There is no more enduring cosmic lucky accident in picture history than the 1943 Warner Bros. classic World War II romantic foreign adventure, Casablanca (available on DVD). “Most of the good things in pictures,” John Ford said, “happened by accident.” When he told me this, rather offhandedly, he was in his seventies and had directed nearly 140 films while I had directed one, and was more than a little surprised by his comment. Ford was Orson Welles’ favorite American director and when I repeated the old man’s remark to Welles, his eyes brightened as he confirmed the statement with an inspired, “Yes!” He paused and then added, excitedly, “You could almost say a director is a man who presides over accidents!” Now, after doing a score of other films, I’ve found that these are two key words-of-wisdom and have amazingly complex layers of meaning, the more pictures you make. Ford, who was always terse in his remarks, even elaborated once: “Sometimes you have good luck on pictures; most of the time you have bad luck.” And luck, ultimately for the Greeks, came from the Fates who, as we know, are either with us or they’re not. When you are making a movie, you feel part of a larger, unstoppable adventure, over which you only have so much control, and the rest is, as Jeff Bridges succinctly puts it: “The hand you get dealt.”
It stands also as the single favorite vindication of the Hollywood studio system, circa 1912-1962, because there is no other way Casablanca could have been made and worked as well. Yet if you remove any single element, the whole thing falls apart. Just imagine someone other than Humphrey Bogart as Rick——say, George Raft, who turned down the role. Raft was a much bigger Warner Bros. star at the moment and had far more leverage with studios on choice of material. Bogart was assigned the picture and had no way out of doing it, even though the script was not in good shape when filming began, and there were constant revisions coming in throughout shooting. This can have on actors the positive effect of freshness, no one having time to over prepare. But it can also make them anxious and unhappy. Now subtract Ingrid Bergman, who had to be borrowed from David Selznick, which means the role could have more easily gone instead to a contract player like Bette Davis or Ida Lupino.
When they asked Bogart how come he had never been so romantic in a movie before——Casablanca was the film that made Bogart an A-list leading man——he responded very wisely, “If you have someone who looks like Ingrid Bergman looking at you as though you’re adorable, you are.” Bogart was referring, at least in part, to Bergman’s first close-up, upon getting Sam to pay “As Time Goes By”; it must be the longest-held closeup in pictures–it goes on and on–of her at her most gorgeous, looking off with troubled adoration of Bogie.
Imagine Howard Hawks directing–he was offered the script before contract veteran Michael Curtiz; Hawks used to refer to Casablanca as “that musical,” mentioning the scene at Rick’s nightclub where everyone stands and sings along during the playing of France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” in a face-off with a bunch of Nazis. “I couldn’t do stuff like that,” Hawks said. But Curtiz who, because he had no discernible artistic personality, had no compunctions about doing whatever the script called for, and generally with considerable dispatch. As the studio system fell apart, so did Curtiz’ career. Hawks would have done his own version of A Night at Rick’s, the script’s original title, but it wouldn’t have been the Casablanca we know and love. It would have been To Have and Have Not, which Hawks made with Bogart a couple of years later and which some of us know and love even more than Casablanca. Another lucky force in the directing area was the impact of the estimable Don Siegel’s second-unit, montage and insert work on the picture; this was his department at Warner Bros. from the early ‘30s to the mid-‘40s, and had a great deal to do with the general verve and vitality of Warner’s major pictures in those years.
Then there’s all those extraordinary supporting actors, each under exclusive Warner Bros. contracts: Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, S.K. (“Cuddles”) Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet, Marcel Dalio, plus an attractive and likeable second lead, Paul Henreid. An international cast——English, French, German, Hungarian, Russian, Swedish——a Hungarian director, a North African setting created entirely on the American back lot. The recipe is intriguing, add the “coincidence” of the real Casablanca becoming the rendezvous for that highest level World War II conference of the Allies just before the release of the film, and you realize this was a movie greater than the sum of its parts. The selfless message–that “The lives of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans” compared to the enormous struggle against oppression then raging around the world–needed to get out there, and clearly the Fates were around to help that happen.