Casablanca is one of the most recognized films in Hollywood history. The American Film Institute named it the third-best American film of all time, with Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane coming in first and second, respectively. In 1983, The British Film Institute declared Casablanca the greatest film ever made. The film has spawned numerous attempts at sequels, television adaptations, books, and Broadway musicals, but none of these projects have ever been able to replicate the way that Casablanca has continued to capture audiences across generations.
However, in 1941, none of the people involved in making Casablanca thought it was going to be anything special, just another star-studded A-List Picture for Warner Bros. After production completed, Aljean Harmetz writes, "Nobody was unhappy that the movie was finally over. Most of the actors hadn't liked one another... Michael Curtiz had been vicious, as usual, to his crew and bit players" (Harmetz 3). And yet, Casablanca went on to become as integral a part of American film history as Gone With the Wind, which had opened in 1939 and is considered the first real blockbuster.
Warner Brothers was one of the "Big Five" major movie studios in Hollywood in the 1940s, and the only one that was still run by the family that founded it. Even before World War II, the studio was known for taking risks in their material and producing films with a social conscience. By pure coincidence, the development, production, and release of Casablanca occurred simultaneously with American involvement in World War II. On December 7, 1941, The Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise military strike on the American naval base on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A day later, a play called Everybody Comes to Rick's arrived at Warner Bros.'s story department. Hal Wallis had acquired the play for Warner Bros. by the end of the month and changed the name of the property to Casablanca. Wallis continued to be the driving force behind the movie's vision, which sparked conflicts in his contentious relationship with Jack Warner. For example, Warner originally had wanted George Raft to play the role of Rick Blaine, but Wallis insisted that the part be written with Humphrey Bogart in mind.
A number of screenwriters, most of whom were under contract at Warner Bros., worked on the screenplay. First, Wally Kline and Aeneas MacKenzie took on the task of adapting the play but their work was never used. As it was common practice for studios to place false items in the trades for publicity, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Casablanca was going to be made with Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan and Dennis Morgan in the leading roles - which was never going to happen.
By February, non-Warner Bros. employees (and frequent Curtiz collaborators) Julius and Philip Epstein took over the script. They were identical twins and were affectionately known as "Phil and Julie". In April of 1942, Hal Wallis asked Howard Koch to revise the Epsteins' work, so as the Epsteins continued to write, Koch polished their work as they progressed. The three writers were never in the same room, but worked separately with Hal Wallis as an intermediary. Because of the ongoing screenwriting that was happening during production, it is still unclear who wrote some of the film's most memorable lines. However, the three writers shared the Academy Award for Best Screenplay and a similar political mentality. Aljean Harmetz notes, "from Murray Burnett to the Epsteins to Howard Koch, Casablanca was shaped by men whose religion or politics had made them premature anti-Fascists."
Meanwhile, Humphrey Bogart had become a valuable asset to Warner Bros after star-making turns in High Sierra (1940) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). Hal Wallis never even considered anyone else to play Rick Blaine and Bogart was cast before the Epsteins even started working. In the original play and in some of the earlier drafts of the screenplay, the Ilsa character was an American woman named Lois. Hal Wallis suggested that she be European, and so Ingrid Bergman came into the picture. She was under contract with David O. Selznick, so Jack Warner traded Olivia de Havilland for her (it was common for studios to make these kinds of deals with their talent). Paul Henreid, who had escaped Germany to avoid Nazi persecution, was cast as the flatly earnest Victor Laszlo, while Claude Rains, an established English actor, was cast in the exciting role of squirmy Vichy Captain Louis Renault.
Production on Casablanca officially began on May 25, 1942. The process was certainly affected by the escalating war. The U.S. government started to take an interest in the content that Hollywood was churning out, and censorship became a daily concern. Physical production was more challenging than usual because of rationed or forbidden materials. As a precaution after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army imposed regulations that made it impossible for films to be shot on location, and so the world of Casablanca, like every other film made during World War II, was created on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California (except for a few scenes that were filmed at a small airport in Van Nuys, California). Shooting days had to end by 6:30 pm so that all actors and crew could get home before dark. There were frequent blackouts in Los Angeles to ensure that Japanese submarines would not be able to spotlight American freighters. Even extras were in short supply as defense plants became desperate for more hands. Film stock had to be used sparingly. Even women's stockings and cigarettes became highly prized black-market items amongst art directors and costumers.
Filming was completed on August 3, 1942 with a day of reshoots scheduled on August 21. By the end of the month, Warner Bros. knew it had a hit on their hands. In November 1942, Allied Forces took the city of Casablanca, which presented a major, but fleeting, opportunity to publicize the film. It opened on November 26th, 1942 in New York City. Two months later, while the film was in general release, the Casablanca Conference took place in North Africa. Even though the film coincided with these important historical events, this context is not the sole reason why the film stood out as a lingering success.
The first trailer of the film used voiceover to sell the concept of the film and began: "Casablanca, city of hope and despair... the meeting place of adventurers, fugitives, criminals, refugees lured into this dangerous oasis by the hope of escape to the Americas. But they're all trapped, for there is no escape... [this is] the story of an imperishable love and the enthralling saga of six desperate people, each in Casablanca to keep an appointment with destiny" (Harmetz 267). Instead of revealing the political themes in the film, the marketing department sold the tension, the action, the romance, and the movie stars. These were the elements of the film that drew audiences to the movies.
In the spring of 1944, the Allied Forces were poised to invade Western Europe and defeat the Axis powers. Meanwhile, around the same time, Casablanca won 3 Oscars for Best Picture (Warner Bros.), Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch). A number of the actors and crew were also nominated, including Humphrey Bogart (Best Actor), Claude Rains (Best Supporting Actor), Best Cinematography (Arthur Edeson), Best Editing (Owen Marks) and Best Score (Max Steiner). The film's budget came in at $1,039,000 and grossed $3,015,000 during its first U.S. release, and $6,819,000 worldwide.
Aljean Harmetz believes that the film would have been successful regardless of the political climate, but asserts, "The movie, shaped during months of defeat, was released into a climate of optimism". Some historians describe the film as an "allegory of America's movement from neutrality to war, with the title 'casa blanca' -- white house in Spanish -- signifying the White House and Rick a reluctant President Roosevelt who finally commits America to the war" (Harmetz 348). There are thousands of interpretations of Casablanca, and even more theories as to the reasons for its success. However, nobody can deny its place in cinematic history and its lasting impact on American culture.