75 Years Later, A Look At The 'Life, Legend, and Afterlife' Of 'Casablanca'

Oct 11, 2017
Originally published on October 13, 2017 8:36 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Next month marks the 70th anniversary of the opening of the movie "Casablanca." My guest Noah Eisenberg is the author of the book "We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, And Afterlife Of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie." I figure a lot of our listeners probably know the movie by heart but others may have never seen it. So here's the basic story. It's set in 1941, during World War II. The Nazis have occupied France. Europeans fleeing them have made their way to the Moroccan city of Casablanca seeking temporary refuge in a way of getting safe passage to the U.S.

Casablanca at that time was a French protectorate, but now that the Nazis have taken over France, they're starting to take control of Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart plays an American who runs a bar in Casablanca called Rick's. He claims to pride himself on never taking sides.

One night, a beautiful woman played by Ingrid Bergman walks into Rick's and realizes the owner is the same Rick with whom she had a passionate affair in Paris. But now she's married to a Czech freedom fighter who is essential to the underground fighting the Nazis. He's a hunted man and he needs her, but she still loves Rick. "Casablanca" is one of the great love stories and also a great story about knowing when it's time to take a side and risk your life for a cause. The film starts with this voiceover narration.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

LOU MARCELLE: (As narrator) With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turn hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point, but not everybody could get to Lisbon directly. And so a tortuous roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train or auto or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones through money or influence or luck might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca and wait and wait and wait.

GROSS: So that's the opening narration from "Casablanca." Noah Isenberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. Who did we just hear doing the narration?

NOAH ISENBERG: So that was Lou Marcelle, who did some voiceover work at Warner in the 1940s. And he joked late in life that that was just a $50 job doing that voiceover. But it's so important that that folksy kind of march of time newsreel-style narration, it really does set the tone and how Wallace really wanted the focus to be on that map - on that globe, rather. And the focus on the globe is really important, I think, to understand the urgency of the refugee crisis then.

GROSS: So this really was a kind of refugee trail - right? - from France to Northern Africa to Lisbon to the U.S.?

ISENBERG: Correct. And that's all really quite accurate. I mean, despite having been, you know, made on the soundstages in Burbank, Calif., made on the sound stages of Warner Brothers and, you know, with just one location shot that when Strasser's plane arrives, that was filmed at the Van Nuys Airport. But apart from that, it's all on the sound stage of Warner Bros. Despite that, it really succeeds in conjuring up not only that North African outpost but also succeeds, I think, in depicting history as it was unfolding and doing it really quite accurately.

GROSS: So although "Casablanca" is written by Jews, there's a lot of Jewish emigres in the movie, people who have fled Nazi Germany. And it's about people who are resisting the Nazis. Nevertheless, the word Jewish, the word Jew, these words are - that are never spoken in the film. Do you have any idea why?

ISENBERG: Yeah. It's a wonderful question, Terry. Mainly the answer to that would be that the studios themselves were reluctant. And Warner Brothers - so Jack - Harry Warner, who was the head of the studio, was a very - you know, had a very strong moral backbone. And he was very committed to doing anti-Nazi pictures already quite early on, way ahead of the game here. And yet, they - together with his brother, Jack, they were concerned, I think, about having anything that would draw attention to the - not only the Jewish players in front of the camera but also those behind the camera and those at the studio.

I think they were very, very reluctant to rock the boat on that score. And so if you think, for instance, of the Bulgarian refugees - and so Jack Warner's stepdaughter, Joy Page, playing with Helmut Dantine, an Austrian - another Austrian refugee actor who fled the Nazi regime, they are fleeing Bulgaria. And they're fleeing, you know, the Nazi regime's incursion into their own nation. But it's not specified that they're fleeing because they're Jews. And that's true of all these other generic refugees who are depicted on screen. And now, in reality, so many of them had fled the Nazi regime because they were Jews.

GROSS: Let's get to one of the romantic scenes from the film. And this is a scene in which Bogart is thinking back to his time before the German invasion of France, when he and Ingrid Bergman were falling in love. And she was a mysterious character to him. She wouldn't reveal much about who she was. And they know the Germans are about to invade. They're just a few hours away. And so Bergman and Bogart are kissing passionately. And this is the scene in which she says, kiss me as if it were the last time - one of the really famous lines from the film. Let's hear that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

INGRID BERGMAN: (As Ilsa Lund) I love you so much. And I hate this war so much. It's a crazy world. Anything can happen. If you shouldn't get away, I mean, if something should keep us apart, wherever they put you and wherever I'll be, I want you to know - kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time.

GROSS: OK, a really famous scene from "Casablanca." You write that that line, that famous line - kiss me as if it were the last time - was originally written as Hitler or no Hitler, kiss me. So who wrote the original Hitler or no Hitler line kiss me? And who changed it to, kiss me as if it were the last time? Do we know?

ISENBERG: Yeah. This requires a bit of conjecture on my part, but I think I have a strong enough sense. I think the original line was, in fact, the Epstein twins. What happened with the flashback though, Terry, is that Hal Wallis was a bit concerned, he and Jack Warner together. And they brought the director, Michael Curtiz, in on the conversation as well. But they were concerned that the romance was sagging a bit, just there wasn't enough there. And so they brought in an additional writer, an uncredited writer, Casey Robinson. And Casey Robinson had just furnished the - Warner Brothers with the screenplay for "Now, Voyager" a year before, the Bette Davis, Paul Henry picture. And so that nine minutes of flashback is nowhere to be found in "Everybody Comes To Rick's." That was entirely new.

But I think that the line you cited there is more or less attributed to the Epstein twins. Whether Howard Koch had a hand in it, it's unclear. But I think what was rewritten is - was done by Casey Robinson, was done by that screenwriter, really quite well known for writing blustery melodramas, blustery romances. And that's what he provided. He did so in an uncredited capacity. And late in life, there were a couple of interviews where he kind of kicked himself for not seeking a credit, but so it goes. I think that's quite typical in Hollywood, where you have a lot of writers involved in something and only when it does very, very well do they all clamor for credit.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Noah Isenberg. And he's the author of the book "We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, And Afterlife Of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie." We're going to take a short break here and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEON FLEISHER'S "LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: BAGATELLE NO. 25 IN A MINOR FUR ELISE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the making of the movie "Casablanca" with Noah Isenberg, author of the book "We'll Always Have Casablanca." So the movie had to pass the production code. And this was basically the censorship code that said if there was sex, the couple had to be married. Of course, if there was sex, it had to be implied, it couldn't be shown. Bad deeds had to be punished.

So one of the things that they had to deal with was the fact that the French prefect, Captain Renault, basically traded sex for visas. Like if a young attractive woman would sleep with him, she'd get a visa and would be able to get out of Casablanca and make her way toward America. But they couldn't exactly say that in the movie, so it all had to be kind of implied. And there's a scene with a Bulgarian immigrant who's asking Rick basically if she trade sex for a visa, with the police prefect, is that OK? What if she never tells her husband? Would her husband understand? And so I want to play that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

JOY PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) Jan and I, we do not want our children to grow up in such a country.

HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) And so you've decided to go to America?

PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) Yes, but we have not much money. And traveling is so expensive and difficult. It was much more than we thought to get here. And then Captain Renault sees us and he is so kind. He wants to help us.

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) I'll bet.

PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) He tells me he can give us an exit visa, but we have no money.

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Does he know that?

PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) Oh, yes.

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) And he's still willing to give you a visa?

PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) Yes, monsieur.

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) And you want to know...

PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) Will he keep his word?

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) He always has.

PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) Oh, monsieur. You are a man. If someone loved you very much so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world and she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Nobody ever loved me that much.

PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) And he never knew. And the girl kept this bad thing locked in her heart. That would be all right, wouldn't it?

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) You want my advice?

PAGE: (As Annina Brandel) Oh, yes, please.

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Go back to Bulgaria.

GROSS: OK. So did that scene have to be rewritten a lot so that it could pass the censors and be used? Did they have to do a lot of work figuring out what language can we use to imply that she's asking Rick about trading sex for a visa without coming out and saying it?

ISENBERG: Yeah. In the three-act stage play, what I will say is that Captain Renault - his lecherous habits are much, much more developed. They're under-age women. And, in fact, there are a number of places where it really, really kind of bears down on the script in what needs to be done. This is true as well in the famous final scene of the film on that tarmac, when Rick insists that she board that plane with Laszlo - she being Ilsa here - that she board the plane with Laszlo. And for her to stay with Rick would be tantamount again to condoning adultery. She's still married to him.

GROSS: So the censorship code would not have allowed that in?

ISENBERG: No, no, no, no, absolutely. And it worked well with the final scene. Not only did it work well for the main censorship body, the Production Code Administration, but also for the other censorship body at that time after America had entered the war, which was the Office of War Information that wanted to see to it that all films created in Hollywood on some level or another supported the allied war effort. And the film does that as well by having her go off with Laszlo, by having Ilsa go off with Laszlo and help him in that important work that he's doing as the leader of the underground movement.

GROSS: Let's hear that inspiring ending were Rick is using stirring words to convince Ilsa that she has to go with her husband because her husband needs her to do his war work. And if she stayed, she'd - if she stayed with Rick, she would just regret it. So here's that famous scene on the tarmac when Rick is forcing Ilsa to fly to Lisbon and then to America to freedom with her husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I've done a lot of it since then. It all adds up to one thing. You're getting on my plane with Victor where you belong.

BERGMAN: (As Ilsa Lund) But Richard, no, I...

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Now, you've got to listen to me. You have any idea what you'd have look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of 10, we'd both wind up at a concentration camp. Isn't that true, Louie?

CLAUDE RAINS: (As Captain Louis Renault) I'm afraid Major Strasser would insist.

BERGMAN: (As Ilsa Lund) You're saying this only to make me go.

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of your life.

BERGMAN: (As Ilsa Lund) But what about us?

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) We'll always have Paris. We didn't have - we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

BERGMAN: (As Ilsa Lund) When I said I would never leave you.

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now, here's looking at you, kid.

GROSS: Those words are so famous - maybe not today, maybe not (laughter) tomorrow.

ISENBERG: Tomorrow.

GROSS: Any insights into that scene you want to share about how it was written?

ISENBERG: Well, I mean they stuck to the script. I mean, the key add-on in that scene is at the very, very close. When we get those other - you know, we're talking about kind of lines that have been burnished into our memory - those iconic lines, those lines that people know even if they've never even seen the movie. And I'm thinking now of, Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which was a line not in the script but a line that Hal Wallis provided. But apart from that, there's...

GROSS: He was the producer of the film.

ISENBERG: Producer, exactly, sorry - the producer Hal Wallis provided a very important line. But what you were describing moments ago in the scene that we just listened to, those were lines that were in the script. And we were trying to sort of parse out credit, which is a very, very difficult task when it comes to, you know, who wrote what.

But Howard Koch was a very politically engaged writer. He'd come out of the Mercury Theater, so he was, you know, with Welles and had come to Hollywood. And what he brought to this film I think was in large measure his principled stance, an anti-fascist stance. We don't have the fact that Rick ran guns to Ethiopia and fought on the side of the loyalists - so the anti-fascists in Spain. We don't have those lines in the in that Burnet-Alison stage play. So Koch added those.

And I think in that final - in the final scene that you just - that we just listened to, there, too, I think Howard Koch is helping to bestow upon this script that kind of principled stance that Rick needs to take, subordinating his own romantic interests for the greater good. And that character arc that we see, you know, from I stick my neck out to nobody, a line that Rick - that Bogart utters twice in the film - to showing himself to be somebody who does just that, to being the reluctant war hero, as Barbara Deming called him. A lot of that I think comes from the hands of Howard Koch.

GROSS: Well, Noah Isenberg, thank you so much for talking with us about "Casablanca."

ISENBERG: It was an extraordinary pleasure, Terry. Thank you. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Noah Isenberg is the author of the new book "We'll Always Have Casablanca." He directs the screen studies program at The New School. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jimmy Fallon, the host of "The Tonight Show." He has a new children's book. It's his second. Well talk about being a father, hosting "The Tonight Show," dealing with politics and tragedies on the show and the injury that nearly ripped off his finger and left him in the ICU for 10 days. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS TIME GOES BY")

DOOLEY WILSON: (Singing) You must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply as time goes by. And when two lovers woo, they still say, I love you. On that you can rely no matter what the future brings as time goes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.