Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940’s War-Themed Films

Combining romance, an exotic locale, idealism, and extremely clever dialogue in a critique of American isolationism in the face of Nazism, Casablanca quickly became one of the best known and most successful of war-related films.

Summary of Event

In 1938, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler seized Austria in a bloodless coup and began demanding that Germany be given the Sudetenland, a province of Czechoslovakia. In the summer of 1938, a New York City high school teacher and playwright named Murray Burnett Burnett, Murray and his wife traveled to an apprehension-filled Europe to visit relatives. In Vienna, they observed firsthand the new Nazi regime and the plight of refugees trying to flee Europe. Later, the Burnetts visited a small town in the south of France that was home to a nightclub that featured a black pianist who played for a mixed crowd of French, Nazis, and refugees. Burnett thought at the time that the nightclub would be a marvelous setting for a play. Casablanca (Curtiz)
Hollywood studio system;war films
[kw]Casablanca Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940’s War-Themed Films (Nov. 26, 1942)
[kw]War-Themed Films, Casablanca Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940’s (Nov. 26, 1942)[War Themed Films, Casablanca Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940s]
[kw]Films, Casablanca Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940’s War-Themed (Nov. 26, 1942)
Casablanca (Curtiz)
Hollywood studio system;war films
[g]North America;Nov. 26, 1942: Casablanca Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940’s War-Themed Films[00670]
[g]United States;Nov. 26, 1942: Casablanca Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940’s War-Themed Films[00670]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Nov. 26, 1942: Casablanca Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940’s War-Themed Films[00670]
[c]World War II;Nov. 26, 1942: Casablanca Marks the Artistic Apex of 1940’s War-Themed Films[00670]
Curtiz, Michael
Bogart, Humphrey
Rains, Claude
Bergman, Ingrid
Wilson, Dooley
Henreid, Paul
Veidt, Conrad
Lorre, Peter
Greenstreet, Sydney
Epstein, Julius J.
Epstein, Philip G.
Koch, Howard

Back in New York, Burnett and a collaborator wrote a play during the summer of 1940 that used the European refugee problem as its subject. The play was entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s and was set in a fictitious nightclub called Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca, French Morocco, a geographical location that was, in actuality, a key stop along many refugees’ escape trails. The unproduced play was submitted to various Hollywood studios for review and possible production.

In late December, 1941, the Warner Bros. Warner Bros. studio purchased the play for twenty thousand dollars, commissioned a screenplay to be adapted from the original script, and indicated that the play would be made into a low-budget picture. The studio, however, soon changed its mind. Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein were given the assignment to turn the play into a film script, while Hal B. Wallis Wallis, Hal B. , the producer of Warner Bros.’ major films, cast about for a director. Wallis decided to go with the studio’s top director, Michael Curtiz, and Casablanca, as the project had been retitled, underwent modification.

At first, it was announced that Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald would play the part of Rick Blaine, and Ann Sheridan Sheridan, Ann was slated to play the female lead, an American of sketchy background named Lois Meredith. Reagan and Sheridan, however, went on to other film projects, and as the screenplay evolved, the major parts were filled by other performers. Humphrey Bogart was cast as Rick, and the character named Lois Meredith was replaced by the foreign-born Ilsa Lund, to be played by Ingrid Bergman.

The film opens with Casablanca swarming with refugees in December of 1941, as the Nazis tighten their grip on Europe. Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a petty crook, has murdered two German couriers and stolen two powerful letters of transit, which can be used by any of the many refugees who are desperate for exit visas. The letters “cannot be rescinded, not even questioned,” making them by far the most valuable items in the city. Ugarte asks Rick (Bogart), the owner of Rick’s Café Americain, to keep them until he can sell them. Rick hides the letters in the club’s piano, which is played by his longtime friend Sam (Dooley Wilson). Captain Renault (Claude Rains), the French prefect of police, attempts to arrest Ugarte, who is killed in the act of fleeing, under the approving eye of Nazi Gestapo official Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt). Rick, unmoved by Ugarte’s death, is shaken by the entrance of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his beautiful wife, Ilsa Lund (Bergman).

A flashback reveals that Rick and Ilsa were lovers in Paris and had made plans to leave as the Nazis approached. At the last minute, though, Ilsa stayed in Paris, sending Rick a mysterious note stating that she could never see him again.

In Casablanca, a black marketeer named Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) tells Laszlo that Rick probably has the stolen letters of transit. Rick, however, refuses to give them to Laszlo, and Ilsa goes to Rick to beg for help. She admits she has loved Rick all along but that even back in Paris she had already been married to Laszlo, a European leader of the underground, who she had thought was dead. She had found out he was still alive the very day she and Rick were to leave Paris, and she could not abandon him.

Rick now agrees to help. He tells Renault to arrest Laszlo when he gives Laszlo the letters. When Renault tries to do so, however, Rick orders Renault to take them all to the airport. Rick puts Ilsa on the plane with Laszlo and the letters and shoots Strasser when he tries to prevent the escape. Instead of arresting Rick, Renault decides to leave Casablanca and join a Free French force with him.

Casablanca was both commercially successful and critically acclaimed when released. It won three Academy Awards Academy Awards;Best Picture
Academy Awards;Best Screenplay
Academy Awards;Best Director in 1943: the awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director—giving director Michael Curtiz his only such honor. Though Curtiz directed many major films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Casablanca became his best-known work.

Curtiz is generally not considered to have been a great visionary or artist, but he was skilled at the visual side of directing, the use of chiaroscuro lighting, close-ups, and sweeping camera movements. Curtiz, Julius Epstein recalled, “knew just when the cigarette smoke should curl backward; when to move; when not to move.” All these techniques were used to build up to the film’s most dramatic moments and to create great emotional power.

Before Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart spent several years under contract to Warner Bros., playing mostly tough, ruthless characters. In 1941, he starred in The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra, which solidified certain aspects of the Bogart character-type that had been tentatively projected in other films. All that was needed to complete the Bogart mystique was a strong romantic element, which Casablanca provided. The film established him as a romantic leading man and made him enormously popular. Not long after Casablanca, Bogart’s new Warner Bros. contract made him the highest-paid actor in the world.

Ingrid Bergman also became an extraordinarily popular star as a result of her performance in Casablanca. She went on to star in numerous films, including For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), for which she received an Oscar, Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946). As for producer Hal Wallis, he had been associated with Bogart on The Maltese Falcon, along with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Thanks to Casablanca, Wallis was presented with his second Irving G. Thalberg Award Academy Awards;Irving G. Thalberg Award for the most consistent high-quality production.


That Casablanca made such a tremendous impact on the United States at the time was the result of several factors. The first was a coincidence of timing; the film’s release date had been announced for June, 1943, but in early November, 1942, the Allies landed in North Africa—at Casablanca. Warner Bros. immediately planned to premiere the film in New York on Thanksgiving Day (November 26), only eighteen days after the landings. Moreover, the film’s general release date, January 23, 1943, came during the Allied summit conferences, also held at Casablanca. It seemed as though President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself was sanctioning the film.

The second factor accounting for Casablanca’s immediate impact was the film’s exploration and presentation of an unselfish commitment to ideals. Bogart’s portrayal of Rick is Casablanca’s moral center and the point around which the plot as well as the other characters revolve. Torn between neutrality and patriotism, cynicism and idealism, independence and romantic involvement, he is the appealing hero who seemed to reflect the mood of wartime America.

Moreover, as an American whose attitude toward World War II changed over the course of the film from one of concern but outward neutrality to one of committed fighting on the side of the Allies, Rick represented a rather thinly veiled allegory for the United States as a whole. It has been said that Rick, at the beginning of the film, represents what isolationism looks like—proud, aloof, and attractive on the surface. Perhaps Rick is even a symbol of the American fear of entangling alliances. In the end, though, Rick becomes a visual reminder of the noblest of virtues, personal sacrifice in the face of a crisis. Rick’s kind of virtue is what is needed to move any great cause forward. Rick truly wants Ilsa; giving her up is a sacrifice only unselfish idealism could prompt.

Next to Rick, Renault is the film’s most important character. He has the best lines and determines the plot’s resolution. In the end, he also represents the most important aspect of the war—how it can be won. Renault is a symbol of the great partnerships that would form between the United States and its foreign allies to defeat the Nazis, just as Rick and Renault team up to defeat Major Strasser. Rick speaks symbolic lines that refer to the United States as a sleeping giant that, once stirred, will surely crush the impudent and immoral enemy.

A third factor contributing to the film’s impact was Casablanca’s subtle portrayal of the United States as a land of promise and greatness, as the ultimate refuge for the war weary, the persecuted, and the homeless. When Rick lets an unwitting Bulgarian win enough at the roulette wheel to pay for their exit visas, the man’s wife exclaims that Rick is an American and, thus, “America must be a wonderful place.” Casablanca defined how Americans thought of themselves or, at least, how they wanted to be. Casablanca was so influential that Warner Bros. tried to remake it in various guises before the end of World War II; none of the imitations, though, were as popular as Casablanca.

Casablanca continued to influence American popular culture long after the war, precisely because it was not a pure war movie at all. Most scholars maintain that the film is either a conventional romance, a morality play adapted to the screen, or a melodrama. The ending of Casablanca is like that of many other romantic films; Woody Allen’s 1972 takeoff Play It Again, Sam shows how easily the war element can be worked around. The title of Allen’s film, taken from a famous (and misquoted) line of Casablanca’s dialogue, is further testimony to the film’s continuing influence.

Casablanca possesses enduring artistic and entertainment value. Audiences keep coming back to it, both to be enraptured by the film and to analyze it. The proliferation of interpretations is a mark of the film’s influence on American culture. Casablanca, moreover, was largely responsible for the flourishing Bogart cult of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

The superb dialogue of Casablanca is among the best remembered in film history, and the film’s classic theme song, “As Time Goes By,” is synonymous with the film itself. Casablanca, perhaps more than any other Hollywood film, outlines a worldview that is characteristically American. Casablanca (Curtiz)
Hollywood studio system;war films

Further Reading

  • Behlmer, Rudy. “George Raft in Casablanca?” In Behind the Scenes: The Making of . . . Hollywood, Calif.: Samuel French, 1990. Written by an acknowledged expert on the history of American films, especially those made by Warner Bros., this book reveals the creative processes that went into the making of fifteen significant films during the period of the Hollywood studio system. The chapter on Casablanca is perhaps the clearest and most concise history of the making of the film from start to finish. Puts Casablanca in the context of other films made at the time.
  • Francisco, Charles. You Must Remember This: The Filming of “Casablanca.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1980. A film historian tells the detailed behind-the-scenes story of the chaotic fifty-day shooting schedule of Casablanca. This work’s strength is its discussion of the attitudes, personalities, and contributions of the film’s producer, director, writers, and film editor. Also presents examples of the film’s impact on American society.
  • Haver, Ronald. “Finally, The Truth About Casablanca.” American Film 1 (June, 1976): 10-16. Offers details about the film’s ending, as well as of the relationships among the production staff. Essentially, the Epsteins came up with the solution to the problem of how the final scene should end and with the film’s famous final line, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  • Hill, John, and Pamela Church Gibson, eds. The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Anthology detailing various approaches to and issues in film studies. The section on American Hollywood cinema includes two chapters providing different readings of Casablanca by Rick Altman and Richard Maltby.
  • Rosenzweig, Sidney. “’A Hill of Beans’: Casablanca.” In Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982. Originally a doctoral dissertation, this book is a volume in the Studies in Cinema series. Scholarly in tone, this work provides an excellent synthesis of most of the important analyses and interpretations of Casablanca. One large chapter is devoted exclusively to the film. Contains an extensive, useful bibliography.
  • Schickel, Richard. “Some Nights in Casablanca.” In Favorite Movies: Critics’ Choice, edited by Philip Nobile. New York: Macmillan, 1973. Contains personal reflections of a noted film critic. The chapter is noteworthy for its analysis of the famous dialogue, characterizations, and symbols in the film. The author assumes that the reader comes to his chapter with some familiarity with films and filmmaking, and his style is not geared to the novice.

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