It's Almost the Same Old Story
When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Truth

Niels Weisberg

Aljean Harmetz, Round Up The Usual Suspects. The Making of Casablanca - Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1993, xiv + 402 pages. ISBN 0 297 81294 7.

Frank Miller, Casablanca. As Times Go By…50th Anniversary Commemorative. Virgin Books, London, 1993, 224 pages. ISBN 0 86369 701 1.

While we are waiting for the book about Casablanca in the BFI Film Classics Series, I would like to call attention to two not-so-recent books of the type "the making of..." Though the books in some ways are very alike - e.g. the organization of the material, with a chronological account of the making of the film from the original play (bought by Warner Bros) until the opening of the finished film, the later fate of the film, TV spin-offs, and a number of critics' analyses of the film - the two books complement each other rather nicely. Neither of the authors seems to know the other (or the other's project), and having drawn on the same sources, mainly the Warner Bros Archives at the University of Southern California, they inevitably overlap: the same story, the same anecdotes, and the same debunkable myths!

But there are differences: while Miller's book could more accurately be described as a coffee-table book, with beautiful, well-chosen pictures taking up more than half the space, Harmetz's book, which is almost twice as long as Miller's, is more wide-ranging and much more thoroughly researched, with twenty-six pages of endnotes. The author has talked to practically everybody involved in the production and looked into whatever old letters and papers she could dig up, and she places the film in a wider context, both as a war production with its political/propaganda aspects, and as yet another assembly-line product in the entertainment industry.

Among the many legends about Casablanca is the question of who wrote the script. In an article from 1973, screenwriter Howard Koch took credit for most of the script and was generally believed, but Harmetz and Miller correct this, agreeing that much of the raw material can be found in Murray Burnett & Joan Alison's play, Everybody Comes to Rick's, and that dozens of lines made the transition unchanged. Because of the standard studio practice of using multiple writers, four writers are responsible for the script: roughly speaking, Howard Koch's largest contribution (he was on the film for seven weeks) was in making the film more political and giving it weight and significance; the Epstein brothers (who worked for twelve weeks) gave the film its sparkling dialogue and wit, and, to further complicate things, besides the fact that several late drafts bear no writer credit, they rewrote each other's material, so "(w)ith delicate balance, Koch managed to hold down the gags while the Epsteins managed to cut the preaching"; [1] and in between was Casey Robinson, Warner Bros' highest paid screenwriter, who took three weeks to straighten out the love story, changing the Ilsa character of the play from an American tramp into a romantic European heroine.

Even - of all people - Joseph I. Breen, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, contributed positively to Casablanca. Regarding the scene in Rick's apartment in Casablanca, when Ilsa tries to get the exit visas, Breen suggested: "The present material seems to contain a suggestion of a sex affair which would be unacceptable if it came through in the finished picture. We believe this could possibly be corrected by replacing the fade out on page 135 with a dissolve, and shooting the succeeding scene without any sign of a bed or couch, or anything whatever suggestive of a sex affair."[2]

Another persistent myth is that nobody knew how the film would end. Bergman said that when she asked the writers which man she would end up with, they answered that they had not decided yet. But Breen would never have allowed Ilsa to forsake her husband and stay with her lover, and due to the war (in mid-1942 the German armies were still victorious) Rick could never have been arrested or killed. The problem was simply how to make the ending work.

And when the shooting at the airport (on one of WB's stages) finished, there were still eleven days left, so Bergman knew exactly what Ilsa felt about the two men before she played several earlier scenes with Bogart and Henreid.

When editing the film, producer Hal Wallis fine-tuned the ending. Miller states (with no exact reference) that he had four possibilities for the final line:[3] 1) "Louis, I begin to see a reason for your sudden attack of patriotism. While you defend your country, you also protect your investment." 2) "If you ever die a hero's death, Heaven protect the angels!" 3) "Louis, I might have known you'd mix your patriotism with a little larceny." And 4) "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Harmetz reproduces a memo to editor Owen Marks in which Wallis has narrowed the decision down to the last two choices, which he wants Owen to have Bogart speak - and the author of those lines was Wallis.[4]

So far I haven't mentioned director Michael Curtiz, but if Andrew Sarris is right - and I think he is - then Casablanca truly is "the most decisive exception to the auteur theory."[5] Both Harmetz and Miller agree that Wallis is the film's true creator (if authorship is to be narrowed down to one person). Miller writes: "Of all the artists who helped create Casablanca, the one whose overall influence was the strongest was producer Hall Wallis."[6] Harwitz writes: "Hal Wallis was the creative force behind Casablanca… It is impossible to read through the hundreds of memos Wallis sent and received without understanding how thoroughly he shaped the movie, from the quality of the lighting to the exact details of the costumes to his insistance on a live parrot outside the Blue Parrot Café."[7] Harmetz recounts that cinematographer Haskell Wexler, twice Academy Award winner, recently examined Arthur Edeson's photography and Wallis's memos to him. "Wexler is amazed to find a producer who understands visuals, just as musicians who have examined Wallis's music notes are impressed by his understanding of music. "Wallis's memo of June 2 is intelligent, cogent, helpful, respectful, and also true," Wexler says."[8]

Curtiz is portrayed in a poor light in the two books, especially in Harmetz's. He was respected much more for his professionalism than his artistic achievements (from 1927 to 1961 he directed 101 movies, sometimes five a year) but was apparently disliked or downright hated by most, except producers, who admired his workaholism, which he tried to force on everyone, sometimes causing actors and crew to stay on the set for seventeen hours a day. He had emigrated from Hungary in the late '20s, and even after thirty years in America, English was a foreign language to him. "He spoke five languages," says his stepson, "and I am told he spoke all of them equally bad."[9]

Miller tells what I consider to be the two funniest anecdotes about him.

One more brief delay was caused by Curtiz's mangled English. On the day he arrived to shoot the first Black Market scene, he informed the properties man, who already had assembled an impressive group of animals for the shot, that he needed a "poodle, a black poodle." The request seemed unusual, but the prop man was not about to argue with the temperamental director, so he set about finding the dog while everyone waited. As luck would have it, there was just such an animal available, and the man got it to the set within half an hour. "It's very nice, " said Curtiz, "but I want a poodle." When the poor technician tried to explain that that's what the dog was, Curtiz exploded: "I wanted a poodle in the street! A poodle of water! Not a goddamn dog!"[10]

The other one goes: "Once, when viewing a marathon dance contest, John Barrymore reportedly turned to his date, who had just marvelled at the endurance of the contestants, and quipped, "That's nothing! Have you ever worked for Mike Curtiz?" [11]

"Of the seventy-five actors and actresses who had bit parts and larger roles in Casablanca, almost all were immigrants of one kind or another. Of the fourteen who were given screen credit, only Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Page were born in America."[12] Most of all those immigrants had come to America voluntarily, so to speak, but about two dozen had fled the Nazis for various reasons, mostly racial - and they gave the film an authenticity, or, in Pauline Kael's word "the color and tone"[13] that other American actors, faking the accents, could not have given it (Henreid, Veidt, Lorre, Sakall, LeBeau, Kinsky, Dantine, Bois, Dalio, Stössel, Grunig, Twardowski, Zilzer, etc).

History helped Casablanca become a box-office success - twice. On November 8, 1942, the Allies invaded North Africa and a few days later Casablanca was "liberated," so the film's premiere was rushed. On November 26 it opened in New York with supporters of the Free French parading down Fifth Avenue. The national release was set for January 23 - at the same time that Roosevelt and Churchill met secretly in the city of Casablanca, again bringing the word Casablanca into the newspaper headlines. Harmetz convincingly demonstrates how very pro-Roosevelt and anti-Nazi Harry and Jack Warner were, more than the other studio heads, and she mentions but skates over the problem that the Roosevelt administration deliberately maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy for various reasons (until November 1942) while at the same time denying the Free French diplomatic recognition (until October 1944). [14]

Though a print of the film was rushed to the American troops in North Africa, it was never shown. Robert Riskin, head of the motion-picture division of the overseas branch of the Office of War Information, withheld it "on the advice of several Frenchmen within our organization who feel that it was bound to create resentment on the part of the natives." [15]

to the top of the page

1 Harmetz, p. 57.

2 Miller, p. 120. Breen's suggestion was actually followed and is the starting point in an excellent article by Richard Maltby on ambiguity - according to Harwitz, the very thing that Hollywood movies lack today and one of the reasons for the success of Casablanca. See Maltby, ""A Brief Romantic Interlude": Dick and Jane Go to 3˝ Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema" in David Bordwell & Noël Carroll (eds),Post-Theory (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1996), pp. 434-459,

3 Miller, p 153f.

4 Harmetz, p. 263.

5 Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1968), p. 176.

6 Miller, p. 60.

7 Harwitz, p. 29. Casablanca was the third of the nine movies Wallis made for his new company, "Hal Wallis Production", under his contract with Warner Bros. Though an A-picture, its final cost was only $1,039,000. Of the seven films shot on WB stages that summer it was the cheapest of all but one. (cf., p. 5)

8 Harmetz, p. 136.

9 Ibid., p. 123.

10 Miller, p. 154.

11 Ibid., p. 97.

12 Harmetz, p. 212

13 Ibid.

14 Harmetz, p. 286. She does not seem to be aware of an article by Richard Raskin, "Casablanca and United States Foreign Policy" in Film History, vol.4 no.2, 1990, pp.153-164, in which he discusses the discrepancy between the film's pro-Free French attitude and that of the Roosevelt administration, and the public's failure to recognize the Allies' reconstruction of a pro-Vichy administration in North Africa right after the invasion.

15 Ibid. Quote from letter from Riskin to Ulric Bell, Jan. 8 ,1943.

to the top of the page