- Historic Sites
Desperate improvisations in the face of imminent disaster saw us through the early years of the fight. They also gave us the war’s greatest movie.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Despite so many cooks, the broth was not finished by May 25. The last section was still missing, and the tension, as the actors gathered for rehearsals, was palpable. Bergman asked, not unreasonably, how she could be expected to play a part in which it was not yet clear which male lead she was in love with. Bogart became as taciturn as the character he was playing. He had to contend on the set with an incomplete script and off the set with an alcoholic wife who accused him of having an affair with Bergman. Bogart’s life had become so unpleasant that he showed up on the set even on days when he had no scenes.
The bright spot in the prevailing gloom was the German-born actor Conrad Veidt. His role as the ruthless Major Strasser was at odds with his natural charm and his ingratiating, self-deprecating humor. He had won screen immortality in 1919 as the sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. CaIigari. When Hitler took over, Veidt left Germany and established himself in British films. His presence in London proved a godsend to Paul von Henreid when the Austrian actor found himself stranded there (he was filming Goodbye Mr. Chips) after the German Anschluss. Henreid (he soon dropped the “von") would undoubtedly have been interned as an enemy alien after Britain declared war on Germany had it not been for Veidt’s special pleading with British authorities.
Another man grateful to be on that Hollywood set was Marcel Dalio, a French actor who had had major roles in Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. In Casablanca he was relegated to the bit part of Rick’s croupier and was not even given a screen credit. He and his wife, Madeleine LeBeau, who played Rick’s discarded mistress, had fled France just ahead of the Germans. They arrived in Hollywood with seventeen dollars and no English. Dalio, born Israel Mosche Blauschild, would later learn that when the Nazis captured Paris, they posted photographs of him on street corners to alert Parisians to what “a typical Jew” looked like. Now—Hollywood, 1942—Dalio and LeBeau sat with Veidt and Henreid on the Warner sound stage, patiently waiting. From their perspective there were worse things in life than a late script.
There was a reunion of sorts taking place on the set: Casablanca had perhaps the most distinguished supporting cast ever assembled, and most were in Hollywood because they had fled their homelands to escape the Nazis.
When two-thirds of the movie had been shot (from the two-thirds of the script that existed), Koch began delivering pages of dialogue to the set on the morning when that sequence was to be shot. Inevitably Koch and Curtiz came to loggerheads. Besides the pressures of time, there was the matter of emphasis in the story. Curtiz played up the romance. Koch was more interested in the relevance of the plot to the world struggle against fascism. “Surprisingly,” he said later, “these disparate approaches somehow meshed, and perhaps it was partly this tug-of-war between Curtiz and me that gave the film a certain balance.”
With only one week to go there was still no satisfactory ending. In the play Rick gave himself up to the tender mercies of the Nazis. But Wallis thought that with Bogart playing Rick, audiences might burn down the theaters if that scene were retained. Alternatives were considered and reconsidered: Rick leaves with Ilsa, Ilsa stays with Rick, Rick is killed helping Ilsa and Victor escape. It was at this eleventh hour that the Epstein twins suddenly returned from Washington. Simultaneously (according to them), they hit on the solution: In order to effect Ilsa and Victor’s escape, Rick shoots Major Strasser at the airport in front of Renault. The police arrive. Renault says, “Major Strasser’s been shot.” He pauses. He looks at Rick. Rick looks at him. Renault says, “Round up the usual suspects.”
This was everything Wallis had hoped for, and he himself supplied the last line of the movie: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” By the time this scene was shot, Bergman had left the Warner lot for Paramount and For Whom the Bell Tolls (Zorina had proved unsatisfactory). Not until Bergman saw Casablanca in a theater did she learn the final ending.
Now the only long face on the Warner lot belonged to the composer Max Steiner. The man who had written the background music for Gone with the Wind rebelled at the idea of composing a score based on someone else’s song. “As Time Goes By,” had been written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931, and Steiner considered it trash. He insisted that Wallis allow him to write a new song for Rick and Ilsa. Wallis, recalling how difficult it had been to create the illusion that Dooley Wilson (Sam) was playing the piano (he couldn’t play a note), was reluctant to give Steiner the go-ahead. The conflict was rendered moot when it was learned that Bergman had already cut off her hair for her new role as Maria. Reshooting scenes that included her was now impossible. Hupfeld’s song stayed.