Monday, March 30, 2009

'Play it again, Sam'


Every once in a while a movie will come along that matches the mood of the moment so perfectly it captures this nation’s heart. Just such a film was Casablanca. Made in 1942 while the country was still reeling from the disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor, this rare and perfect example of movie making gave a disheartened populace the powerful morale boost it needed.

The Script
Irene Lee, head of the Warner Brothers story department, discovered a play script titled "Everybody Comes to Rick's,” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, languishing on a shelf in the company’s New York office. She touted it to studio head Jack L. Warner, who agreed to buy it for $20,000--the most any studio had ever paid for an unproduced theatrical work.

Nothing in the planning and shooting of the film Casablanca gave a hint of greatness to come. Seven screenwriters worked on the film script, often simultaneously. Some actors in featured roles had not been signed before shooting started. Script changes were frequent, with actors being handed new versions of the dialogue for a scene on the day it was to be shot. As a result, shooting ran 11 days over schedule.

To Casablanca’s stars, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the dialogue seemed ridiculous and the situations unbelievable. Despite the obvious on-screen chemistry between them, they hardly spoke on the set. One reason may have been the insane jealousy of Bogart’s wife, actress Mayo Methot, who repeatedly accused him of having an affair with Bergman.

The Players
Studio publicity claimed that Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan had been scheduled to appear in this film, and Dennis Morgan was named the third lead. This false story was planted merely to keep their names before the public. Producer Hal Wallis had been assigned to search for Humphrey Bogart’s next starring role. When he discovered that George Raft was angling for the part, he told Warner that he had found the perfect script and role for Bogart—that of the cynical, world-weary café owner, Rick Blaine. After that, no other actor was ever considered for the part. Bogart’s salary was $2,200 a week.

In those days, players were under contract to studios or producers who traded them back and forth almost like baseball cards. Producer David O. Selznick owned Ingrid Bergman’s contract, Wallis sent the film's principal writers, Philip and Julius Epstein, to persuade Selznick to lend her to Warner Brothers for the picture.

After 20 minutes of describing the plot to Selznick, Julius gave up and said, "Oh, it's going to be a lot of s**t like Algiers." Selznick immediately understood and agreed to the loan. French star Michèle Morgan had asked for $55,000, an amount Wallis refused to pay since he could get Ingrid Bergman for $25,000. Warner agreed to lend Olivia de Haviland to Selznick in return.

Bogart was actually about two inches shorter than Bergman. To create the illusion that the opposite was true, Bogart stood on boxes, wore platform shoes and sat on pillows in some shots, or Bergman slouched down (as when she sits on the couch in the "a franc for your thoughts" scene).

Finding an actor for the part of resistance leader Victor Laszlo was a problem. Herbert Marshall, Dean Jagger and Joseph Cotton were all under consideration until Selznick lent Warners an unhappy Paul Henreid for the role. Having just starred in Now Voyager with Bette Davis, he was worried that playing anything less than a lead character would ruin his budding career.

Dooley Wilson, who played the part of Sam, the pianist at Bogart’s café, was borrowed from Paramount at $500 a week. His name came from his act in which he sang Irish songs in white makeup. Wilson had to fake playing the piano. The songs were actually played by pianist Elliott Carpenter hidden behind a curtain, but positioned so Wilson could see and copy his hand movements. Wallis briefly considered making the character Sam a female with Hazel Scott, Lena Horne or Ella Fitzgerald in the role.

On loan from MGM, veteran actor Conrad Veidt played the role of Major Strasser. His wife, Lily Prager, was Jewish, and they had fled Germany for England. A fervent anti-Nazi, he spent the last years of his life playing Nazis. His salary, $5,000 a week for five weeks' work, made him the highest-paid actor on the set. Another competitor for the part had been Otto Preminger, under contract to 20th Century-Fox, who wanted $7,000 a week for his services.

Production had already started when Claude Rains was signed as the corrupt Vichy Captain Renault at a salary of $4,000 a week and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Carl, Rick’s maitre d’, at $1,750 a week. Joy Page, who played the young Bulgarian wife, was the stepdaughter of studio head Jack L. Warner, but earned only $100 a week. Page, Bogart and Dooley Wilson were the only American-born actors in the credited cast.

The Songs

"As Time Goes By," the love song shared by Bogart and Bergman, was written by composer Herman Hupfeld and introduced by Frances Williams in the 1931 Broadway musical "Everybody's Welcome." It had long been a favorite of playwright Murray Burnett. Max Steiner, who composed the background music for the film, was against using the song. He wanted to compose an original song (which would qualify him for royalties). "As Time Goes By" is #2 on the American Film Institute's “100 Years/100 Songs” list.

For the “contest between the anthems" sequence, Warner Bros. had intended to use the "Horst Wessel Lied," the anthem of the Nazi party. But a German music publisher owned the copyright, so they switched to the rousing "Die Wacht am Rhein." After the emotional playing of “La Marseillaise,” many of the actors, refugees from Europe, were in tears.

Thanks to a stroke of luck, just before the film’s release Allied forces landed at Casablanca and elsewhere in North Africa. The studio moved up the release date to take advantage of this unexpected publicity.

Memorable Lines
Casablanca yielded more memorable quotes than any other film. Interestingly, nobody in the film ever says, "Play it again, Sam.” What Bergman says to pianist Dooley Wilson is, "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.'" Later, a melancholy Bogart tells Wilson: "You played it for her. You can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it!"

Claude Rains as Capt. Renault had two widely quoted lines: “"I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!" and "Major Strasser has been shot! Round up the usual suspects!" When Rains, as Capt. Renault, attempts to probe Bogart about his reasons for coming to Casablanca, Bogart's response is, "My health. I came for the waters." Rains is incredulous. "The waters? What waters. We are in the desert." Bogart: "I was misinformed."

Then there are the other classic gems from Bogart: ”Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." And the two he says to Bergman, recalling the last time they met: "We’ll always have Paris." and “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”

Few will forget Bogart's memorable parting from Bergman, “I've got a job to do. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of, Ilsa. I'm not good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Now, here's looking at you, kid." Bogart had ad-libbed the farewell toast to Bergman earlier in the film. The line worked so well it was repeated in the airport sequence as he sends her away with Henreid.

The film concludes with Bogart’s optimistic line predictive of eventual victory over the forces of evil, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Three weeks after shooting had finished and unhappy with the film’s final scene, producer Hal Wallis decided to add that line at the end of the film, as Bogart and Rains walk across the airport tarmac together. Bogart was called back from vacation and recorded what would become one of the most famous last lines in movie history.

The Film's Impact
Warners had paid $20,000 for the play, $47,281 to six writers and $73,400 to director Michael Curtiz to pull everything together. The bill for cast salaries was $91,717. Total cost of the film was $878,000. The take from the first domestic rentals came to a cool $3.7 million, a number that made the brothers Warner very happy. It won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay awards for 1942. It was a war picture, a love story, and even had elements of a musical. Most of all, it was a riveting drama about a different kind of bravery: little people willing to take a stand against injustice in a world rapidly falling apart.

Unlike the blatantly propagandistic movies made by Hollywood during the war, Casablanca's celebration of a timeless romance, idealistic self-sacrifice to a greater cause, and the inevitable triumph of good over evil has stood the test of time. With a running time of only 102 minutes, it is a work of art that still speaks to us today. For good reason, the American Film Institute voted it #2 in the 100 best films from the first hundred years of movie making.

Out of the near chaos that attended the making of this movie has come a story of a love that gives, rather than takes, even though the giving is not without heartbreak and pain. A story of a man who loves a woman so much he cannot bear to have her live with what he knows will be vain regret. A story of a woman torn between that love and her worship of a man and the cause he is fighting for. Casablanca is a film that idealistically portrays the beauty of sacrifice for a love that will live forever. Viewers everywhere are glad that it embodies these sentiments. Otherwise, we wouldn't have come to love it so much.

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