A little over 70 years ago, Allied troops had invaded and freed French North Africa from Nazi occupation. And aside from helping to turn the tide of the war, it proved to be something of a boon for Warner Bros. as the company had just completed a film called “Casablanca,” which was set among the resistance movement in the Moroccan city under German occupation. The film hadn’t been greenlit with high hopes and was generally seen as something of filler material, intended to cash in on the recent success of the now-mostly-forgotten “Algiers.”
But thanks to the link with current events, the film was rushed into release with screenings taking place in New York City 70 years ago today, on November 26th, 1942. By the time it landed in theaters the following January, it was a genuine hit, proving the seventh biggest film of 1943 and going on to be nominated for eight Oscars at the 1944 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Curtiz, and Best Screenplay, though stars Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains lost out and female lead Ingrid Bergman wasn’t even nominated (though she was for “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” which was shot just afterwards).
And of course, 70 years on, it’s regarded as an enduring classic, constantly placing high on lists of the greatest films ever made. And rightly so. Despite a troubled production (only half the script was complete when it began shooting), it’s virtually a perfect film — complex, funny, thrilling and swooningly, tragically romantic in its depiction of the love triange between seemingly apathetic bar owner Rick (Bogart), his lost love Ilsa (Bergman) and her French resistance hero husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Oft-imitated and parodied but never bettered, it feels as fresh today as when it was first shown seven decades ago, and as such, we wanted to mark the occasion by digging up five facts you might not know about the film. Read them below.
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1. No, President Reagan was never going to play Rick.
One of cinema’s most enduring urban legends is that Ronald Reagan was originally cast as Rick in the project. In fact, it was never true, but there is at least fair basis for the rumors. Reagan was named, along with Ann Sheridan (“Angels With Dirty Faces“) and Dennis Morgan (“River’s End“) in a studio press release as taking the lead roles in the project in early 1942. But in fact, none were actually involved. Reagan had been ruled out, having been called up to active army duty after Pearl Harbor but was seemingly mentioned by publicists along with Sheridan and Morgan in an attempt to keep their names out there. George Raft also famously turned the project down, but again, the truth of that is in doubt. The studio’s records suggest that Bogart had always been producer Hal Wallis‘ first choice for the part, though Jack Warner may have preferred Raft. There were other actors considered for other parts, though. Hedy Lamarr — who also starred in “Algiers” — was mentioned for the role of Ilsa, but MGM wouldn’t release her from her contract (Lamarr went on to play the role in a 1944 radio adaptation opposite Alan Ladd as Rick). French actress Michele Morgan (“Le Quaid des brumes“) did test for the part, but RKO wanted a whopping $55,000 to loan her to Warners, so the studio went for Bergman as David O. Selznick was asking half as much money for her, so long as Warners would lend him Olivia de Haviland in exchange. Meanwhile, Joseph Cotten was among the names considered to play Victor Laszlo before it was decided to go with the authentically European Paul Henreid, while Otto Preminger was the first choice to play Colonel Strasser, but again, he was under contract to Fox, who wouldn’t release him. Meanwhile, there was a brief thought of turning Sam into a female character, with Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald among the names suggested. Even director Michael Curtiz wasn’t the first choice; William Wyler was originally wanted by Wallis, but was unavailable. However, director Howard Hawks has a different story. He said in an interview that he was originally meant to direct “Casablanca,” with Curtiz on “Sergeant York,” but the pair had lunch, and decided they’d be better suited to each other’s projects. Hawks got his own chance at similar material a few years later with “To Have and Have Not.” Another legendary director was also involved, with future “Dirty Harry” helmer Don Siegel shooting second-unit on the picture.
2. Attempts were made to remove signature song “As Time Goes By” from the film.
It’s almost impossible to separate the film from its unofficial theme tune, “As Time Goes By” — it’s inextricably associated with the movie, giving its name to the 1998 novel sequel, and since “Casablanca” was released, playing before the logo on most Warner Bros. movies. But interestingly, there were some last-minute attempts to take it out of “Casablanca” altogether. The song had been penned back in 1931 by Herman Hupfeld for the Broadway musical “Everybody’s Welcome,” and was included in the stage play on which the film was based, “Everybody Comes To Rick’s.” It was shot by Curtiz as part of the movie, but when composer Max Steiner (“Gone with the Wind“) came on board, he asked to replace it with an original piece. He was given the thumbs up, but Ingrid Bergman had already moved on to her next film, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and had cut her hair short, and wasn’t able to reshoot the relevant scenes. In the end, Steiner based his score around the song, along with French national anthem “La Marseillaise.” The latter features in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, where Laszlo leads a rendition of it against Strasser singing a Nazi anthem. But in fact, the film doesn’t use the actual Nazi anthem — “Horst Wessel Lied” — which was still under copyright in many countries, with the filmmakers forced to use 19th century patriotic tune “Die Wacht am Rhein” instead.
3. Current events meant that the studio considered shooting a new ending to the film.
One of a slew of patriotic movies made in the early 1940s, “Casablanca” had originally been put into development in the immediate aftermath of the events of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. And the war in Europe cast a heavy shadow over the production. Conrad Veidt, who played Major Strasser (and who was, interestingly enough, the best paid actor in the cast) had fled Germany with his Jewish wife in 1933 after learning he was being hunted by the SS. However, Veidt insisted on being cast only as Nazi villains, believing it would help the war effort — while many extras in the film were bona-fide European emigres who shed real tears during the battle-of-the-anthems sequence. Events took a further turn on November 8, 1942 during Operation Torch, when Allied troops invaded French North Africa, with Casablanca itself being recaptured on November 10th. The news caused some hand-wringing at Warner Bros., with executives proposing that the film should be altered to reflect current affairs, with plans put in motion for a new scene featuring Rick and Captain Renault (Claude Rains) hearing of the invasion. Plans were held up due to Rains’ filming commitments elsewhere, and in the meantime, rival studio executive David O. Selznick screened the film and told Jack Warner he’d be mad to alter the ending and should release the film — which was scheduled to come out the following spring — as soon as possible to tie it to the invasion. Warner listened, and it premiered in New York on November 26th. Its general release, on January 23rd, 1943, turned out to coincide with a conference between FDR and Churchill in Casablanca, giving the film additional free publicity, helping to make it the seventh biggest grosser of the year.
4. A sequel never happened, but the film was the subject of two TV prequels.
With the movie proving successful, ideas started to be flirted with for a sequel, which would have been called “Brazzaville,” announced in early 1943, with Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet returning, and Geraldine Fitzgerald (“Wuthering Heights“) playing the new love interest, a Red Cross nurse. The film never came to pass, but “Casablanca” did live on, not least in the traditional radio drama adaptations. 1955 saw a ten-part TV prequel air as part of “Warner Bros. Presents” on ABC, with actor Charles McGraw (“The Killers,” “Spartacus“) playing Rick and Marcel Dalio, who’d played croupier Emil in the film, taking over the role of Captain Renault. Nearly thirty years later, another attempt was made at a prequel series, with “Starsky & Hutch” actor David Soul playing Rick, a young Ray Liotta as bartender Sascha, and Scatman Crothers as Sam. It lasted only five episodes on NBC, but you can watch some very brief footage below. The story has also moved to other mediums; co-writer Julius Epstein attempted, unsuccessfully, to mount a stage musical version in the 1950s and 1960s, while the original play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” received a short-lived run in London’s West End in 1992 starring soap star (and convicted murderer) Leslie Grantham. And there’ve been some literary follow-ups too: 1998 saw the publication of “As Time Goes By,” a Warners-approved sequel by crime reporter and Time music critic Michael Walsh, which fills in Rick’s past as a New York gangster, as well as reuniting him with Ilsa for a plot to kill Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. It was, unsurprisingly, poorly received. Film critic David Thompson also filled in some blanks in his novel “Suspects,” which reveals that Ilsa became the PA to U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. We may not be out of the woods with a movie sequel yet, however. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Cass Warner, Jack Warner‘s granddaughter, had uncovered a treatment by original co-writer Howard Koch, written in the 1980s named “Return to Casablanca,” revolving around Richard, the illegitimate son of Rick and Ilsa, in the Casablanca of the 1960s, and it sounds, frankly, horrible. Nevertheless, Cass is hoping to package the project, with Warner Bros. indicating that with the right director and star on board, they might consider developing the film.
5. In the 1980s, a journalist submitted “Casablanca” to agencies under a new title. Less than half recognized it, and even fewer were interested in it.
In one of the better known journalistic experiments in Hollywood history, in 1982 Film Comment writer Chuck Ross had an idea to see how capable Hollywood types were at spotting a work of greatness. He put a new cover on the “Casablanca” script with the title of the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” changed the name of Sam, and submitted it to 217 Hollywood agencies. Of the 85 that read it, only 33 recognized it as “Casablanca.” Four offered to represent Ross, with one commenting “it would be good for TV.” Most of the rest turned it down with notes that included “I think the dialgoue could have been sharper and the plot had a tendency to ramble” and “Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, the story line was weak, and in general didn’t hold my interest.” Depressing stuff, and as Ross wrote recently, “My guess is that even fewer agents would recognize it today… there is little doubt that it would be tough to get it represented, let alone made.”