The movie Casablanca premiered in New York City 79 years ago today, in 1942. The film starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with notable support by Claude Rains and Paul Henreid. It’s the story of a cynical American expat, Rick Blaine, who runs a bar in Morocco’s largest city during World War II. He’s unexpectedly reunited with his former love, Ilsa, who is now married to a leader of the French Resistance. By the end of the movie, Rick finds he still has a selfless heart under his bitter exterior. The movie was originally intended for release in January 1943, and that is when it came out in the rest of the country, but the producers moved up the New York premiere to take advantage of the free publicity surrounding the landing of Allied forces in North Africa.
The film was based on an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. A story analyst called it “sophisticated hokum,” but recommended it to Warner Bros. anyway. Unlike most movies, Casablanca was filmed in story order rather than out of sequence, because the screenplay was only half done by the time filming began. Ingrid Bergman wrote in her autobiography, My Story (1980): “We were shooting off the cuff. Every day they were handing out dialogue and we were trying to make some sense of it. Every morning we would say, ‘Well, who are we? What are we doing here?’ And [director] Michael Curtiz would say, ‘We’re not quite sure, but let’s get through this scene today and we’ll let you know tomorrow.’” She didn’t know which man her character ended up with until the final scene was filmed.
The movie was filmed almost entirely indoors, because a Japanese submarine had been spotted off the coast of California and everyone was worried that Japan might attack the mainland. The production crew also had to cope with war rationing and shortages of things like rubber and aluminum. They couldn’t use nylon or silk in the costumes, so Ingrid Bergman wore cotton.
Casablanca received great reviews, but at the time most people just seemed to think it was going to be one of many boilerplate movies intended to raise American morale during World War II. The New York Times wrote, “Yes, indeed, the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “a drama that lifts you right out of your seat” and added, “Certainly a more accomplished cast of players cannot be imagined.” Variety wrote, “Casablanca will take the [box offices] of America just as swiftly as the AEF took North Africa.” Another reviewer said, “It certainly won’t make Vichy happy — but that’s just another point for it.” It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won three of them: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Not every critic since the movie’s release has considered it a masterpiece, however. Pauline Kael said, “It’s far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism, and you’re never really pressed to take its melodramatic twists and turns seriously.” (https://www.garrisonkeillor.com/radio/twa-the-writers-almanac-for-november-26-2021/)