Timing is everything. Casablanca was more than just one of the supreme achievements of the Hollywood studio system. Like many great films, it was the result of a series of lucky breaks. The script for Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s arrived at the Warner Bros. story department December 8, 1941—the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With all of Hollywood looking for properties related to World War II, the story of a cynical American expatriate drawn into the resistance when he meets a lost love seemed a no-brainer.
Producer Hal Wallis received the report from story editor Irene Lee just as he was looking for the perfect film to build on Humphrey Bogart’s rise to stardom in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (both 1941). When writer Casey Robinson was asked to take a pass at the script, he was dating a Russian ballerina who wanted to break into films. So, he suggested turning Bogart’s ex, originally an American named Lois, into the European Ilsa. That strengthened the plot by having the woman who draws Bogart into the European conflict someone directly involved in it. And Ingrid Bergman only became available to play Ilsa because she had lost her dream role, Maria in For Whom the Bells Tolls (1943), at least temporarily. As she was finishing work on Casablanca, she found out she would be replacing Vera Zorina, who’d originally been cast as Maria.
The good breaks didn’t stop with the film’s casting. Casablanca premiered in New York on November 26, 1942, just after the Allies invaded North Africa and liberated Casablanca. With the film’s title in the headlines, it cleaned up at the box office. The film’s general release on January 23, 1943, coincided with the Casablanca Conference at which President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill planned the liberation of Europe. The headlines helped audiences discover one of the screen’s great love stories, making the film a box-office smash and, as Wallis had hoped, turning Bogart into a superstar. With its Los Angeles premiere as part of that 1943 opening, the film competed at the 1944 Oscars ceremony, where it won Best Picture, Director (Michael Curtiz), and Screenplay. Casablanca’s beautiful friendship with audiences has never faded, as each new generation has seen something of itself in Rick and Ilsa’s story of love, redemption, and self-sacrifice.
d. Michael Curtiz, 103 minutes, DCP
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics