Seventy years ago this Monday, November 26, 1942, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. On that date, the movie Casablanca was released to the American public by Warner Brothers studios. Since its remarkably profitable and timely opening, Casablanca has become one of history’s most watched, studied and beloved films.
At the time of its debut, it was largely regarded as just one more war movie. As film historian Aljean Harmetz notes: “Like most of the other movies made under the studio system, Casablanca was an accumulation of accidents. Seven writers worked on the script; the cinematographer and film editor were men who happened to be available the week the movie started production; the movie’s famous last line was written weeks after the shooting had finished.”
Made for approximately $950,000, it took in a notable $3.7 million on its initial release. The film won the 1943 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
Casablanca was both a product of its time and a timeless product. Released a scant year into World War II, it was one among nearly 500 films appearing between 1942 and 1945 with a wartime theme. Part love story, part propaganda, it was crafted to strengthen support for the Allies and, particularly, America’s involvement in the war.
In the seven decades since, it has hardly lost momentum. In 1989, Casablanca became one of the first 25 films named to the National Film Registry. In the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the 100 best movies of the century, Casablanca ranked second; only Citizen Kane received more votes. The British Film Institute, in its 50th anniversary poll of its members, rated it the best film of all time. In 1999, Humphrey Bogart took the top male spot on the AFI’s list of the 50 greatest screen legends.
The film has made an indelible mark on popular culture. The ubiquity of movie-related merchandise, Rick’s Café American imitators and persistent showings certainly validate the film’s staying power. Even so its impact is perhaps best seen in the freely summoned dialog quotes. “Of all the gin joins in all the towns all over the world, she walks into mine… I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue… Was that cannon fire or was that my heart pounding… If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life… Here’s looking at you, kid… Round up the usual suspects — and of course — We’ll always have Paris.”
Then there’s the line that everybody knows was not said, “Play it again, Sam.” Properly quoted, Bogart’s Rick says, “If she can stand it. I can. Play it!”
Such a monumental accomplishment invariably begets sequels, successors and pretenders to its throne. Mercifully, the public has seen most of these for what they are: frail attempts to capture lightening in a bottle. It is a gem so rare that there can be no credible follow up.
Even so, there have been myriad recreations, retellings and reimagining… In 1988, Ted Turner’s TBS production company colorized the film. To this blasphemy, Stephen Bogart, Humphrey Bogart’s son, remarked, “If you’re going to colorize Casablanca, why not put arms on the Venus de Milo?”
To date, Casablanca is still one of the most often aired films on television. It’s available for purchase in almost any media format one could want. While it is a human creation, and by that fact imperfect, it rises to an artistic height that few will ever attain.
In the struggle for a meaningful Christmas gift, find that young person you know, who’s never seen this masterpiece and slide a DVD into their stocking. You’ll be giving them more than 102 beautiful black and white minutes. You’ll be giving them the essence of timeless beauty.