From: Dick, Bernard F., The Star Spangled Screen: The American World War II Film (Lexington KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1985), pp. 21-22, 167-171.
Fiction Elevated to Fable: Casablanca (1942)
The coolest Spanish civil war vet of them all did not wear a zippered jacket and cap, but a trenchcoat and pinched-brim Fedora—Rick Blaine (Bogart) of Casablanca. Shortly after he makes his first appearance, he announces with uninflected indifference, "I stick my neck out for nobody." Yet there was a time when he was sticking it out for everyone—for the Ethiopians in 1935, for the Spanish Republicans the following year. Although Rick dismisses his altruistic past, he was in Spain for the same reason most of the volunteers were—"for the sake of an ideal, no matter what motive prompted them to seek one." When Hugh Thomas, the leading historian of the Spanish civil war, wrote "let not posterity impugn the sincerity of these men," he was clearly thinking of men like Rick. . . .
The most famous reconstructed neutral and the coolest patriot in movie history was Rick Blaine, owner of the world's best known gin joint. While Casablanca has become such a part of our national mythology that audiences in revival houses can recite the dialogue if the sound goes awry, it was never intended as a mere divertissement. Of course, Casablanca will always be synonymous with entertainment in the best sense of the word: it gave, and will continue to give, pleasure—aesthetic, moral, and personal.
Casablanca is fiction elevated to fable, then translated into myth where the implausible, improbable, and unlikely are no more questioned than the exploits of a deity or the adventures of a hero. Films that evolve into sacred texts are rare, for the sacral is a peculiar kind of art. Its basis is myth conceived of as sacred history. Of course, the history on which Casablanca is based is verifiable. History, however, is not really the groundwork) it is only a grid thrown over the real foundation, myth. The evolution of Casablanca from an unproduced play to a film classic has been traced. What has not been explained is how an unproduced play became a film classic. Part of the reason lies in the interconnection between the hero and the plot; the plot is the myth, and the transformation of cafe owner into champion of freedom is inseparable from the transformation of melodrama into myth.
At the beginning, however, Casablanca seems like any other war movie. For those weak in geography, French Morocco is pinpointed on an animated map, and an imperturbable voice describes the escape route, originating in Paris and ending in Casablanca, from which the fortunate fly to Lisbon and thence to the United States. Casablanca's peculiar situation in 1941 the year in which the plot is set, is explained early in the film when Captain Renault (Claude Rains), prefect of police, refuses to return the Nazi salute to the visiting Major Strasser. Renault reminds the major that Casablanca is part of "unoccupied France," which is correct. Although the distinction between occupied and unoccupied France had all but vanished by the time Casablanca was released, it existed in December 1941, the time of the action. Hence the setting is plausible, although French Morocco was more pro-Vichy than the film cares to admit. Apart from reducing the margin for error, setting the action before Pearl Harbor has another advantage: surefire irony. When Rich says, "If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York? . . . I bet they're alseep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America," one can almost hear a 1942-43 audience murmuring assent. Like Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall) in To Have and Have Not (1944), some might not have known the difference between Petain and de Gaulle, but everyone knew the difference between waking and sleeping.
There is another reason, a practical one, for leaving Pearl Harbor out of the plot: it would prevent Rick from practicing his newly found patriotism. He would have to agonize over whether or not to return to the States. For reasons that are "a little vague," as Renault observes, Rick cannot return, presumably because a jail sentence awaits him. If Casablanca ends before 7 December, Rick can still do his duty: he can join the Free French, the next best thing to fighting for Uncle Sam.
If Casablanca has a sophistication that most wartime melodramas lack, it is partly because its source, Everybody Comes to Rick's, the unproduced play by Murray Bumett and Joan Alison, lends itself to the same kind of urbane treatment as the grand hotel/express train/luxury liner film in which the characters find themselves at a crossroads and rise to the level of wit, aphorism, and gesture that the occasion demands. Bumett and Alison provided the basic story line, which a series of screenwriters—acknowledged and other- wise—embellished, each adding something that was lacking in the play. Julius and lrving Epstein contributed humor and wit; Howard Koch gave Rick a radical past.
In the play, Rick is an attorney specializing in lost cases; in the film, he is a champion of lost causes—Ethiopia, Loyalist Spain. Victor Laszlo, who also appears in the play, is a Czech antifascist. In the play, there is no reason why Laszlo has to be Czech, except that "everybody comes to Rick's," including Czechs. The screenwriters provided an excellent reason. They decided that Ilsa should be married to Laszlo when she meets Rick in Paris a few months before the fall of France in June 1940; thus Laszlo must be from a country that fell before the spring of 1940, a country that must also have an active underground. Even if Bumett and Alison had not made Laszlo a Czech, the screenwriters might have, since they were at pains to make each character's background plausible. Czechoslovakia was a logical homeland for Laszlo since it had two resistance movements—one for officers, another for activists and intellectuals, to which a political writer like Laszlo would belong.
The screenwriters pushed the play's metaphor to its logical conclusion, making Casablanca a microcosm of the pre-Pearl Harbor world, a place where Nazis mingle with citizens of the countries they have invaded and where an American-owned cafe buzzes with a polyphony of accents. To achieve the right geographical and political mix, the writers could not leave the national origins of the characters to chance; nor could they leave the characters intact. The play's heroine, Lois Meredith, had to be transformed. Lois is the proverbial lady of easy virtue who goes off with Laszlo (who is unmarried) at the end. Once the screenwriters decided to make Laszlo and the heroine a married couple, the freedom fighter had to have a wife worthy of him; and a sleeparound would not do. And so Lois Meredith became Ilsa Lund.
Like her husband, Ilsa should be from an occupied country. Although Ingrid Bergman was Swedish and had played a Swede in her American debut, Intermezzo (1939), she could not appear as one of her countrywomen in Casablanca. Sweden was neutral, and the wife of an underground leader should not come from a neutral nation. On the other hand, if Ilsa were Norwegian, she could share in the growing sympathy for occupied Norway that Hollywood kept alive by its 1942—43 Norwegian quintet.
The care taken in establishing the national backgrounds of the characters was not limited to the leads; it also extended to the supporting cast. The screenwriters rounded out the cast with some additions of their own: the "good Germans" are represented by a couple en route to the United States; the Soviet Union by Sascha, the anti-Nazi bartender; Free France by Berger the Norwegian, who has responded to de Gaulle's call and proves it by a ring that opens to reveal the Cross of Lorraine. Annina appears in the play, but the film makes much of her desire to emigrate to America with her husband since their homeland, Bulgaria, had joined the Axis in March 1941.
The film also comes to grips with an important fact about Casablanca: as part of unoccupied France, it is also part of collaborationist France, a point that is not downplayed. Although Renault is not exactly a collaborationist, he is not a Gaullist, either. Thus there is hope for him since he dwells in a political no-man's-land. But so does Rick. In a sense, they are doubles—Renault's conversion coincides with Rick's as they go off to enlist in the Free French, thereby adding two more bodies to an organization that was never very large to begin with. However, there is a true collaborationist in the film—Yvonne, a holdover from the play, who begins consorting with the Nazis when Rick rebuffs her. But even she cannot resist the appeal of "La Marseillaise," which is also sung in the play but without Yvonne's rousing "Vive la France!"
In the television documentary Hollywood: You Must Remember This (1972), Ingrid Bergman reminisces about Casablanca, remarking that no one, not even director Michael Curtiz or producer Hal Wallis, knew how the film should end, whether it should be with Ilsa's going off with Rick or with Laszlo. This was not entirely true; Casey Robinson sketched out the ending in a memo to Wallis, although it was not until forty years later that Robinson's contribution to Casablanca was discovered. Even so, given the way the plot is consructed, Ilsa has no other choice but to remain with her husand. Her sympathy with Laszlo's antifascism transcends her infatuation with Rick; when Laszlo leads the singing of "La Marseillaise," drowning out the Germans, who bellow "Die Wacht am Rhein" with beer garden gusto, Ilsa's face is resplendent with the kind of pride front lighting can enhance but never create.
Since Rick's Cafe Americain is the film's focal point and, like America, an international melting pot, its symbolism would be sullied if an American ran off with another man's wife, especially after the wife had rekindled his political conscience; and the symbolism would be destroyed if the American were killed. Now one can appreciate the screenwriters' wisdom in having all the characters, except Rick, come from countries that are fascist, occupied, or besieged. Rick is the only representative of the free world. Hence his awakening is all the more vital to the preservation of democracy, whose interests would not be served if he turned adulterer or died on the eve of Pearl Harbor.
There are many reasons why each generation claims Casablanca as its own. It is the epitome of American Romanticism, itself a blend of stoicism and surrender, in which women redeem men, men redeem other men, sacrifice is existential gesture, eyes shimmer with tears that never spill, anguish is a clutched whiskey glass, a farewell is a letter read in the rain that washes away the script, love is a revolver whose trigger the lover cannot bring herself to pull.
If these were merely isolated moments, conjured up by the imagination and left to fend for themselves in a makeshift plot, Casablanca would never have become a popular classic. It is a classic because it is a people's film that also happens to be about people. No other war movie offers such a gallery of types, as empathetic now as they were then. But the characters are not just World War II types. They are mythic types: the reactivated hero; his double, the regenerated Machiavel; the redemptive woman who plays Beatrice to one man and the Lady to another; the Promethean rebel; the repentant Magdalen; the courageous commoners.
Time goes by, but myth is eternal.