Sunday, March 5, 2017

Play It Again

This year marks the 75th anniversary of what many consider to be THE best romance movie of all time, “Casablanca.” It has everything—captivating characters, an exotic locale, intrigue, some of the most memorable dialogue ever written, and one of the great love songs of all time, “As Time Goes By.” It’s the perfect storm of filmmaking and storytelling. Surprisingly, it didn’t start out that way.

The story was based on a so-so stage play that never made it to Broadway, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” The original play had nothing to do with the current events of World War II, and the screenplay bore little resemblance to it. In fact, the script wasn’t even completed when filming began, and pages were delivered to the actors on the same day they were to be shot. Ingrid Bergman complained that throughout the filming, she didn’t know which man she was supposed to be in love with, Rick or her husband, Victor Laszlo. Many people feel that this confusion added to her performance.

“Casablanca” is often cited for containing a perfect cast of actors and actresses who seemed born to play their parts. Would it surprise you to know that the people you see on the screen weren’t the first choices? A year earlier, Warner Bros. had released a very successful film, “King’s Row,” starring Robert Cummings, Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan. When “Casablanca” was approved for production, the original idea was to re-team these three in the roles of Rick, Ilsa, and Victor. Fortunately, that idea fell through and the search continued.

Humphrey Bogart wasn’t initially considered for the role of Rick, due to the numerous tough guy and gangster parts he had played. Nobody at the studio pictured him as a romantic leading man, and even he had doubts that he could pull it off. The role was originally offered to George Raft, who turned it down. Bogart practically owed his career to Raft, who kept refusing scripts that eventually found their way to Bogie. Raft had taken a pass on the sympathetic gangster in “High Sierra,” and detective Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.” Both of those put Bogart on the radar, but “Casablanca” made him the era’s most popular leading man.

Much has been written about the onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, which enhanced the love story. The truth is, they didn’t really care that much for each other and rarely spoke once the cameras stopped rolling. Part of the reason for Bogart’s off-screen aloofness was the constant presence of his wife, (not Lauren Bacall, but Bogart’s third wife), who was insanely jealous and convinced that Bogie and Bergman were having an affair. To keep his rocky marriage together, Bogart ignored Bergman between takes, which only added to her insecurity. Asked later about what it was like to work with Bogart, she famously said, “I kissed him, but I didn’t really know him.”

The film gave new life to an old love song, “As Time Goes By.” It was sung onscreen by Dooley Wilson (as Sam), and played during several key scenes, but it almost didn’t stay in the picture. The film’s composer, Max Steiner, didn’t like it. His dislike wasn’t because it was a bad song, it was because it wasn’t a Max Steiner song. He wanted to use one of his own compositions as the love theme, but he was overruled. Of note is that Dooley Wilson was a talented cabaret singer, but he couldn’t play the piano. The role of Sam has been lauded for being one of the first African-American film characters who was the leading man’s equal. He and Rick were best friends, they traveled together, and they had an obvious mutual respect that went beyond boss and employee.

And that memorable dialogue! “Casablanca” contributed more classic lines to pop culture than just about any other film. To wit:

“We’ll always have Paris.”

“I remember it perfectly. You wore blue; the Germans wore gray.”

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she stumbles into mine.”

“You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can take it, I can. Play it!” (Erroneously repeated as “Play it again, Sam,” which was never spoken in the film.)

“Round up the usual suspects.”

“Louis, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

And the ever-popular “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It turns out that the line wasn’t in the script, but was ad-libbed by Bogart, and it caught on.

The film won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but during filming, nobody thought it would amount to much. The studio had five other films in production at the same time, and “Casablanca” was regarded as just another run of the mill movie, something to take people’s minds off of the war. As they say, timing is everything. It was released while a wartime summit was being held in the real Casablanca, so the location was very much in the news. The country was mired in the war effort, and a story about an American ex-patriate helping the Allies fight the Nazis hit home for a lot of people. The romance angle was considered secondary at the time, sort of a diversion from the action and intrigue.

Break out the popcorn and play it again.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from romantic mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.


jean hart stewart said...

Really, really interesting. Loving reading facts like this..

Tim Smith said...

Thanks, Jean. It's always fun to discover something you didn't know about an old favorite.