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Here's Looking at You, Casablanca

In wartime Hollywood, a happy ending wasn't enough.

By Thomas Doherty 

Illustration by Alex Fine

Citizen Kane and Vertigo are more critically acclaimed. Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments were more profitable. And Pinocchio and Bambi traumatized more children. But no classic Hollywood film is remembered with more rewindable vividness or mushier affection than Casablanca. And yet, at heart, the film some historians have called “America’s most beloved” is wartime propaganda disguised as a sappy Hollywood love story.

Set in the Moroccan city in (nominally) Unoccupied Vichy France a week before Pearl Harbor, goose-stepping Nazis have intruded into the romantic problems of three little people: Rick (Humphrey Bogart), an embittered saloon keeper; Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), the beautiful girl from his past; and Ilsa’s husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), an escaped hero of the Czechoslovakian underground. Trailing cigarette smoke and sporting a white tuxedo, Rick presides over his eponymous Café Américain, a popular nightclub featuring a level-headed pianist-singer, Sam (Dooley Wilson, who played not a note in real life), warbling a haunting theme song (“As Time Goes By”).

The real-life operator of the gin joint was film director Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian import and Warner Bros.’s designated jack-of-all-genres, who, among other indelible moments, orchestrated from a Burbank soundstage the most stirring rendition of the French national anthem ever committed to celluloid, an irony the French are perfectly fine with. Seeking authenticity, Curtiz packed the room with a cast of character actors as diverse as the clientele of Rick’s Café, many real-life refugees from Hitler’s slaughterhouse. Alas, the convivial multiculturalism of Rick’s Café Américain would have been impossible in America itself — only in an exotic offshore locale could Hollywood depict a zone of such familiar shoulder rubbing across race and ethnicity, where an African American piano player might share memories with a Swedish goddess. (Though twenty-seven-year-old Ilsa still refers to fifty-six-year-old Sam as “boy.”) 

Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Like all wartime American cinema, Casablanca operated under the watchful eyes of two regulatory regimes: the Production Code Administration, Hollywood’s in-house censorship agency, run by a no-nonsense Irish Catholic named Joseph I. Breen; and the Motion Picture Bureau of the Office of War Information, run by a clueless bureaucrat named Lowell Mellett. Serving the two masters while making audience-friendly entertainment could prove a delicate balancing act.

The PCA scrubbed the Hollywood screen for adherence to the name-brand document, the Production Code, a stern set of moral guidelines that airbrushed explicit expressions of violence and sexuality. Above all, however, the Code sought to enforce a kind of a moral universe — not a happy ending in the final reel, but an ending that was morally correct.

Curtiz and his screenwriters, Philip and Julius Epstein and Howard Koch, were long practiced in the suggestive shadings and double meanings that conformed with the letter of the Code while tweaking its spirit. Often an adult sophistication was required to read the below-the-radar signals. Consider the dreamy allusiveness of the most famous line in this dictionary of American phraseology: “We’ll always have Paris,” whose suggestive wistfulness bespeaks a longing for afternoons that were not spent strolling through the art collection at the Louvre.

Like all Hollywood screenwriters, the Epstein twins and Koch understood where code enforcer Joseph Breen’s blue pencil drew the line; they knew they could approach it, maybe even go right up to the edge, but they could not cross over it. During production, the only serious dust-up with the Breen Office occurred over violence, not sex. Originally, the Nazi Major Strasser was shot by Rick in cold blood. “We had taken the risk of shooting the scene without an official approval from Breen, and had to reshoot it in its entirety,” recalled producer Hal B. Wallis. In the final version, Major Strasser raises his gun to shoot Rick, allowing Rick to shoot him in self-defense.     

The other force for narrative correctness was the Office of War Information. Like the PCA, the OWI had a written codebook, a 167-page document called the Government Manual for the Motion Picture Industry. Its purpose was to make sure that wartime Hollywood cinema was not just wide-eyed escapism, but a delivery system for the inculcation of combat-minded values: the necessity for teamwork, tolerance, and sacrifice. The genius of Casablanca lies in the way it negotiates the agendas of the two agencies, harnessing the conventions of Hollywood cinema to the needs of a nation at war.  

For much of its running time, Casablanca seems to be following the standard trajectory of Hollywood romantic melodrama: the alpha male and the alpha female are destined to clinch before the end credits roll. Fresh from his star-making performances as the doomed gangster in High Sierra (1941) and hard-bitten gumshoe in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Bogart was playing a romantic lead for the first time. When skeptical reporters asked if he considered himself adorable, he cannily replied, “If Ingrid Bergman looks at you like you’re adorable, then you’re adorable.” He got that right. The magnetic attraction between the two stars — the eyeline matches, the celestial backlighting, the dappled flashback to the high intensity affair in Paris — pulls the spectator toward the expected consummation of their (and our) desires.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

And yet, from a Production Code point of view, there was a complication: Ilsa is Victor’s lawful wife. No problem — the screenwriters could easily have devised a Code-approved scenario that puts Rick and Ilsa in each other’s arms for the final fade out: Major Strasser shoots Victor, Rick shoots Major Strasser, and Rick and Ilsa fly off to Lisbon together. Ilsa will be sad about Victor for a while, but she’ll get over it. Of course, that’s not what happened.

To wit — and surely no reader needs a spoiler alert — Rick relinquishes Ilsa by reminding her that, compared to the great fight against Nazism, the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans. He then walks off into the North African desert for the beginning of a “beautiful friendship” with another man whose pragmatism trumps any romantic ideals.

And while there’s no record of active intervention on the part of the OWI to dictate the ending on the tarmac, legends abound about the famous wrap-up — how up until the last day of shooting, no one really knew who was going to get the girl. Nonsense. The original play and the earliest scripts debunk the notion that Ilsa was destined for any fate but dutiful wifehood with Victor. Even so, the wartime ethos also demanded something besides the same old story, a message that overrode the momentum toward big-star romantic closure. In dashing expectations, Casablanca even defied the lyrics of its own theme song. “The world will always welcome lovers,” sang Dooley Wilson. Maybe. But in 1942 the more fundamental things applied.


Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist, to be published by Columbia University in March 2018.

Published November 2017.

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