The director of Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, was born in Budapest, Hungary, in the late 1800s. He began making films there in 1912, but left Hungary in 1919 because of political unrest. After leaving Hungary, he became a prolific filmmaker in Europe, primarily in Austria, and in 1926 the head of Warner Brothers’ Burbank, California studio, Jack Warner, asked him to come to Hollywood. Over the course of his career, Curtiz made almost one hundred films for Warner Brothers, including musicals, detective stories, and horror films. Curtiz never mastered the English language, though, and his cast and crew, disgruntled by Curtiz's stubbornness and mean streak, often made fun of his linguistic mistakes, calling them "Curtizisms."
Casablanca was released in 1942, and it was an immediate success, despite Warner Brothers' fears that it would fail. The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, including Best Director for Curtiz. Despite the award, Curtiz never really received credit for the film's remarkable achievements. Critics viewed Curtiz as a skilled technician, but they had little praise for his artistic sensibilities. Curtiz's other films never garnered much recognition, and even the success of Casablanca was not enough to elevate his reputation. Most of Casablanca's numerous fans wouldn't be able to identify its director by name.
Casablanca has become a legend in large part because of its two leading actors, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, who play Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, respectively. Bogart's and Bergman's portrayals of Rick and Ilsa's tortured reunion and separations are as stunning now as they were in 1942. Yet both Bogart and Bergman proved to be difficult participants in Casablanca. Bogart acted in four other movies in 1942, and Casablanca was far from his favorite. Bergman took the part of Ilsa only because she was initially denied a role she really wanted, the female lead in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. When she was eventually chosen for that film, she stopped thinking about Casablanca, prompting the envious Paul Heinreid, who plays Victor Laszlo, to denigrate her as a careerist "tiger."
Other parts of the making of Casablanca are also sobering and pedestrian. The movie was filmed in a period of less than three rushed months, the actors didn't like each other or the director, and the screenwriters reworked the script on the fly. The film was one of many that Warner Brothers made during the summer of 1942, and it was hardly the most expensive or the one they anticipated to become a major hit. In short, the film was just another Hollywood studio production, a chaotic collaboration whose various parts might or might not come together successfully.
Of course, its parts did come together successfully—magnificently—but a few happy accidents are also responsible for the film's tremendous popularity and classic status. For example, composer Max Steiner created an original song to replace "As Time Goes By," a song he hated, but the scenes were not re-filmed because Bergman had already had her hair cut for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Likewise, the screenplay for Casablanca evolved out of a play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick's, which was written in 1941, before the United States entered World War II. The play has a clear anti-Nazi slant, just as Casablanca does, but prior to Pearl Harbor, a movie studio in the neutral United States would probably not have made such a political movie. In this respect, the timing was perfect. Casablanca is an unusual World War II movie in that it isn't overly propagandistic—in other words, it doesn't go overboard in preaching about the justness of the cause and the certainty of victory. In 1942, the U.S. was suffering in the Pacific, and Allied victory seemed far from certain. Casablanca captures this unique moment in America's part in the conflict, when the nation was fully at war but not yet fully indoctrinated in a war ideology. Throughout the film, the war's outcome is uncertain, and Casablanca is a place of anxiety and uncertainty. This uncertainty lends the movie a genuine tension and renders the political activities of Laszlo and Rick all the more heroic.
Just the title of the film is enough to conjure up visions of a distant, longed-for past. Though perhaps not the greatest of the old Hollywood black-and-white films—that honor would probably fall to Citizen Kane-—Casablanca may be the most loved. When someone says, "They don't make movies like they used to," it is a good bet that Casablanca is the film they're measuring against the disappointing present. Unlike many other great successes, Casablanca's popularity is well deserved. The film is deeply intelligent and functions both as a political allegory about World War II and a timeless romance. While many critics respect the film for the former achievement, the film's overwhelming popularity rests squarely on the latter, and Casablanca remains one of the greatest love stories in movie history.
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