Casablanca

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On December 8, 1941, a story analyst at Warner Brothers appraised the play in such terms as “excellent melodrama,” “sophisticated hokum,” and “a box-office natural—for Bogart, or Cagney, or Raft in out-of-the-usual roles and perhaps Mary Astor.” America’s entry into the war was at least partially responsible for the producer Hal B. Wallis’s interest. Previously both Broadway and Hollywood had been under pressure from isolationists in Congress to refrain from portraying Nazis as villains, fearing it might endanger our neutrality, but events subsequent to December 7 changed that. Warner Brothers offered to buy the screen rights for twenty thousand dollars. Burnett and Alison grabbed it. They signed what studio attorneys assured them was a standard contract (as, indeed, it may have been), which turned over to Warners the rights “of every kind and character whatsoever, whether or not now known, recognized or contemplated, for all purposes whatsoever.” From that point on the studio owned Rick, Sam, and the whole gang. No meeting with Burnett or Alison was necessary to change the American Lois Meredith to the Norwegian Ilsa Lund or Rick from a married lawyer to a bachelor gunrunner. Nor were the original authors consulted in 1955, when Warners’ updated the film for television and the villains became Russian spies, or in the 1980s, when a weekly series was telecast. In 1983 Burnett and Alison sued Warners’ for “cheapening their fictional characters,” but they lost.

Hal Wallis gave the one-set play to the Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, who were known for their witty dialogue and their skill at writing with particular actors in mind. In Casablanca they were continually being thrown off-balance. The leading roles, they were first told, would go to Dennis Morgan, Ann Sheridan, and Ronald Reagan. Before long Humphrey Bogart had replaced Morgan, requiring a shift in characterization. The story persists that Jack Warner first offered the part to George Raft (who had previously turned down several starring roles that then went to Bogart—including High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon) and that Raft rejected it. However, memos in the Warner files indicate the contrary: that Raft requested the part but was turned down. The reason why Reagan was passed over for the role of a Czech patriot is less of a mystery than why he was ever considered.

Two months after the Epsteins began writing came word that it might be interesting if the leading lady were a beautiful European. To WaIlis, “beautiful European” meant either Hedy Lamarr or Ingrid Bergman, but Louis B. Mayer wouldn’t hear of diverting Lamarr from MGM, and David O. Selznick, to whom Bergman was under contract, was in New York and not returning phone calls. Desperate, WaIlis flew to New York, checked into the Carlyle, where Selznick was staying, and called him on the house phone. It worked. Selznick saw him and agreed, in lieu of a finished script, to allow the Epstein brothers to give Bergman a verbal rundown of the plot. She was not impressed. The role wasn’t demanding enough; it would do nothing for her career; the plot was difficult to follow. Then she heard that the ballerina Vera Zorina had been given the part of Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, a role Bergman had set her heart on. She agreed to play Ilsa Lund.

Wallis now had his Ilsa and his Rick and, after he promised Paul Henreid costar billing, his Victor Laszlo. He also had (since John Huston had left for the war) the best director on the Warner lot—Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was a tall, hawk-nosed Hungarian who had never mastered English but who had nevertheless directed more than sixty films. He felt that the Casablanca’s plot, as the Epsteins had devised it, lacked menace. The screenplay had no villain. The French prefect of police, Rinaldo—later Renault—was too charming to be threatening. Curtiz suggested expanding the role of Strasser, the German official, to make him a symbol of Nazi brutality.

 

The Epsteins made the changes Curtiz asked for. They made the changes Bogart wanted—gave Rick more depth and cut out the self-pity—but they were less successful with Wallis’s desire for a less downbeat ending. Because of Bergman’s limited availability, filming had absolutely to begin on May 25. After the Epsteins left for Washington to write Frank Capra’s propaganda series Why We Fight, Wallis and Curtiz began working on the script around the clock. (They even passed up going to the gala premiere of their movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, which Curtiz in his scrambled English described as “the pinochle of my career.”) Alarmed by how much remained to be done, Wallis hired the young Howard Koch to work on it. Later Wallis would bring in yet another screenwriter, Casey Robinson, to strengthen the love interest. All told, seven writers worked on the screenplay at one time or another.