Casablanca (1943): Curtiz’s Cult Oscar Winner, Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman

“Casablanca,” which features Bogart’s most iconic performance, has become a seminal Hollywood picture for various reasons.  The film is at once a typical 1940s romance (including its tragic idealism), and at the same time a mysteriously and magically eternal moment in Hollywood’s history.

The film strikes right at the heart of American myths we continue to carry as our cultural heritage. A solid piece of our cultural heritage, “Casablanca” is the most popular Warner movie ever, a decisive film of the early 1940s, when it was made, and a companionable feature with almost universal appeal.

Like other cult films, there is perhaps something unexplainable about the film’s enduring appeal. The tension between Casablanca’s cult status and its generic ingredients has perplexed critics and scholars for years.  Here is a film whose individual parts are more enjoyable than the whole.

The noted Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that, “Casablanca was “the happiest of happy accidents…”  And in the famous essay, semiologist Umberto Eco noted, “Casablanca is a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly; its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannerist way. Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for the future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research in textual strategies.” For Eco, “Casablanca” is not one movie, but many movies or the movies themselves, since it uses to an advantage all the conventions of the classical Hollywood narrative.

The film simultaneously contains a cynical, ahead of its time political outlook, and also warm and nostalgic sentimentality. “Casablanca” seems to display the best of both worlds: It’s a film made up of dualities and ambiguities, which Robert Ray, among others, chronicled in his scholarly study, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema.

At a crucial moment in American history, “Casablanca” impacted our perception of intervention in WWII, and of intervention in foreign affairs in general. “Casablanca” helped start a trend that would continue in such events as the Gulf War and the Iraq War, where America intervenes in difficult and complicated political situations. No longer could America stand idly by and permit undemocratic evil to overtake the earth. This was one of the “messages of “Casablanca” in 1942, after America was to become the reticent guardian of the whole world.

The zeitgeist in America at that time was centered on the idea of personal commitment. In a political sense, this feeling corresponded to America’s commitment to the global political scene. “Casablanca” tapped into the mood of the times when released, because the film was about the making of personal commitments as the entrance of politics into individual lives occurred. In 1942-1943, Americans were toying with the same issues of personal commitment about the War that the characters in Casablanca confront.

One of Humphrey Bogart’s famous lines in the film, “I bet they’re asleep in New York–I bet they’re asleep all over America,” received a lot of attention. “Casablanca” served an important function in waking up Americans, not just to the advantages of international intervention at that time but also to an entire new era in which, as Robert B. Ray notes, intervention would become the accepted norm.

Due to Casablanca’s timely embrace of the War issues, the film achieved victory in its own turf: the Oscar contest. Out of its eight nominations, Casablanca won best picture (one of the main competitors was “The More the Merrier”), best screenplay and best director.

This is evidence of how expertly the film played off of the times and was also instrumental in transforming the time. Bogart lost out to Paul Lukas’s performance in “Watch on the Rhine” for the Best Actor award, but it’s now Bogart’s performance that’s remembered.

In 1977, when the American Film Institute asked its members to select the ten best American films of all time, Casablanca finished third behind Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane.

“Casablanca” created a new kind of hero, in Bogart’s influential role. Bogart’s Rick was Hollywood’s first rebel hero. He comes from outside the normal world, and he is a liberating figure. This role is the most innovative thing about Casablanca. Rick became one of the most-beloved heroes in film history, because he was the first of his kind and did it so well. Rick was not only the prototype for a new kind of Hollywood hero, but also the prototype for a new kind of American.

But as a character, Rick remains an enigma. Rick is nothing and everything–another of the film’s dualities. He is the classic ambiguous hero. The dichotomy of toughness and tenderness, political commitment and selfishness, is so extreme in Rick that we are left with no clues as to who “the real” Rick, as if there is such a real persona.

In the narrative, Rick has grown tired of smuggling and carousing and is now happy enough to more or less retire. As Rick says with jadedness, “I stick my neck out for nobody. I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” But thanks to Ingrid Bergman’s miraculous reappearance in his life, Rick rediscovers the romantic ideals of his youth.

The combination of the Bogart and Bergman’s performances in “Casablanca” represents a height of onscreen chemistry. Ingrid Bergman helped create the film’s mystique. Originally Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan and Dennis Morgan were signed on to play the respective Bergman, Bogart and Henreid roles!

Although the film is as racist, sexist, and patriotic as almost any film of the 1940s, “Casablanca” was nevertheless embraced by college students in the 1960s as a dear expression of their nonconformity. Its message to the youth of the 1960s was that there was a secret stamp of approval for rebelliousness, hidden somewhere in American history.

As the prototypical cult film, “Casablanca” might have been the first work with a devoted audience that learned every line of dialogue, and eagerly awaited each plot twist like an old friend. For the first time, audiences applauded the first appearance of each performer on the screen as in the live theater. Many cult films have since been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, but Casablanca was first. Certain scenes, such as the lovers’ airport parting, were singled out for cult adulation.

The film’s lingo became a part of American language, now having a permanent influence; many of the film’s lines still garner huge applause from live audiences. The toughness combined with sentimentality that is the crux of Casablanca’s many great lines, even today informs the oratories of many top American politicians, including recent presidents.

The most famous line, “Play it again, Sam,” represents a microcosm of what “Casablanca” is all about, a meeting point between America’s search for machismo and America’s “kinder, gentler” softness which always looks fondly to the past.

And Bogart’s final appeal to Ingrid Bergman, “We’ll always have Paris. The problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” These are sentimental, even kitschy words, yet delivered with the stiffest of upper lips. The song “As Time Goes By” also achieved a special place in American culture. The longevity of the film’s popularity owes quite a bit to the film’s memorably cool dialogue. Woody Allen’s “Play it again, Sam,” which uses the “Casablanca” line as its title and repeats the movie’s famous-notorious airport finale, is one such example.

Many viewers single out the nearly spontaneous singing of patriotic songs (“La Marseillaise”) at Rick’s café, failing to remember that Casablanca borrowed this element from Jean Renoir’s 1937 anti-War La Grande Illusion.