Casablanca: The Movie that May never Have Been

By: Nick Lehner 
-October 23, 2019- 1:30 am EDT-

Casablanca is one of the most highly regarded films in history, and yet despite its legendary status the mega classic almost never came to fruition on the silver screen. How was Casablanca conceived, and produced though, and what backstage problems almost derailed the project? Breaking down the journey of the Golden Age masterpiece reveals more than you'd imagine! In the 1940's Hollywood was cranking out hundreds of generic war films, and Casablanca was hardly viewed any different from the countless others surrounding it. Originally a play titled 'Everybody comes to Rick's', it  was written in 1940 by two relatively unknown writers in Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, and went un-produced until early 1942 when Warner Brothers came along and bought the rights to the play. Paying $20,000 ($360,000 in 2018 currency) Warner Brothers wasted no time and immediately rushed it into production. Casablanca's journey began shortly after with an unfinished script and an unknown ending.   

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How do you describe a movie like Casablanca? Claude Rains character, Captain Renault, does so perfectly when asked in Ricks's night club about the man himself, "Why mademoiselle you're in Rick's! And Rick? Well, he's the kind of man that if I were a woman, and I were not around, why I should be in love with Rick!" The film is the dramatic story of a failed romance and the man who had to live with those scars. Humphrey Bogart's Rick delivered a cynicism wrought with pain and loneliness, and who but his ex lover, Ilsa Lund (played by Ingrid Burgman) enters back into his world years later with another man in tow. That man is then revealed to be her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) an important leader of the Nazi resistance, a fact not lost on the Reich's gestapo in the city. A game is afoot; a wanted man and his wife, a Captain of uncertain allegiance, and Rick. Rick, the only person who can help said couple escape the desert city of Casablanca. The only person with a way out, but can he see through the pain, can he understand the assumed betrayal? The film could be described as a slew of complex and intriguing characters delivering a perfect combination of dramatic tension and dry humor. It's no wonder the film went on to be what it was!      

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For all it was however, the film would never have amounted to a hill of beans without its all-star cast. Humphrey Bogart had primarily stared in gangster movies prior to Casablanca, this would be his debut as lead in a drama romance. A role Bogart was said to have begrudged, and reportedly he was not alone, both Bergman and Henreid, also expressed their unhappiness with being cast for the film when production began (actors had different contract rights then than now). The films unfinished script played a large roll in the stars narcissism. Paul Henreid also felt his acting career would be damaged taking a backseat role such as Victor Laszlo. Despite all that the actors ultimately stayed on board and with a team of writers working tirelessly the movie made its way towards the finish line, but what of the ending? When filming began Ingrid Burgman famously asked movie director Michael Curtiz which man her character should be in love with; the script being unfinished, and Curtiz not knowing himself, he replied, "Play it in between".

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The ending of Casablanca remained an issue throughout filming. Apparently the writers behind the film could not decide on how to finish it. The originial play had Rick being arrested for shooting the gestapo officer at the end of the film. However not getting the girl, as well as being thrown in jail, seemed to dark an ending for Rick. Script writers initially planned to film two endings to solve the issue; one with Ilsa and Rick staying together, and one with Ilsa leaving with Laszlo. In the end that plan proved unnecesary, the scene that appears in the film was the only one shot. After seeing it Curtiz and his writers agreed it was the only way the film could end. That scene did have some shortcomings despite all that, have you ever wondered why all that fog is in the finale? The studio shot the final scene with minimal props and a cardboard cut out of a plane in the backdrop. To make the plane look to scale they had dwarfs stand around it to make the cut out look to scale and then used the fog to obscure the sound stage. Imperfect perfection, what other way to finish Rick's story?   

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Being based in Morrocco, Casablanca was rushed into theaters mere days after the allies invaded occupied Africa for the publicity, and despite its hiccups in production, released to a positive reception on November 26, 1942. After that? The 'one out of a hundred' film became the golden standard winning an academy award for Best picture in 1944, as well as best director, and ironically enough best writing adapted screenplay. The film launched stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman onto great success and became the movie they would be eternally known for. It's ironic, Casablanca is a tale of beating the odds and unlikely allies, much like the films production itself. A gangster movie star turned romance, an unfinished script, and a wild card ending. In the words of Humphrey Bogart's Rick, "Does it have a wild finish?". The answer? A resounding yes.

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