Casablanca: The Unexpected Classic

Thursday, March 2, 1944—the United States is in its third year of war with the Axis powers. More than 12 million Americans are fighting on various fronts; the German armies are being repulsed at Anzio and the newspapers have large headlines about the bombing of Wake Island and the battle of Truk in the Pacific. The tide of war has turned decidedly toward the Allies, and people are much more optimistic about the outcome of the struggle. At Sing Sing prison in New York, convicted murderer Louis Lepke is making dramatic revelations about the operation of Murder, Inc. In Los Angeles, Charlie Chaplin is being blood tested in the sensational paternity case brought against him by starlet Joan Barry . . . . Listening to the radio in the Los Angeles area that night, you had your choice of “I Love a Mystery,” evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and “The Aldrich Family.” As an added novelty, at 10:16 P.M., you could hear for the first time a live broadcast of the 17th Annual Academy Award presentation from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. (Two stations in the city would broadcast it: KNX and KFWB. The NBC network affiliates had turned it down as not having enough appeal.) For the past seventeen years, the awards had been given out at a banquet, resulting in affairs that sometimes lasted until two in the morning. Criticism had been leveled at the idea of holding lavish dinner parties in the midst of wartime economies, so this year it had been decided that the awards would be strictly an informal affair.

The films in nomination this night had all been released in the period from December 1942 through December 1943. Their titles reflect the mood and anxieties of the country during its first real year of the war: For Whom the Bell Tolls, a lavish romantic version (some said perversion) of the Hemingway Spanish Civil War novel; The Human Comedy, a gentle film from William Saroyan’s novel about the homefront; the Ernst Lubitsch fantasy Heaven Can Wait; a British war film, Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve; The More the Merrier, a George Stevens comedy about war-time Washington; The Ox-Bow Incident, a stark, somber film about a Iynching; the heavily reverential The Song of Bernadette; the strongly anti-Nazi Watch on the Rhine; and Casablanca, the romantic melodrama which was one of the most popular films of the year.  Since the proceedings were being broadcast overseas to the troops as well as locally, winners were urged to keep their acceptance speeches under three minutes. Outside the theater, wartime fears of a possible Japanese attack on Los Angeles had subsided to the point where searchlights were permitted to be used for the first time since the war began. Their light revealed a mass of low-hanging clouds, threatening an eleventh straight day of rain, further dampening the spirits of several hundred fans, who had been filling the bleachers and lining Hollywood Boulevard since 6:30 p.m. They were disappointed at the noticeable lack of glamour and color which usually characterized the awards. The continual roar of enthusiasm which normally prevailed at these functions was noticeably lukewarm except for the arrival of Humphrey Bogart, a nominee for Best Actor for his performance in Casablanca.

As he stepped out of his car, the crowd surged forward, almost engulfing him and his wife, Mayo Methot. It took 12 police officers to rescue the two, and a red-faced, startled, yet smiling Bogart heard a chorus of cries of “good luck” and “here’s looking at you, kid” as he was rushed into the theater. Bogart had been in Hollywood off and on for the past fourteen years, but he had never been mobbed before, and he was a bit shaken by the experience.Coming into the theater directly behind Bogart were the head of production at Warner Bros., Hal Wallis, and his wife, actress/comedienne Louise Fazenda. They had seen the excitement surrounding Bogart, and Wallis took it as further vindication of his judgment in casting Bogart as a romantic lead in Casablanca—a decision he had to defend to Jack Warner, head of the studio, who did not consider Bogart any kind of a romantic hero. If Warner had seen the commotion around Bogart’s entrance, he did not comment on it to Wallis. There was a growing tension between Wallis and Warner, stemming from Warner’s feeling, rightly or wrongly, that his head of production was receiving more credit and publicity than he deserved.As head of production, Wallis was chiefly responsible for the decisions which had resulted in Warner Bros. receiving more nominations that year than any other studio: 28, of which eight were for Wallis’ own personal production of Casablanca. Additionally, Wallis had been nominated for the Irving Thalberg Award for “the most consistent high quality of production” for the past year; if he won, it would be his second Thalberg, as he had been awarded the prize in 1938. Warner, a proud, possessive man insofar as the studio was concerned, felt that this was “too much Wallis and not enough Warner” and had made his unhappiness known. There wasn’t much Wallis could do about it, but it did add to an already tense evening.

It was going to be a close race. The Song of Bernadette had a whopping twelve nominations. For Whom the Bell Tolls and Casablanca were tied, with eight each. Casablanca had the advantage of having been in release longer than any of the other films, meaning that most of the rank and file of the Academy membership had seen it. They were largely the craftsmen in the smaller earning brackets who did not usually see the pictures until they played the neighborhood theaters. Also, an informal poll taken around the studios earlier that week had given Casablanca the edge as seemingly everyone’s favorite of the year. Everyone, that is, with the possible exception of the three screenwriters nominated for adapting it: Philip and Julius Epstein, and Howard Koch.The pressures under which the script had been written were such that they had all been mildly flabbergasted when the film was nominated for best screenplay. This was a first nomination for young Howard Koch and for Philip Epstein. Philip’s brother Julius had been nominated for his work on Four Daughters in 1938. All three considered their chances of winning minimal, considering the competition, which included George Seaton for The Song of Bernadette and Dashiell Hammett for Watch on the Rhine. However, they were there, sitting in the same row as Max Steiner, nominated for his Casablanca scoring; and Owen Marks and Arthur Edeson, nominees respectively for the editing and photography of the film.Four rows behind them, Wallis was watching for the arrival of the last of the major nominees and one of Wallis’ closest friends, the picture’s director, Michael Curtiz. Curtiz also had not thought much of Casablanca’s chances. The film had been a troublesome experience for him. This was to be his third directing nomination, and he was so certain of not winning that he had not taken the time to prepare a speech, something he had done on the two prior occasions. He and his wife, screenwriter Bess Meredith, slipped quietly into the darkened theater ten minutes after the ceremonies began. They arrived just in time to hear M.C. Jack Benny complaining to the audience about the lack of dinner, saying that in a place named Grauman’s Chinese he expected at least chop suey.

Two hours later, Wallis listened in anxious anticipation as the nominees for Best Director were read by singer Dinah Shore. Up to this point in the awards ceremony Casablanca had lost in almost all of the categories for which it had been nominated: Editor Owen Marks’ work had been bypassed in favor of George Amy’s editing of Air Force, another Wallis production; Max Steiner’s score had been passed over in favor of Alfred Newman’s music for The Song of Bernadette, which had also won the black-and-white cinematography award for Arthur Miller. However, the Epsteins and Howard Koch had won the best screenplay adaptation award much to the delight of Wallis. Still to come were the major awards of the evening: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress and Best Director. With the exception of Best Actress and Supporting Actress, Casablanca had been nominated in all these categories, and Wallis felt that they still had a chance to win at least one of the major awards. When Dinah Shore opened the envelope and announced Michael Curtiz as the winner, Wallis watched with great satisfaction as Curtiz made his way to the stage and listened in affectionate amusement as his friend accepted the Oscar, saying in his charmingly imperfect English: “So many times, I have a speech ready, but no dice. Always a bridesmaid, never a mother. Now I win, I have no speech.”

After this win, Wallis’s hopes were high for the remaining awards, but ironically, Bogart lost to Paul Lukas for another Wallis production, the film version of Lillian Hellman’s antifascist play Watch on the Rhine, while Claude Rains was passed over in favor of Charles Coburn in the George Stevens comedy about wartime Washington The More the Merrier. Finally it was time for the Best Picture Award and the tension grew palpable as Academy President Walter Wanger read the nominees: For Whom the Bell Tolls; Heaven Can Wait; In Which We Serve; Madame Curie; The More the Merrier; Casablanca; The Human Comedy; The Ox-Bow Incident; Watch on the Rhine and The Song of Bernadette. (This would be the last year in which ten pictures would be nominated in this category. Thereafter, the number of nominees would be stabilized at 5.) As Wanger opened the envelope and announced, “the winner is Casablanca,” Hal Wallis, in his autobiography Starmaker (1980), remembered vividly what happened next: “After it was announced that Casablanca had won the award for Best Picture, I stood up to accept when Jack [Warner] ran to the stage ahead of me and took the award with a broad, flashing smile and a look of great self-satisfaction. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Casablanca had been my creation; Jack had absolutely nothing to do with it. As the audience gasped, I tried to get out of the row of seats and into the aisle, but the entire Warner family sat blocking me. I had no alternative but to sit down again, humiliated and furious. . . . Almost forty years later, I still haven’t recovered from the shock.” Wallis received his second Irving Thalberg Memorial Award that evening for “The most consistent high quality of production,” but even that honor did not make up for the slight by Warner.

Soon afterwards, Wallis left Warner Bros. and became an independent producer, releasing his films through Paramount and later, Universal. Over the next thirty years he produced another seventy-one films including: Love Letters, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry Wrong Number, Come Back, Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wild Is the Wind, Summer and Smoke, Becket, Barefoot in the Park, True Grit, Anne of the Thousand Days, and Mary, Queen of Scots. When asked by an interviewer in 1978 what film he would most like to be remembered by, Wallis replied “Casablanca.” Of all the films produced in the United States during World War II, only two could be said to transcend their origins and truly to reflect the popular Zeitgeist: one is David O. Selznick’s 1944 epic of the homefront, Since You Went Away, and the other, of course, is Casablanca. Over the years, Casablanca has developed a devoted following and has been transmuted from just a highly-regarded melodrama into one of the classics of the Romantic genre. More has been written about it than any other film, with the possible exception of The Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, and Gone with the Wind. Its central image, that of Bogart in a trench coat and hat, holding a gun, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, has become a popular icon of sorts. 

The film has spawned any number of books, master’s theses, and been the inspiration for Woody Allen’s hit play and film, Play It Again, Sam, a popular misquotation of one of the film’s memorable lines. What exactly transpired over the years to transform Casablanca’s status has been endlessly debated, discussed and otherwise analyzed. Casablanca is unique because it crystallized and encapsulated an entire generation’s idealistic view of itself. There is scarcely anyone in this country over the age of forty-five who can remain unmoved by the film. It provides tangible evidence of not necessarily the way we were, but more importantly, the way we wanted to be. It is this sense of the more positive beliefs and virtues of another time that gives the film its timelessness. Casablanca bridges the generations, giving us a sense of the hopes of an earlier decade and reminding us that a heritage need not be lost to the passage of time.

You have no items in your shopping cart