At Warner Bros. 65 years ago this month, the cast and crew finished shooting what they thought was just another movie.
There was still some tinkering to do. Producer Hal Wallis was writing the last line himself. He wrote two, scrapped one and called Humphrey Bogart back into the studio to record the other:
“Luis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
It was one of many decisions combined with many accidents combined with talent and artisanship that made just another movie into the classic that is “Casablanca.”
You only had to go to the recent showing at Stephens Lake to see how much it’s still loved by people of all ages. And the mix of languages bubbling from the audience before and after the show hinted at the film’s broad appeal.
I would have loved to have asked the filmgoers, Who was seeing the movie for the first time, the 10th, the umpteenth time? And why?
For me, it depends on my mood, but watching it usually makes me feel better. I take comfort in the way it fits together so well: the casting, the dialogue, the songs. But there’s more to it.
As Aljean Harmetz wrote in her book “The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II”: “There are better movies than ‘Casablanca,’ but no other movie better demonstrates America’s mythological vision of itself — tough on the outside and moral within, capable of sacrifice and romance without sacrificing the individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism.”
Maybe the making of the movie has lessons to teach or reinforce, too. And they don’t just apply to the movies.
1. It’s not where you start, but where you finish that counts.
Film vaults are cluttered with movies based on classic novels, prize-winning plays or even dazzling scripts that ended up as horribly flawed flicks. “Casablanca” started life as an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” A couple of studios were interested in it, but it wasn’t exactly a hot property and expectations weren’t high.
Like most Hollywood projects, it was the product of rewrites — and rewrites of the rewrites. Perhaps rewrites turned other projects into hash. But in this case, they made the story what it was.
2. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend, it’s how you spend it.
Warner Bros. was making seven pictures while filming “Casablanca”; it had the sixth smallest budget at $1,039,000. “Air Force” received more than double the budget at $2,646,000. Chances are you couldn’t fill up the grounds of Stephens Lake if you showed “Air Force” next weekend.
3. Having the right people makes all the difference.
“Casablanca” had the right people. The right producer. The right director. A talented crew. And, of course, an amazing cast, from the leads down to the bartenders, pickpockets and refugees, many of whom were honest-to-God refugees from Europe.
The play was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison with Clark Gable in mind, but the script was bought for Humphrey Bogart, according to Aljean Harmetz. Studio chief Jack Warner tried to meddle and suggested George Raft, but Wallis was always going to be Bogart. The leading woman, “Lois,” was originally an unfaithful American, and so Ann Sheridan was considered. But when “Lois” became European, Ingrid Bergman became a top candidate. Imagine “Casablanca” with anyone else.
4. We can’t control everything — and sometimes we should be grateful for that.
Harmetz reported that composer Max Steiner detested “As Time Goes By,” wrote his own replacement for it and by the time the movie had finished shooting had persuaded the producer to let him replace the old love song. But Ingrid Bergman had already had her hair cut for her next movie role, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” She wasn’t available for retakes with Dooley Wilson, who played “Sam.” Imagine “Casablanca” with any other song.
Mary Lawrence teaches editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.