Play it again: the magic of 'Casablanca'
Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30
Not many people read the obituary of French actress Madeleine Lebeau, who passed away a few weeks back, but if they had, they might have recognised her face. Ms Lebeau, who died in Estepona at the age of 92, had spent most of her working life acting in films in France, Italy and Spain. Her credits included Fellini's 8ƒ and the frothy Bardot comedy La Parisienne, but all that solid work was overshadowed by a small part she played when she was just 19.
Early on in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's swaggering and self-assured nightclub owner Rick Blaine is accosted at the bar by a drunk and emotional young beauty called Yvonne. "Where were you last night?", she asks him as he passes by. "That's so long ago, I don't remember," Rick replies. "Will I see you tonight?" she asks forlornly, but is again rebuffed. "I never make plans that far ahead."
The young woman was played by Madeleine Lebeau, who a few minutes later enjoyed a more memorable moment when she annoyed a table of Nazis by leading a rousing and rebellious rendition of 'La Marseillaise'. Ms Lebeau's part had originally been bigger, but constant script changes had reduced it to a few fleeting scenes. But she'd always be remembered for them, and her death was given extra poignancy by the fact that she was the last surviving member of Casablanca's cast.
Like several other of the film's actors, Lebeau had recently fled Europe to escape the advance of Hitler's legions. And though she did manage to land more substantial roles in several other Hollywood movies before returning to France after the war, all would be eclipsed by Casablanca. In later life she was a little bitter about the way her role had steadily diminished, but she was always proud of having been involved in such a special film.
Because Casablanca is special in many ways, a rousing and humorous melodrama that has wormed its way into the hearts of millions of movie lovers, many of whom can quote large sections of its witty script by heart. Its enduring appeal is all the more remarkable when you realise that it was made in a rush, its stars thought little of it and it was never expected to make much of a splash.
In fact it might have become just another pulpy studio melodrama if it hadn't been for a lucky collision of a good story, the perfect cast, a clever director and that extraordinary script.
Contrary to popular belief, Casablanca was not a B-picture: it had an A-list director in Michael Curtiz, great writers, and a million dollar budget which was generous for the time. But it was knocked out in just two months during the summer of 1942, and starred two actors who had yet to prove they could carry a picture.
Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman had been brought to Hollywood by producer David O Selznick in 1939 to star in the romantic drama Intermezzo. It was a hit, but Bergman didn't initially establish herself as a star. She was five foot nine, taller than a lot of Hollywood's male stars at the time, and that and her heavy accent made her difficult to cast.
Humphrey Bogart was 42-years-old when he starred in Casablanca: by that time he was a Hollywood veteran who'd made his name playing treacherous villains in Warner Brothers gangster pictures. He was kind of funny-looking and not everyone's idea of a leading man. Producer Hal B Wallis, however, thought he had something different, and always saw him as the perfect actor to play cynical Casablanca nightclub owner Rick Blaine.
Casablanca started out as a rather cheesy unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick's. A reader at Warner Brothers persuaded Hal Wallis to buy the rights for $20,000, and twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein were hired to turn it into something filmable. America had recently entered the war, and the Epsteins were Jewish: in their hands Casablanca would become an anti-Nazi rallying cry.
Bogart played Rick Blaine, a curmudgeonly American who runs a glamorous club in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in 1941. The town is notionally under the control of Vichy France, but realistically ruled by Germany, and is full of desperate European émigrés who'll do anything to get their hands on a precious letter of transit to the United States, and freedom.
Rick has always stayed out of politics, but when an old flame called Ilsa Lund (Bergman) turns up in the company of a renowned Czech resistance leader called Victor Lazlo, Blaine is finally forced to choose sides.
The story sounded like just another of the hundreds of pro-war propaganda movies dutifully pumped out by Hollywood during 1942, and Bogart and Bergman showed up for work on May 25 with no particular expectations.
In fact, they hadn't even seen a script. Casablanca's screenplay was finished during production, which meant that the actors were handed lines on a daily basis and never knew what was going to happen in the end. Bogart and Bergman didn't exactly hit it off either.
The statuesque blonde was a good two inches taller than Bogie, who wore lifts and sat on pillows in order to make up the difference. Despite their on-screen chemistry, the pair didn't talk much during the shoot: Bergman's English wasn't great, and Bogart's unstable third wife Mayo Methot turned up on the set to accuse her husband of having an affair with the Swede.
Casablanca was corny, as its stars were quick to point out, and smelt like a disaster in the making, but something magical was happening in spite of Bogart and Bergman's misgivings. And they were both superb as the star-crossed lovers Ilsa and Rick.
They were helped by a sparkling supporting cast of European character actors. Berlin-born actor Conrad Veidt had been a vocal critic of the Third Reich, and fled Germany after Hitler came to power. But in Hollywood he ended up being typecast as a Nazi, and was satisfyingly nasty as the odious Major Strassa.
Claude Rains was his usual charming self as the cheerfully amoral Vichy police chief Renault, and Humphrey Bogart's chess buddy Peter Lorre played the unfortunate petty thief, Ugarte. Madeleine Lebeau's then-husband, Marcel Dalio made a charismatic turn as the nightclub croupier. Add Sydney Greenstreet as the portly rival club owner Ferrari, and Paul Henreid as Ilsa's husband Victor Laszlo, and you had a uniquely charismatic cast.
Casablanca's most famous scene is its finale, where Rick Blaine suddenly comes over all noble, forgoes Ilsa and joins the fight against the Germans. But the film very nearly didn't end like that at all.
Director Michael Curtiz was working off several screenplays, one by the Epstein brothers, the other by Casey Robinson, and at one point it was suggested that Rick escape from Casablanca with Ilsa, or that Rick himself be killed in an airport shoot-out. Happily, wiser councils prevailed.
Although Humphrey Bogart is supposed to have ad-libbed the famous line "Here's looking at you, kid," most of Casablanca's finished script is credited to Julius and Philip Epstein. And what a brilliant script it is.
There are the famous lines, of course, like "of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine," "we'll always have Paris" and the "hill of beans" speech at the end. But Casablanca is packed with witty asides. When Rick says he came to Casablanca for the waters, Captain Renault says "what waters - we're in the desert". "I was misinformed," Rick calmly replies.
The film's unusual mix of propaganda, melodrama and cynical wit went down only moderately well with audiences when it was released in late November of 1942. It made almost $4m on its initial release, a decent return, but nothing to write home about, and contemporary critics were dismissive in the main.
What they couldn't have known was how fondly Casablanca would be embraced by future generations. It became a late night TV favourite in the 1960s and 70s, was eulogised by Woody Allen in his 1972 film Play It Again, Sam, and is now regarded as one of the finest films Hollywood made about World War II.
It's more than that, though, because over time it's become a cherished artefact, a movie people watch for comfort as well as pleasure. Maybe there are better films than Casablanca, but there are probably none better loved.
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