Casablanca at 70

As the film Casablanca turns 70 this year, it returns once again to the big screen. It is a timeless classic, familiar and comforting, like an old friend, evoking a deeply-felt nostalgia. For older generations who grew up without digital effects in their films, any discussion of Casablanca evokes a common response: “They don’t make films like this any more.” Indeed, seven decades years later the film is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Film critic Roger Ebert writes about the enduring power of the film: “[Casablanca] is about a man and a woman who are in love and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. The viewer is able to imagine not only winning the love of Bogart or Bergman but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.”

The film was directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers Pictures, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in their most iconic roles as Rick Blaine and Ilsa Laszlo. The film was shot by accomplished cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, who also shot The Maltese Falcon and Frankenstein. The 130-page script was based on a relatively inconsequential play, “Everybody Comes to Rick,” written by Murray Burnett in 1938. Decades later there is still controversy over who really wrote the script. Warner Brothers originally hired Julius and Philip Epstein to write the script. When they left to work on another movie, Howard Koch stepped in to work on the script; and another writer, Casey Robinson, who remained uncredited, assisted in several weeks of rewrites. Even the producer contributed to the script — Rick’s closing line in the film, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” was producer’s Hal Wallis’s idea. It occurred to him three weeks after the shooting of the movie ended and Bogart had to be called back into the studio to dub the line. When shooting started in May 25, 1942, only half the script was completed. The film involved daily script changes throughout the shooting, a consternation to the entire cast, but it was completed 71 days later, giving the world some of the most memorable film quotations of all times (see related posts).

Although the producers did not have high expectations for the film, it went on to win three Academy Awards in 1944 for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The film, premiering in 1942 (wide release in 1943), was a modest success. The film cost $1,039,00, running a mere $75,000 over budget. The small budget was possible because all the scenes (except the initial airport scene) were shot in the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank. Also, under the studio system where actors were often contracted to a studio for seven years, pay was low. Bogart was paid $4,583 and Bergman was paid $3,125 for their work. The director, Michael Curtiz, scored the highest paycheck: $9,175. The initial box office in America was $3.7 million. As time went by, the film’s popularity grew — and so did its box office, bringing in a total of $6.8 million by 1955.

Critics initially received the film warmly. The New York Times noted that the movie was “a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap… sentiment, humor and pathos with taut melodrama and bristling intrigue.”  Like a fine wine, the film has only gotten better with age: today the film ranks in just about every film critic’s list of top ten greatest films of all time.

In an age where Hollywood, having run out of fresh ideas, often turns to the past to remake films, we can rest assured that no studio or director would dare to remake this classic film.

Read related post: Casablanca Quotations, Bogart

For further reading: The Great Movies by Roger Ebert, Broadway Books (2002). Four Star Movies by Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza, Black Dog and Leventhal (2003). Round Up the Usual Suspects by Aljean Harmetz, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1993). The Casablanca Companion by Jeff Siegel, Taylor Publishing (1992).

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