There are many people without whom Casablanca might not have come to the screen: Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, whose unproduced play Everybody Comes To Rick’s was the basis for the movie, Warner Bros. story analyst Stephen Karnot who picked it out of his pile and Hal Wallis, Head of Production, who gave it the green light (to name but a few). However, not many people would think about the part played by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in the film’s genesis.
It was Yamamoto who gave the order for the attack on Pearl Harbour on Dec 7th 1941 by which point a synopsis of the film by Karnot had been sitting waiting for attention for nearly a month. By the end of December the potential for this tale of a cynical and deliberately isolated American finally joining the fight, a perfect analogy for the sleeping giant now awoken, had been spotted and the ball began to roll.
That’s not to say Hollywood had avoided the gathering storm. Unlike the rest of the American media which was staunchly isolationist, the major studios, most of them run by Jewish émigrés, had produced pro-British and antifascist work in the previous few years often at the cost of run-ins with censors and their own boards, but now they were seeking stories that could feed into the feeling of patriotism and righteous anger in the US as well as help the country understand that their fight didn’t stop with the Japanese.
The film, contrary to some of the myths about it, was immediately popular with the public catching the mood and winning people over with Humphrey Bogart’s shop-soiled white knight finding his purpose again and its mix of witty, quotable dialogue, bittersweet love story and beautifully lit shots. Apart from making money for the studio and underpinning Bogie’s persona as brooding antihero it also achieved its propaganda role building a level of pro-French sentiment in America which is hard to conceive now.
Seventy years on and America’s Francophilia might have faded but their and the world’s love of Casablanca has never been stronger. But why? Why does this film top more 100 best lists than Citizen Kane and why has it filtered so far into the cultural consciousness so that anyone who’s ever owned a raincoat has probably looked into the mirror and said “here’s lookin’ at you kid”?
The answer lies in the fact that unlike Kane, which is rich, complex and interesting but ultimately an intellectual exercise in cinema-watching, Casablanca goes straight for the emotions and uses the classic mythic tropes of heroes, friendship and sacrifice which as George Lucas would tell you is always a winner.
Ultimately of course, as William Goldman famously said, “In Hollywood nobody knows anything” so Casablanca’s success is as much down to a fortunate conjunction of the stars as anything else. If Bogart, Bergman or Rains hadn’t been cast, if the studio had made all the changes the Production Code had demanded or if there hadn’t been the last minute inclusion of the now immortal final line, would people still be talking about this movie seven decades on? Would the film even have been made without a demand for wartime propaganda? We’ll never know but lovers of cinema, storytelling and style should be grateful that however America concluded WWII, it began its fightback with this weapon of mass seduction.