This Day in Jewish History

1942: 'Casablanca' Premieres as Allies Land in Africa

Central Casting couldn't have created the kind of verisimilitude the actual refugees exhibited in this Hollywood blockbuster.

AP

On November 26, 1942, the film "Casablanca" had its world premiere at the Hollywood Theater in New York. Although the film went into general release on January 23, 1943 and contended for that year’s Academy Awards, Warner Brothers moved up its initial release to coincide with the Allied landings in North Africa in early November 1942.

"Casablanca" is not an overtly Jewish film and none of the principal characters in it are apparently Jewish, yet most of the individuals behind the camera, as well as many of the actors playing supporting parts, were. What’s more, the film is infused with the dread and desperation felt by refugees and freedom fighters attempting to escape the Third Reich’s net.

The movie’s producer was Hal Wallis (born Aaron Blum Wolowicz), and its director the Jewish, Hungarian-born émigré Michael Curtiz. The Oscar-winning screenplay was written by the twin brothers Philip and Julius Epstein and Howard Koch, and the music by the Viennese-born Max Steiner.

Even the second-unit director, who created the film’s opening montage, with images of wartime Paris and a map of the path taken by refugees to Morocco, was Jewish – Don Siegel, best known for directing the “Dirty Harry” movies starring Clint Eastwood.

Casablanca: I'm waiting for a lady. YouTube

Personnel more authentic than location

If “Casablanca” has an authenticity to it, it’s most likely due to the large number of refugee actors in the cast, rather than, say, to the shooting location, which was almost entirely the Warner Bros studios in Burbank, California.

Many of the supporting and bit parts in the film were played by actors, many of them Jews, who had only recently fled from Europe, and who didn’t have to fake their accents. In addition to the obvious Peter Lorre (Senor Ugarte), they included S. Z. Sakall (Carl the waiter), Ludwig Stoessel (Mr. Leuchtag), Leonid Kinskey (Sascha the bartender), Marcel Dalio (Emil the croupier), and Curt Bois, playing a pickpocket.

As Aljean Harmetz wrote in her 1992 book, “The Making of Casablanca,” “a dozen good actors, cast adrift, brought to a dozen small roles in 'Casablanca' an understanding and a desperation that could never have come from Central Casting.”

The original inspiration for the play that formed the movie’s basis, however, was a nightclub in Juan-les-Pins, a town on the French Riviera that Murray Burnett visited in 1938 on his way back to the United States, after traveling to occupied Vienna to try and help relatives of his wife smuggle money out of Austria before departing themselves. The nightclub, called La Belle Aurore, had a black piano player and a clientele that included Germans, French and refugees from Hitler’s Europe.

That scene served as the germ for Burnett (1910-1997) to write, with Joan Alison, the 1940 stage drama “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” about a hard-boiled American expat who runs a bar in Morocco, and who demonstrates his nobility when he helps the woman he loves escape to freedom with her husband, a member of the Czech underground.

Hot property

When Burnett failed to interest Broadway, he and Alison sold the script to Warner Bros. for $20,000. At the time, it was the highest fee ever paid by a studio for rights to a work.

Although the screenwriters -- the Epsteins, Koch and the uncredited Casey Robinson – altered much of the original play, and added some of “Casablanca’s” most memorable lines, the author of rickontheater.blogspot.com writes that Alison estimated that 70 percent of her and Burnett’s script ended up in the movie, including the lines “Play it, Sam,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world....” It was also Burnett who placed “As Time Goes By,” the 1931 song by Herman Hupfeld, at the emotional center of the story.

Though Warners considered “Casablanca” an “A” film, the studio did not anticipate winning three Oscars, including Best Picture, and certainly no one foresaw that it would be become one of the most loved American films of all time. “Casablanca’s” blend of cynicism and romance, hard-boiled toughness and selfless nobility, allows American audiences to see a portrait of themselves as they imagine themselves to be.