by Cathleen Myers
The great miracle about Casablanca was that its almost seamless screenplay was written, in effect, by a committee. The screen version of Casablanca is a triumph of rewriting!
Much of the credit goes to Murray Bennett and Joan Allison, who wrote the original play on which the film is based: Everyone Comes to Rick’s. Based partly on Bennett’s own experiences in pre-War Paris and his conversations with refugees, the original play is a good melodrama with some stagy devices. The basic plot, the setting, most of the plot twists and most of the characters were, in fact, created by Bennett and Allison, who received only a brief screen credit and a $20,000 check for their unproduced play - and lived to regret having signed away their rights to the play so cheaply.
Everyone Comes to Rick’s is the story of Rick Blaine, a divorced expatriate lawyer with a shady past who is running a nightclub in Casablanca featuring a jazz band with a black band-leader and enjoys a cynical friendship with the local police chief, Captain "Rinaldo." Into his life walks his former mistress, Lois Marshall, a glamorous American adventuress, accompanied by her current lover, resistance leader Victor Laszlo, characterized in the play as a wealthy and rather poetic young man, whose fortune is coveted by the Nazis, here represented by a mere Captain Strasser ( who is not especially villainous in the original play; America was not yet at war when it was written). Unlike Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund, Lois is a cynical and amoral woman, perfectly willing to sleep with Rick to get the exit visas. As Casablanca experts already know, there is, of course, no such thing as an exit visa; it’s a plot device made up by Bennett and Allison. But so convincing is the screenplay that not even the army intelligence expert brought in to "vet" the script questioned the "exit visas."
Jan and Annina, the sweet young Bulgarian couple whom Rick befriends, are also in the original play, as is the marvelously stirring scene in which Laszlo leads the other refugees in singing the Marseillaise - in defiance of the Nazi officers presence. And Rick and Renaldo do indeed make a wager on whether Laszlo will succeed in escaping from Casablanca. But Rick is not an especially heroic character in the original play. He has no history of involvement in liberal political causes and his exile from his own country appears to be self-imposed: Having left his career and his marriage and family for Lois, he is, in turn, shattered when Lois leaves him for another man. She has no political commitment - unlike the idealistic Laszlo - and is only travelling with him because he’s her current ticket to ride. Informed of Signor Ugatti (Peter Lorre’s character in the film), Lois replies, "I imagine his cell is more comfortable than our hotel." She is, however, still in love with Rick and wants to leave Laszlo for him.
The original ending is tragic: Rick does, indeed, hoodwink his police chief friend into letting Laszlo and Lois go, nobly sacrificing himself for the greater good, and manages to convince Lois to listen to her conscience and to leave with Laszlo, who loves and needs her. The play ends with Rinaldo arresting Rick. "Why did you do it?" asks the police chief. "For the folding money," Rick replies. "You still owe me 10,000 francs."
This was the foundation of a very strong script - as the Warner Brother’s script reader who originally vetted it immediately realized. But the original play needed a lot of revision to make it screenworthy: It lacked action, romance and humor and the ending was a serious "downer" by Hollywood standards. Humphrey Bogart complained from the start that the character of Rick was a whiner without sufficient motivation (So a dame dropped him! So what?) and urged screenwriter Howard Koch to develop the character. It was Koch who created Rick’s background as a freedom fighter, political activist and defender of the underdog, running guns to the Ethiopians and fighting on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. And it was Koch who strengthened the film’s propaganda value by intensifying the conflict with Strasser, now promoted to Major, and played by Conrad Veidt, a major German actor who was himself an enemy of the Reich.
But, without discounting the contributions of Aeneas McKenzie (who did the first rewrite of the original play and put it into workable screenplay form), most Casablanca scholars credit Julius and Philip Epstein with doing the principal revision of the screenplay. In their hands, a rather stark and stagy melodrama became a polished and witty screenplay with one-liners and repartee worthy of Oscar Wilde. The Epsteins wrote the brilliantly witty verbal duels between Rick and Louis Renault (now an amoral but utterly charming Frenchman played, of course, by Claude Rains) and the wonderful ironic battle of wits among Rick, Louis and Strasser. It was the Epsteins who also created many of the memorable supporting characters (many of whom were, ironically, refugees themselves) and the associated comic bits we all know and love.
The Epsteins, with some assistance from Koch and other independent writers, changed Lois Marshall’s hard-boiled character into the sweet, idealistic but courageous Ilsa Lund as a possible vehicle for a European actress (and Ingrid Bergman was an early first choice, though ballerina Tamara Toumanova was a contender). Would the film have been nearly as moving with a tough, sultry babe like Hedy Lamarr or Anne Sheridan as Rick’s love interest? The rather effete Laszlo of the original play became the dashing Resistance Leader played by Paul Henreid (who, nonetheless, complained bitterly about his character’s ineffectuality. The band, in the film’s stirring Marseillaise scene, only agrees to play the French national anthem after Rick gives them the nod! So much for Laszlo’s charisma).
It was, above all, the Epsteins who created the film’s brilliant ending. How to end the film was perhaps the writers’ most difficult challenge because, although several endings were proposed, none really worked and director Michael Curtiz actually had to start filming the screenplay without knowing how the film was going to end. Bergman said this made her character’s motivation hard to grasp - not knowing which man she would end up with.
The play’s original ending - with Rick’s arrest - was simply too dark for Hollywood. It was bad enough that Rick wasn’t going to get the girl! This also would have had the undesirable effect of making Louis Renault - arguably the most attractive character in the film - the villain of the piece. But, on the other hand, the Hayes’ office would hardly have approved an ending in which Ilsa deserted her husband to stay on with her lover in Casablanca! The writers apparently toyed with the idea of having Laszlo shot by the Nazi’s, thus allowing Ilsa to leave Casablanca with Rick - but this would have been a very depressing ending for a film celebrating resistance to the tyranny of the Third Reich! According to the Epsteins, the inspiration for the film’s current ending came to them in a flash while driving down Sunset Boulevard. "Round up the usual suspects!" they cried out, simultaneously.
And that became the key to the ultra romantic, stirring and funny denouement at the airport (the original scene had taken place at the nightclub). If the legend is true, both Conrad Veidt and Bogart offered a suggestion to Michael Curtiz that improved the scene even more. Rick originally was supposed to shoot Strasser in cold blood. Bogart claimed that this made Rick no better than a murderer - hardly better than the gangsters he used to play. Why not have Strasser go for his gun first. Veidt pointed out that that would be consistent with Strasser’s character - and that is, indeed, how the scene was filmed.
Once again, chance intervened to save this wonderful ending. Composer Steiner wasn’t happy with the music and Jack Warner wanted to film an alternate ending (apparently with Rick somehow getting the girl) just to see which version would go over best with preview audiences. David O. Selznick, however, who had lent Bergman to Warner for the film, strongly approved of the Epstein’s ending and urged Warner not to change it ("It’s a swell picture," he maintained). And, in any event, Bergman had just cut her hair for her next role, resistance fighter Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and any attempt to refilm the finale wouldn’t have been convincing.
The original play, as mentioned, was a good, strong story but lacked cinematic appeal. It was static and talky. Curtiz, who was something of a pioneer in camera techniques, added much of the necessary dynamic action to the film, brilliantly handling the refugee crowd scenes and the violent opening street scene that sets the mood of the film and makes it clear what a dangerous place Casablanca is. While Casablanca’s desert climate never yields the romantic foggy atmosphere that enshrouds the famous final scene at the airport, Curtiz and his cinematographer create an unforgettable mood in that scene (which, in the original, merely takes place in Rick’s office).
While the original play used some incidental music, including "As Time Goes By" and, of course, "The Marseillaise," Max Steiner’s score gives an almost operatic quality to some of the scenes, particularly in the big confrontation scene, in which Steiner actually has the Marseillaise sung in a musically effective counterpoint with the Germans’ song "Wacht aus Rhein." While playwright Bennett composed the original scene, Steiner made it a scene worthy of Verdi or Wagner. And who can forget Steiner’s amazing finale, as Rick and Louis walk off together to the stirring strains of the Marseillaise. Strangely enough, though "As Time Goes By" has become indelibly associated with Rick’s cafe, Steiner detested the tune and strongly recommended substituting an original song. Even stranger to contemplate is that Sam almost became Samantha. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone but Dooley Wilson singing, "As Time Goes By," Warner was actually considering casting a black female singer in role. Both Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald were considered.
Casablanca, then, seems to have been a triumph of art produced by a combination of luck, coincidence, and meticulous attention to small details. In these degenerate Hollywood days of Copycat film-making, Casablanca is one of the few great films that no one talks seriously about remaking. Knock on wood!
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