Casablanca

Music by Max Steiner

Born in Vienna, Austria, May 10, 1888; died in Hollywood, California, December 28, 1971

The 1942 movie Casablanca is now considerably more than a classic World War II film; it is a cinematic legend and perhaps the most beloved movie ever made. Ranked by most film surveys among the greatest of all American films — in 1998 the American Film Institute placed it at number two for the entire 20th century — it is the source of several immortal lines now part of the English language: “Round up the usual suspects”; “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”; “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”; and “Here’s looking at you kid.” (Incidentally, that last line wasn’t actually in the script; Humphrey Bogart improvised it in rehearsal and it was kept in.) One famous quotation that doesn’t appear in the film is “Play it again, Sam”; it’s really: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes by.’”

Casablanca is the most frequently broadcast film on American television. It is also part of an iconic tradition at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On April 21, 1957, that town’s Brattle Theater screened it as part of a season of old films; it was such a runaway hit that it has been shown during the week of Harvard’s final exams every year since, with the audience shouting out the key lines. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned.” And Bob Strauss of the Los Angeles Times summed up Casablanca’s appeal succinctly: “It is a near-perfect balance of comedy, romance, and suspense.”

Creating a Masterpiece

When producer Hal Wallis of Warner Brothers studio decided to make the film — based on an unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison — he surely didn’t set out to make a classic. This was a topical film, designed to appeal to wartime audiences and specifically to capitalize on the recent Allied invasion of North Africa. The cast included A-list stars — Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman — but the shooting schedule and budget were tight. Casablanca was shot entirely on the Warner Brothers lot (except for the brief scene of Major Strasser’s arrival, filmed at the Van Nuys Airport) and completed in just over two months (May 25 to August 3, 1942).

The story line was perfectly attuned to its times: the sacrifice of a great love for a higher cause. The script was only half-completed when director Michael Curtiz began filming. Twin brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein began working on it in 1941, but temporarily left after Pearl Harbor for war-related projects; Howard Koch was brought in during their absence. The cast spent much of the film not knowing how the story was to conclude — specifically, which man Bergman’s character Ilse Lund would end up with — and Curtiz and the writers even considered a different denouement. But the assertion that no one in the cast knew the ending until the last day of shooting is an exaggeration.

The casting was mostly inspired. As Rick Blaine, owner of Rick’s Café Américain, Bogart was tackling his first romantic lead. Bergman had been in a few previous American movies, but this one finally made her a star in America; the cinematographer Arthur Edson used special lighting to capture her beauty and the tears sparkling in her eyes. The rather stiff Austrian-American actor Paul Henreid as her husband, the Czech resistance leader Viktor Laszlo, was perhaps the one bit of miscasting. The film also boasted a marvelous group of supporting actors, including a brilliant Claude Rains as the unscrupulous French officer Captain Louis Renault and an oily Sidney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, owner of a rival nightclub.

A special strength for this story of international refugees holed up in Casablanca, Morocco in December 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, was the fact that only three of the cast members were born in the United States: Bogart and Dooley Wilson as the piano-player Sam, among them. Most were themselves refugees from Nazi-occupied lands, including Peter Lorre from Hungary (the petty criminal Ugarte), Conrad Veidt (the Nazi commandant Major Heinrich Strasser), and S.Z. Sakall (Carl the waiter), who fled Germany only in 1939 and lost his sisters to the Holocaust. In the stunning musical duel between the Germans and the French, many participating cast members were reported to be in tears.

Casablanca was premiered in New York City on November 26, 1942 and released nationwide in January 1943. Lauded by the critics, it was a popular success. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards (among them, Max Steiner for Best Score) and won three: Best Picture of 1943, Best Director (Curtiz), and — despite its scriptwriting rotation — Best Screenplay. But it’s fabulous career had only just begun.

Max Steiner and Casablanca’s Score

Though he didn’t win an Oscar for Casablanca, Max Steiner was a three-time Academy Award laureate. Born in Vienna in 1888 to a prominent theatrical family (his father was responsible for building the giant ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park that is a Viennese landmark), Steiner was a child prodigy and studied with Gustav Mahler. After working in England and on Broadway, he moved to Hollywood in 1929 and became one of the great pioneers of film-score composition. First employed by RKO, he was hired away by Warner Brothers in 1937 because Jack Warner decided he wanted his company to produce movies with the best music in the business. Steiner was also the favorite composer of legendary producer David O. Selznick and composed the iconic score for Gone with the Wind. Over his long career, he created more than 300 film scores, including those for King Kong, Now, Voyager (Academy Award), and three other Bogart pictures The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He received 24 Oscar nominations.

Steiner biographer Christopher Palmer notes: “One of Steiner’s most positive assets is his ability to crystallize the essence of a film in a single theme.” However, in Casablanca that most memorable theme was actually written by someone else: the hauntingly nostalgic song “As Time Goes By,” associated with Rick and Ilse’s romance, was composed by Herman Hupfeld. In addition to its performances by Sam, the nightclub’s pianist, this melody is incorporated in Steiner’s music throughout the movie. Two other themes also appear frequently: the French anthem “La Marseillaise” and the German “Deutschlandlied.” In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, these two songs collide in a dramatic proxy battle between the German soldiers and the Free-French residents and refugees in Rick’s Café. Indeed, in Casablanca the music plays as important a role as do the two unforgettable leads, Rick Blaine and Ilse Lund.

Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014