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Sunday, March 25, 2012

An unusual suspect

Cinemimi [Saturday, March 24, 2012] 
 ‘Casablanca’ could have been a bomb — but luck turned the film into a legend

For all the accolades heaped on “Casablanca” over the past 70 years, Steven Spielberg maintains that its place in cinema history was all a fluke. “ ‘Casablanca’ is a film that could have missed in many ways, but it didn’t,” the director says in a documentary that accompanies a spectacular new Blu-ray edition of the movie, due out Tuesday. One of the most quoted and beloved American movies of all time, “Casablanca’’ was one of hundreds of films turned out by the Hollywood studio system during World War II. But this troubled production became what film historian Andrew Sarris termed “the happiest of happy accidents” and a timeless classic because of a serendipitous chain of circumstances. Nobody except Humphrey Bogart was seriously considered for Rick, the cynical cafe owner who proclaims, “I stick my neck out for nobody.’’ But luminous Ingrid Bergman wasn’t Warner Brothers’ first, or even second, choice for Ilsa, the woman who leaves him in Paris and turns up years later in, of all the gin joints, his cafe with her formerly missing hero husband in tow. Loan-out fees for Hedy Lamarr and Michele Morgan were deemed budget-busters by Warners, which got the under-employed Bergman for a bargain price from producer David O. Selznick. The film’s sharply cynical dialogue continues to resonate with contemporary audiences after decades — and its jaundiced attitude toward the Nazi-collaborating French government was possible because “Casablanca” was shot just five months after America’s entry into World War II. Fortunately, the film began production before the US Office of War Information began more carefully scrutinizing scripts for their political messages, and the moral ambiguity of “Casablanca’’ likely would be been deemed harmful to morale in an era when blatant cheerleading for the war effort was encouraged. The film’s celebrated love theme — “As Time Goes By’’ — very nearly didn’t survive the final cut. Written for a 1930 Broadway flop, the song was taken from an unproduced play that served as the basis for the “Casablanca’’ script. Tasked with composing the score after filming wrapped, Max Steiner proposed writing a replacement. But Bergman had already cut her hair short for “To Have and Have Not,’’ making it impossible to reshoot her famous ‘Play it, Sam’’ scene with a new song. The seven writers who toiled at various points on “Casablanca’’ were still deciding if Ilsa ended up with Rick or her resistance-fighter husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), while the film was in production. An exasperated Bergman was counseled by director Michael Curtiz to “play it both ways.’’ The actress’ real-life uneasiness over the direction of her role augmented her classic performance as a woman torn between two lovers. Hollywood censors frowned on depictions of adultery unless a heavy price was paid. Ilsa’s Paris fling with Rick got a pass because she thought Victor was dead. But no such excuse was available when she turns up in Rick’s apartment and, after threatening him with a gun fails to work, tries to seduce him into turning over the letters of transit. The Production Code Authority expressed concern, but Curtiz employed an artful dissolve. The image of Bogie smoking a post-coital cigarette suggested the deed had been done without offending the more literal censors. One “Casablanca” writer, Casey Robinson, declined to have his name on what turned out be an Oscar-winning script, partly because he thought it was full of unbelievable twists. Why would the Nazis honor letters of transit signed by Free French leader Charles DeGaulle? Curtiz, a Hungarian who spoke fractured English, assured his bosses: “Don’t worry what’s logical. I make it move so fast, nobody notices.’’ “Casablanca’’ was a box-office smash and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1943 (it was released in Los Angeles in January of that year after premiering in New York two months earlier) but was largely forgotten within a decade. Then Bogart died of lung cancer in 1957 — and shortly thereafter, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., revived the film, and a cult following developed. The film has long been a TV staple, its place as a cultural touchstone affirmed by Woody Allen’s play and movie “Play It Again, Sam,’’ which pays appropriate tribute to a chance masterpiece by misquoting a line from the movie.


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