film is all about the many ways “characters are impeded, excluded, caught, trapped” by the opening and closing of doors. Countless examples abound, and I won’t begin to list them all here. Foster uses these examples to point out how everyone sees movies in different, often contentious ways: “The point isn’t that you must see what I see but that we all notice different elements of the film. And a lot of that noticing comes not so much from the film itself as from what we bring to it.” This point is made again and again in what I consider to be the best meditation on the movie, Marc Auge’s CASABLANCA: MOVIES AND MEMORY (2007, translated from the French by Tom Conley in 2009). In Auge’s interpretation of the film, which he first saw when he was eleven, “The story of the past takes place in the present,” meaning that we always see a movie, or anything for that matter, from our present viewpoint. And the story of Rick and Ilsa’s ill-fated romance that we see when we are eleven is not the same movie we will see when we are in our sixties. Apparently, we can always have Paris, but not the same Paris every time we revisit the city (and the film).
Hot off the press is Noah Isenberg’s seventy-fifth-anniversary commemorative study, WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA: THE LIFE, LEGEND, AND AFTERLIFE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST BELOVED MOVIE (2017). Not designed to upstage Harmetz’s excellent study, Isenberg’s book is intended to examine the movie as it has evolved during the twenty-five years since the Harmetz book was published. My favorite chapters are the last two, “Play It Again” and “A Beautiful Friendship,” where Isenberg takes us on a neat little tour of the enduring appeal of the film, particularly in its many pop culture manifestations–from the already-mentioned spoof by Woody Allen and references on “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” to rather unsuccessful remakes and the marvelous 1995 Bugs Bunny cartoon “Carrotblanca.” And, let’s not forget the Marx Brothers’ parody, “A Night In Casablanca,” produced only four years after the original movie first appeared.
Needless to say, all the reading in the world will not substitute for actually watching the movie. If you can’t watch it in a theatre (good luck!), see it in blu-ray. I have the 2012 Warner Brothers edition, complete with oodles of special features, including two commentaries (one by Roger Ebert).
I trust you will find appropriate ways to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of “Casablanca”. I suggest you play it again, and again.