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“I stick my neck out for nobody.”
– Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine
With this past Saturday marking 80 years since the theater release of the classic Hollywood film Casablanca, finding something new to praise, analyze, or critique about it feels like a fool’s errand. The story, with its themes of love and sacrifice, is consistently hailed as one of best of the classic Hollywood romances. The movie has served as an inspirational catalyst for countless melodramas following the formula made and perfected by director Michael Curtiz, writer Howard Koch, and twin scribes Julius and Philip Epstein. As such, this movie is held as a seminal part of early era Hollywood. Winning the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay and receiving five nominations at the 1944 Oscars, it’s clear the film was appreciated not just for its political content (at the height of World War II, no less) but also for the elegance and beauty of its acting, score and cinematography.
The film was an adaption of the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, written by Murray Burnett in 1938 after a brief visit to Vienna. Witnessing the growing anti-semitism in the city, Burnett was inspired to shine a light on the treatment of Jewish people in Europe for a wider audience to understand and work to combat. The idea of adapting the play into a film came one day after Pearl Harbor, giving an added urgency to Burnett’s story. With Casablanca situated in this fraught wartime context, there were major censorship rules on entertainment and media that producers had to contend with: indeed, many movies in this era followed a close trend of American exceptionalism with a glare of patriotic tonality. Fortunately, the film got approval from the federal Office of War Information, who likely recognized the propaganda value of the production at a time when many were still unsure if the Allies would win the war. At heart, the movie is a love story about sacrificing one’s desires and self-interests for a greater purpose. However, it also served as a dramatic outlet for viewers’ growing fear of fascism and Nazism, emphasizing that Americans and people from the other Allied powers needed to stick together against this common threat. In a twist of fate, General Patton and the U.S. Army captured the real, historical Casablanca two weeks after the official release of the film on November 26, 1942, giving the film even more salience.
Much of Casablanca’s enduring appeal comes not just from its narrative but its aesthetic sensibility as well. The mise-en-scene includes the timid soft focus lens adding a glare of blurred lines, creating a romantic and highly emotional space as our story of love against the backdrop of war and the libatious unfolds. As we explore the lost love of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, we also explore Rick’s alternately vibrant and lonely bar in the seedy heart of Nazi-occupied Casablanca, where Ilsa hopes to obtain letters of transit that will allow her and her freedom fighter husband to escape the country. In this melodramatic world created by Curtiz and populated by Max Steiner’s stirring score, you can’t help but fall in love with the romance, the suspense and the climax leaving so many crying tears of renewed hope yet a large sense of opportunistic loss.
As we travel from the 1940s to the second decade of the new millennium, the influence Casablanca exerts on film across the globe remains monumental, from a Hindi adaptation by Anand Sagar titled Armaan to a cyberpunk post-apocalyptic remake with Pamela Anderson called Barb Wire. In 2018, an all transgender and female cast was created by Elliot Page for a one time live reading of this classic tale, with voices such as Indya Moore playing Carl and Kiersey Clemons as Ingrid. In this reworked exploration of Casablanca through a sapphic, queer angle, they were able to articulate the growing differences and changes that have occurred over the last 80 years. All the benefits from the show in 2018 went to the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice following the performance. As we still grow, change, and adapt, our passion for past media and moments are to be respected in their original form. At the same time though, there should be an understanding that our new media – like our larger culture – will grow in ways that are different not just from the original source material but from the mindsets that produced them
“Maybe there are better films than Casablanca,
but there are probably none better loved.”
– Paul Whitington