“Casablanca” won three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch), and is listed as the 2nd Greatest Film in the AFI List
Most of the time when chaos reigns during a film's production, the results are serious compromises that often dilute a project's original power to a tepid film, with little chance of achieving immortality. Like Gone With The Wind (1939), Casablanca went through various cast selections, constant re-writes during shooting, and cast members often wondering where the film was going when the ending hadn't been chosen. The composer hated the theme song, the Breen Office wanted all the sex from the original play removed for the safety of kiddies and prudes, and the progress of World War II could make the film's topicality outdated.
Even with a script written daily and no ending inked until the actually shooting day, Casablanca became a blockbuster, partly because of timing – Americans had just landed in Africa close to when the film was being released – and the film’s unstable elements which somehow settled into a perfect film. Part WWII propaganda effort, drama, and war film, Casablanca is also one of the best-cut movies, zipping along at breakneck speed without losing coherence and sacrificing character development. It’s efficient, slick, and ultimately gripping because the troubles of its central characters – bar owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart), ex-lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and concentration camp escapee Victor (Paul Henreid) – are mirrored in varying degrees by other stranded immigrants, either living in hiding or under some wry, delusional bliss; or desperate to escape to America – land of absolute freedom.
As a propaganda film, ideology isn’t screeching across the screen; the Nazis, like any gang of crooks, want their man, while the local law survives by being conveniently corrupt, and locked to no specific moral compass. The key scene where an ideological conflict is center-stage occurs not as some rant, but between dueling national anthems – Nazi voices being smothered by tear-streaked French ex-pats and sympathizers in a deeply affecting scene.
The impossible romance between Rick & Ilsa is also the film’s most potent weapon against again, and it’s remarkable how well scenes, dialogue, and costumes still affect in spite of the myriad parodies and imitations that followed in subsequent decades. The filmmakers allowed for several little visual gestures which ensured Ilsa and the men she both loves remain sympathetic, of which the most vital is a simple, lengthy close-up where Isla looks in awe at Victor during the dueling anthem scene, telling the audience with one reaction how much she admires a man in spite of the danger that can claim her own life.
The Home Video Extras
For the record, the most significant home video editions are the 1989 Criterion laserdisc; 1992 50th Anniversary laserdisc from WHV; the 2002 60th Anniversary 2-disc DVD; 2006 HD-DVD edition (replicating the contents of the 2002 SE); 2008 Ultimate Collector’s Edition on BR (sporting the 2006 HD transfer); and the 2012 3-disc 70th Anniversary edition.
The new boxed set actually includes a new 4K transfer and ‘fixes’ some of the visual flaws in the 2006 / 2008 releases which irked ardent fans and videophiles. It’s a first-rate transfer that also comes with even more extras than prior releases.
The danger with such a monster set lies in the duplication of facts, and while critic Roger Ebert and Rudy Behlmer repeat material, they also fill in spots the other left out, and sometimes contradict each other. Ebert's views are accessible, often personable, and very enjoyable; it's only towards the end that gaps form, and he’s clearly done with production anecdotes, and focuses on the film's technical prowess.
Historian and noted author Behlmer has expanded and adapted his chapter from “Behind the Scenes;” where Ebert adds enjoyable portraits of cast, crew, and executive characters, Behlmer digs out mouthfuls of quotations from vintage memos and documents for added authenticity.
A more intimate portrait of the leading cast – Bogart and Bergman – are given by Stephen Bogart and Pia Linstrom in the brief 1992 featurette, “The Children Remember.” Lauren Bacall provides a more engaging portrait in a feature-length documentary, “Bacall on Bogart,” produced in 1988 for PBS. Using many fascinating vintage movie clips, stills, and color home movies, we're treated to a really moving portrait of an actor who struggled to achieve greater creative freedom after years of gangster roles, and death scenes in the final reel.
Ported over and upgraded from the 1992 laserdisc release is the documentary “You Must Remember This,” which is unique in containing lengthy interviews with screenwriters Julius Epstein and Howard Koch, playwright Murray Burnett, surviving crew members from the production, and Henry Mancini on Max Steiner's stirring score.
Deleted scenes and outtakes briefly glimpsed in the documentary are collected in separate galleries. No sound exists for the deleted footage of an unused jail scene and a Nazi's barroom death, so subtitles have been adapted from the original screenplay.
In the audio department, the 2012 set also includes the 8 bonus audio cuts (score outtakes and song demos) from the 2003 set. Whereas the Criterion laserdisc included excerpts from Lux Radio version of Casablanca starring Hedy Lamarr and Alan Ladd, the 2012 BR carries over the 1943 Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio adaptation where all three stars – Bogart, Bergman, and Henried – reprised their roles. New is a second radio show, Vox Pop, from 1947, where the show’s ‘on the road’ cast & crew visit the Warner Bros. lot and interview various studio ‘personnel.’ Amazingly, the piece includes interview segments with director Michael Curtiz, who’s also been given a great documentary for the 2012 set.
Titled “Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of,” director Gary Leva interviews contemporary luminaries – Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, and countless others – to essentially bring attention to one of Warner’s most prolific filmmakers, and a man responsible for many of the studio’s greatest films, be they comedies, musicals, noir, or swashbucklers. It’s a doc that’s long overdue, and you can tell each of the participants were eager to voice their admiration for a director whose films many have seen, but whose name is often forgotten because he traversed into so many genres.
Leva also edited additional interview material into another making-of doc - "Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic" – which more or less repeats already covered material, albeit recapped and filtered through a slightly different group of historians and professionals.
Lastly, Disc 1 includes another installment of “Warner Night at the Movies,” featuring trailers, a wartime newsreel, and 4 cartoons (of which “Carrotblanca” was ported over from the 2003 release), plus extracts from the 1956 premiere episode of Casablanca, a short-lived ABC drama that was part of “Warner Brothers Presents,” which aired every third week. Originally a one hour drama, the 16 minutes of edited scenes illustrate how impossible it is to recapture the magic of the Bogart-Bergman classic, and why Casablanca is so much the rare exception of beauty, created from the chaos of brilliant creative minds under pressure. (NBC apparently didn’t know better, and attempted their own series in 1983, starring David Soul. The show was axed after only 7 episodes.)
WHV’s set is exhaustive and will please completists, but there’s a lot of duplication which seems to be geared towards different levels of fans: the newbies, unwilling to re-watch the film with commentaries or the feature-length doc; the mid-level fan preferring to select the information medium that suits their time and specific interests; and the uber-fan, who will undoubtedly gobble up the lot.
A more unintentional area of duplication lies within the bonus docs on Disc 2 – each of which are available separately. They’re excellent bonus materials, but at least if one’s contemplating a single sitting, there might be some shuttling going on, because Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul (1993) contains footage and early Warner family facts repeated in The Brothers Warner [M] (2008), and that material is recapped yet again in Richard Schickel’s lengthy You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story (1997). Schickel’s early docs from the seventies were profiles of filmmakers, and some of those rare interviews are interpolated in his otherwise basic overview. Like The Eastwood Factor [M] (2010), it’s tied to a glossy coffee table book, but at almost 5 hours mins it might prove a bit too taxing. A better resource is Clive Hirshhorn’s 1987 book The Warner Bros. Story.
Yes, the packaging is nice and it’s a beautiful boxed set, but this may finally be the final word on Casablanca, if not the definitive edition, unless 10K transfers become the standard in 2022, when the film hits its 80th anniversary. The 2008 set contains slightly different swag, and the old Criterion laserdisc contained a few unique extras – Hal Wallis’ production notes, the Lux Radio excerpts, and wartime footage of the city of Casablanca – but those differences are largely negligible (although it would be intriguing to hear Ron Haver’s Criterion commentary. Pity Criterion doesn’t make their unused commentaries available online, since they’re just breeding dust). The main bits of ephemera collectors might be wanting are the Production Research Stills from the 2003 DVD (boasting 94 memos and stills), but some of the material are reproduced within the 2012's 62-page book (which itself is different from the book included in the 2008 set).
Those wanting more Casablanca ephemera can read the script (published in 1995), and the lengthy tome The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II by Aljean Harmetz, originally published in 1992 as Round Up the Usual Suspects, The Making of Casablanca.
© 2003, revised 2012 Mark R. Hasan