Saturday, January 23, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "Casablanca" (1942)

Scene from Casablanca
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: January 23, 1943
Director: Michael Curtiz
Written By: Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch (Screenplay), Murray Bennett & Joan Allison (Play), Casey Robinson (Uncredited)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Running Time: 102 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 2
-Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart)
-Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains) 
-Best Cinematography (Black and White)
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score (Drama or Comedy)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-For Whom the Bell Tolls
-Heaven Can Wait
-The Human Comedy
-In Which We Serve
-Madame Curie
-The More the Merrier
-The Ox-Bow Incident
-The Song of Bernadette
-Watch on the Rhine

And the winner is...

Next to films like Citizen Kane and The Godfather, there aren't too many movies that have been called with sincerity to be perfect as much as director Michael Curtiz's Casablanca. It was a film that was pretty much born into its reputation, even subverting the expectations by making a war film without any war battles and by releasing it in response to events happening during World War II. Beyond this, it's a romance that is arguably among the best ever filmed and features Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at their bests. For whatever reason, the film works impeccably well, managing to capture the turmoil of the era while also capturing a deeper longing by which we all strive. It's incredible story telling and no amount of misquoting will ruin its reputation. Casablanca is a film so memorable that it will likely never be forgotten as time goes by.

The story begins during Murray Bennett and Joan Allison's summer vacation. No, really. As the war was happening, the two visited Europe and came across a bar, tonally similar to what would become Casablanca. It was a place full of diverse groups attempting to get away from the turmoil outside. Taken aback by the Antisemitism that was brewing outside, the warm embrace of everyone singing inside inspired the theater teach to pen "Everybody Comes to Rick's" with Allison, setting it in Casablanca since it was factually appropriate to the situation. The story would make its way into script circulations and was picked up for $20,000 by producer Jack L. Warner. It was unprecedented that an unproduced play would receive that amount of money. What also was unprecedented was that the person who discovered the script had read "Everybody Comes to Rick's" the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Due to the need to release pro-American films at the time, it went directly into production under the new name Casablanca: a move that was chosen due to the success of one named films like Algiers

The original director was to be Howard Hawks. During a meeting, Curtiz - who was working on Sergeant York - spoke with Hawks about how he didn't understand the characters. Likewise, Hawks didn't understand Casablanca, and the two switched. The film also underwent several rewrites in order to get around the censorship problems of the day, tearing away any extramarital or sexual content. While the script was originally written by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (referred to as The Epstein Brothers), time conflicts meant that they went to work with Frank Capra briefly on a documentary war series. Howard Koch would fill in until their return, though none of his rewrites were considered to have sustained to the final draft. Due to this conflict, where even the ending wasn't known until very close to the deadline, the film was shot largely in chronological order.

The film was shot predominantly on the Warners back lot (save for the final scene, shot at Van Nuys Airport). Bogart took out $100,000 insurance just in case he would die during production. He was also accused of having an affair with Bergman by his wife: a move that inevitably proved to be false. Still, he remained a playful personality with his co-star. The rumor goes that the line "Here's looking at you, kid." is based off of remarks he would make to Bergman when they played poker. Since she was still learning English, he used the line to help her play more effectively. It was also said that there were 34 nationalities on production, largely in part due to the immigration that many had to face because of the war. Many of the Nazis were played by German Jews, and the director was himself an Austria-Hungary-born citizen. While the production proved to be very anti-Nazi, the film avoided using music that would cause royalty conflicts that would keep the film from playing in neutral countries who wished not to deal with the war.

The film's most famous scene was done at Van Nuys Airport. Because of various shooting problems, the background props couldn't be far enough away to be convincing. To get around this, Curtiz had little people stand in front of smaller prop planes. The film's closing line "Louie, I think that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." is one of the misquoted lines in history. This is also true for the line "Play it again, Sam.", the last word of which doesn't appear at any point. Max Steiner wasn't also keen on the use of "As Time Goes By" in the film (a choice that had lasted from Burnett's original draft) and insisted on making an original song for the sake of royalties. This didn't pan out, as Bergman was onto her next film (For Whom the Bell Tolls), and had already cut her hair in a noticeable way. The song was kept in. Sam (Dooley Wilson) was also not a trained pianist and would record his performance while mimicking an off screen player.

The film premiered in November of 1942, which was a few weeks after an attack on the real life Casablanca by The Allies. With a planned spring release, there was consideration of making an epilogue to include this event. Considering that it was already set before Pearl Harbor, it would seem a little excessive. David O. Selznick would even suggest that this was a boneheaded move and that the ending was perfect. It wasn't the last time that the real life Casablanca would play into Casablanca's marketing. The film was given wide release on January 23, 1943 to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, which was a major meeting between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The film was a considerable success, but its acclaim wasn't immediate. Despite its 1942 premiere, the wide release in 1943 (and a subsequent loss to be nominated at the 1942 Oscars) meant that it competed with that year's group.

The film was a modest success at The Oscars, winning 3 of its 5 nominations. The story goes that when the film won Best Picture, Jack L. Warner ran up to the stage while actual producer Hal B. Wallis lagged behind. Warner had nothing to do with the film, which caused a lifelong feud between the two. The Epstein Brothers became the first (and to date only) twins to ever win an Oscar for their screenplay. The film's success is pretty impressive, considering that the ceremony was held 15 months after its initial premiere, if anything making it one of the longest gaps between a film's release and its Best Picture win. This was also the last year until 2009 in which the category would have 10 Best Picture nominees. 

The legacy of Casablanca is very well known. The lines and looks are so iconic that they continue to be lampooned. There have even been two satirical films based off of Casablanca: one by The Marx Brothers (A Night at Casablanca) and one by Woody Allen (Play It Again, Sam). Everything about the film has since become more iconic than its initial reputation would suggest. Its wider appeal has even caused critics like Roger Ebert to suggest that it is more popular than Citizen Kane. It is the film with the most entries on A.F.I.'s most memorable quotes list. It was Hollywood perfection that mostly served as lightning in a bottle thanks to its strangely perfect existence. It began with Pearl Harbor and coincided with attacks on the real life Casablanca. Considering how few films have that big of a tie to history, it's a miracle that the film ended up being regarded as flawless as it was.

Casablanca is one of those timeless films, synonymous with incredible quality that the medium often strives for. While setting a high bar for the rest of Bogart and Bergman's careers, it proves what the magic of the studio system can do, if just by accident. Nobody expected the film to be nearly as successful as it was, yet it became one of the most influential films in history. If that's not lucky, nothing is. It is a reflection of society as a whole in a time of uncertainty, featuring more variety than most mainstream movies nowadays. While it may be one of the least violent war films ever, it may be one of the most passionate. For that alone, Casablanca continues to endure as a timeless classic.

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