My first experience with CASABLANCA was The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (though back then it was called MGM Studios). It’s a boat ride inside the Chinese Theatre that takes you through animatronic recreations of famous movie scenes. The ride honored the famous “Here’s looking at you, kid” scene with Rick (Humphrey Bogart) sending Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) onto the plane with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).
When films like CASABLANCA achieve a higher echelon of classic status, I find that they are remembered as a collection of moments rather than as a whole film. CASABLANCA features many classic scenes that have been discussed, paid homage to and parodied throughout the years in films like WHAT’S UP, DOC?, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… and PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM, among others. Pop culture in general has referenced the classic ending line (“This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”), the evergreen song “As Time Goes By,” “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon…” not to forget “Of all the gin joints in all the world…” or “We’ll always have Paris.”
These are powerful, resonant parts of the film for sure. However, I have to ask: Does anyone remember the young bride who considers prostituting herself for a pair of passports? Or Yvonne, whose life is a cabaret, old chum, until her patriotism is reignited during the stirring “Battle of the Anthems” sequence? These characters, as important as they are to CASABLANCA, have somehow slipped from the radar of public awareness.
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CASABLANCA is one of the few films that can qualify as flawless (unless you count Ingrid Bergman entering the movie after 25 minutes a flaw, which I sometimes do). Someone who sees it for the first time now might not get why CASABLANCA has endured as a bona fide classic for 70 years.
And that’s because CASABLANCA didn’t really start out as a prestige picture. It was just another WWII film. An untested as romantic hero Humphrey Bogart was climbing his way from gangster B-movies to A-list star (THE MALTESE FACLON coming out just one year prior). Ingrid Bergman herself was established in Sweden and was just starting her glorious Hollywood career. Arguably, Claude Rains was the biggest star in the film after THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Paul Henreid hated playing second fiddle to Bogart and was forced to do the film against his will.
The script was adapted from an unproduced play (Everybody Comes to Rick’s) and had gone through four different writers. There are rumors that Bergman and Bogart wanted to get out of the movie because they didn’t see it being anything special. CASABLANCA actually won the Academy Award for Best Picture, though I don’t think the Academy knew it had a true American classic on its hands. The film did solid business at the box office. Reviews were positive but not glowing. CASABLANCA was set to be just another respected but unremarkable film.
And yet, CASABLANCA has stood the test of time, becoming one of the most beloved films of all time. And I think that’s because CASABLANCA has timelessness built into its very foundation. It’s about a group of people stuck in a foreign city, while war rages far away. The world is changing around them and yet they live their lives as normally as possible: drinking, gambling, singing, and shopping. The clock has stopped for the residents of Casablanca as they play out their little dramas. Even the song “As Time Goes By” is about timelessness.
For me, CASABLANCA is one of those films I can replay and get a new experience each time. CASABLANCA hasn’t changed. It’s still the same old story. But I’ve changed. I’ve loved and lost and learned. I’m reminded of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… when Sally and Harry are driving from Chicago to New York and discussing the ending. 22-year-old Sally contends that no woman (not even Ingrid Bergman) would ever give up the chance to fight Nazis with Victor Laszlo to stay with a man who just runs a bar. Towards the middle of the film, Sally claims she never said anything of the sort. It took real life experience to show Sally the real power of the CASABLANCA ending.
The film’s ending with the emphasis on romantic sacrifice for the greater good is one of those themes that touches your soul. It immortalizes Rick and Ilsa as tragic, noble romantic heroes. Of course, in real life, Ingrid Bergman did leave her husband to be with her lover, Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Humphrey Bogart, too, abandoned his wife for the much younger Lauren Bacall.
American cinema has many films that have stood the test of time: THE WIZARD OF OZ, PSYCHO, GONE WITH THE WIND, STAR WARS, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, etc. But CASABLANCA sits on an even higher level as a perfect example of Hollywood magic at its best. There are many ingredients that make a good movie. And all the fundamental things apply here, ensuring that CASABLANCA will live on as time goes by.