One of the most important props from the most romantic movie ever made and one of the most famous musical instrument in movie history.
Can I tell you a story, Rick?
The Making of Casablanca
In many ways, the making of Casablanca is a story as intricate and intriguing as the movie itself, a story made up of small miracles and inevitable accidents but a story very much characteristic of the movie behemoth Warner Bros. and its competitors during the Golden Age of studio production. The legend that Casablanca was a resounding success despite itself is now woven into the fabric of Hollywood. The writers were still changing the script weeks after filming began. None of the actors knew if Ingrid Bergman was supposed to love Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid. The entire production was lucky and haphazard and cut-rate, one of the least expensive films produced at Warner Bros. that summer. Bogart ad-libbed “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid” and the producer conceived of the final line, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," a week after filming ended. Lee Katz, the assistant director, expressed what much of the cast and crew felt, “I think everybody thought it was a good picture. Nobody thought it was a memorable picture.” Yet, since its premier on Thanksgiving Day in 1942, Casablanca has been called the most important romantic movie ever made and is invariably named as one of the best movies of all time.
The driving force behind Casablanca was Hal B. Wallis, the executive studio manager and Jack Warner’s right hand man from early 1933 to January 1942. He then signed a contract with Warner Bros. agreeing that he would produce four movies a year for the studio, but otherwise act as an independent producer. On December 11, 1941—prior to this agreement and just days after the US entered World War II—Wallis was handed the script for Everybody Comes to Rick’s, an unproduced play written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The play was imperfect, but it provided Warner Bros. with the raw material to mold a romance against the backdrop of WWII when censorship and treatment of the war in the movie industry was highly sensitive. In the summer of 1938, Burnett and his wife, Frances, traveled to Belgium and then to Vienna to help friends smuggle money out of the occupied city. From there, they vacationed in the south of France, where Burnett was astounded to see a lightheartedness and an almost insistent denial of the coming war. They spent time at a seaside café, where a black man played American songs on a piano, and where Burnett leaned over and whispered to his wife, “What a setting for play!” The play inspired by the French café was purchased by Warner Bros., at Wallis’s insistence and approval, for $20,000—the highest price yet paid for an unproduced play and significantly more than the $8,000 paid to Dashiell Hammett for The Maltese Falcon.
In an appropriate parallel, the movie inspired by Everybody Comes to Rick’s also began at a small French café, La Belle Aurore. On May 25, 1942, director Michael Curtiz began shooting Casablanca and in fact the first scene filmed was the flashback to Sam playing “As Time Goes By” on the piano in Paris. The name of the set listed on the daily production sheet was “MONTMARTE CAFÉ – 04 / Stage 12-A / Standard Recording ‘As Time Goes By.’” The cast comprised Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Dooley Wilson, all set to arrive at 9 am. It turned out to be a difficult day. At this point, Bogart and Bergman barely knew each other. Bogart, experienced in gangster roles but not as the romantic lead, was thrust into one of Rick’s most starry-eyed scenes. Bergman, though experienced as a leading lady, had the harder task of “foreshadowing without giving too much away,” as Aljean Harmetz observes in her book, Round up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca. Meanwhile, Wallis was convinced that Wilson was “not ideal for the part” of Sam, the faithful friend.
Filming began slowly, with Dooley Wilson—a singer and drummer, but not a pianist— singing “As Time Goes By” and pretending to play the piano while Elliot Carpenter played another piano just out of sight. The music was not pre-recorded, and Wilson was imitating Carpenter’s hand movements while he sang.
By the following morning, Hal Wallis had written at least two interoffice memos complaining about the previous day’s filming. After the first take of the four-page love scene between Ilsa and Rick, the sound mixer, Francis Scheid, had cut the action because the low-beamed ceiling was interfering with the sound recording. Wallis was not pleased with Scheid, although it’s his memo to cinematographer Arthur Edeson that nicely captures the intimacy of the scene, the larger context of the production, and the ability of Wallis to navigate the rough waters between the financial and creative minds at Warner Bros.:
“I understand that the setup took an extraordinary length of time yesterday and that the little Montmarte Café scene which Mike lined up yesterday afternoon, but did not shoot, took about an hour and a half to light. This was a very small set involving only two people and, if it is true that it took an hour and a half to get the lighting set, I must say that it is unreasonable.
“I, too, want a beautiful photographic job on this picture, which offers a great deal of background and color for a cameraman, but you were present at all the meetings we had about all the war emergencies and the necessity of conserving money and material, and I must ask you to sacrifice a little on quality, if necessary, in order not to take these long periods of time for setups.”
At the end of May, much of the script was still evolving at the hands of the screenwriters. Seven are known to have worked on Casablanca, but the credit went to Julius and Philip Epstein, the witty twins responsible for the movie’s clever cynicism and banter, and Howard Koch, the politically-minded liberal who undoubtedly colored Rick’s background with an anti-fascist track record in Ethiopia and Spain. Not quite a romantic, Koch thought that the Paris flashback cut into the dramatic momentum of the movie and should be removed. It is now seen as being pivotal to the drama—both romantic and political—and places the storyline in the realm of myth, pre-expulsion seen in contrast to Vichy France. It is just one example of the writers disagreeing and editing each other’s work, a process that kept the strongest and most consequential sequences in the film. Casey Robinson, the highest paid writer at Warner Bros. at the time, was also brought in for three weeks prior to filming. His specialty was heightening the romance and his influence is apparent throughout the dreamy Paris scene.
We’ll Always Have Paris
Ugarte has just been arrested. Ilsa has come back into Rick’s life. And Rick sits, slouched over a bottle of gin with a pained grimace etched in every line of his face, listening to Sam play “As Time Goes By” in the dark. The music and the cigarette smoke transport him back to a free France, idyllic and simple, and the romance is developed within a straightforward narrative that builds toward the more significant culminating scenes at La Belle Aurore and the train station. Paris is denoted by stock footage of the Arch de Triumph, the Champs Elysees and the Eiffel Tower, but until the news footage of retreating French troops appears onscreen, Ilsa and Rick could be in love anywhere, at any time.
And then there are the tanks, the planes, the infantry, the loudspeaker announcements, the newspaper dated June 11, 1940 reporting the inevitable arrival of the German army. The frantic scene on the French Street is followed by the quiet interior scene in the café. It begins with the hauntingly distant sound of Sam singing “As Time Goes By” in La Belle Aurore and immediately the love affair has taken on a new significance—a desperation and a sense of all good things coming to an end. The three—Rick, Ilsa and Sam—drink champagne over the piano and Rick makes light of the situation, joking that the café’s proprietor would water his garden with champagne rather than let the Germans have it. But then the talk turns to escape and even a hurried marriage, and Rick and Ilsa make plans to leave Paris together that evening, just before the arrival of the enemy.
In the two and a half pages shot by Curtiz on that first day, Ilsa had to show the audience what she could not show Rick: that she loved him, but could not be with him. Her hesitation so contrasts with Rick’s unambiguous infatuation (the stage directions specify “wry but not the bitter wryness we have seen”) that the audience feels the weight of the decision and the vulnerability of the pair. The scene explains Bogart’s cynicism in Casablanca, and makes his actions all the more heroic in the end. It also touches on Rick’s past, with Sam and Ilsa reminding him that the Germans have a price on his head—another consciously patriotic, anti-fascist adjustment to Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
By June 11, 1940, the Germans were indeed marching towards Paris, with The Times reporting on 12 June, “Thousands upon thousands of Parisians leaving the capital by every possible means, preferring to abandon home and property rather than risk even temporary Nazi domination.” There had been a general understanding that the Allies would win the war, that no evacuation would be necessary. This message was essential propaganda promulgated to keep up morale and confidence, but unfortunately it left Paris and much of France without an informed evacuation plan. On June 10, with the Nazis less than 30 km away, government officials left the capital and ordered all of the gasoline reserves to be burned, casting a desperate black cloud over the rapidly emptying city. Men between the ages of 18 and 50 were ordered to leave, and much of the civilian population followed suit—in cars, on trains, on bikes, and on foot.
Casablanca is by no means a mirror for the situation in Europe. Indeed, Julius Epstein has said, “I can’t explain why Casablanca succeeded. First, there wasn’t a word of truth in the picture. There were no Germans in Casablanca, certainly not in uniform, no letters of transit, there was nothing. And it was slapped together.” But there was truth behind many of the sentiments, and the desperation of the refugees, while at times comedic in the movie, is tangible and real.
While Bergman and Bogart had no real experience in fleeing a fallen city, many of the actors on the set of Casablanca, and indeed in Hollywood at the time, were European refugees. Only three of the fourteen named actors were born in America—Bogart, Wilson and Joy Page—and almost all of the bit parts were played by immigrants. Germans Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo) and Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser) had both fled the Nazi regime. S.Z. Sakall’s (Carl, the waiter) three sisters died in a concentration camp; fellow actor Helmet Dantine (the Bulgarian husband) was a leader of the anti-Nazi youth movement in Vienna and spent three months in a concentration camp. Aljean Harmetz writes poignantly that “Dan Seymour [doorman at Rick’s Café] remembers looking up during the singing of the Marseillaise and discovering that half of his fellow actors were crying. ‘I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees,’ says Seymour.” It is in this scene that the Marseillaise becomes not only an international battle cry in an American movie, but a love song.
Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By."
The Song and the Singer
Like the themes of valor and romance, “The Marseillaise” and “As Time Goes By” circle each other continuously throughout Casablanca, giving the audience a sense of hope combined with an inspiring, exhilarating sadness. On May 25, 1942 Max Steiner was still composing the score to Now, Voyager, a score that would win him an Oscar later that year. An Austrian who studied under Mahler, he had been one of Warner Bros. most prolific composers since the beginning of the 1930’s and wrote the scores for Gone with the Wind (1939) and King Kong (1933).
When Steiner first saw Casablanca, after the movie was fully edited as was his preference, his reaction was that “As Time Goes By” should be removed and replaced with an original song. Legend has it that he even wrote a replacement, but the expense of re-shooting the scenes, especially under wartime restrictions, and the fact that Ingrid Bergman had already cut her hair to play Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, made this impossible. So Steiner embraced the song completely, reworking it in countless strains to convey varying emotional shifts. As Harmetz describes it: “He proceeded to make "As Time Goes By” the centerpiece of his score. The song was not only Rick and Ilsa’s love theme, but Steiner’s main connecting device. The song linked Rick and Ilsa, present and past, the source music to the underscoring, and the audience to the characters in the movie.” Deeply and inextricably entrenched in the movie, the song has become synonymous with Casablanca and it was Casablanca that made the 1931 song “As Time Goes By” a classic.
“As Times Goes By” was written by Herman Hupfeld for a short-lived play entitled Everybody’s Welcome. While at Cornell, Murray Burnett heard and loved the version recorded by actress Frances Williams, although it was the recording by Rudy Vallee that gained a moderate, but unexceptional amount of traction at the time. Burnett wrote “As Time Goes By” into Everybody Comes to Rick’s, and the Warner Bros. screenwriters felt no need to change it for the movie.
In the early stages of pre-production, Wallis did toy with the idea of turning Rick’s friend and piano player into a woman, thinking particularly of Lena Horne, but he settled on “Sam the Rabbit” and tested six actors, including Elliot Carpenter, who played the piano on the side of the set, and Dooley Wilson to play the part. Dooley Wilson was a stage actor and singer from 1908 until 1940, when his role as Little Joe in the play Cabin the Sky took him to Hollywood. Although he was not chosen to play Little Joe in the film version, Wilson subsequently signed with Paramount and began to be given small movie roles. Although he was chosen for Casablanca, Wallis was not enamored of Wilson by any means and during production, even considered dubbing his songs.
Luckily, he did not follow through with it. When Casablanca came out, the Hollywood Reporter called Wilson’s portrayal “something joyous.” The New York Times wrote “Mr. Wilson’s performance as Rick’s devoted friend, though rather brief, is filled with a sweetness and compassion which lend a helpful mood to the whole film” and called “any moment in which Dooley Wilson is remembering past popular songs in a hushed room” particularly “affecting.” As a result of the movie, Rudy Vallee’s recording of “As Time Goes By” reached number 1 on the hit list and stayed there for four weeks in 1943—re-released rather than re-recorded by Wilson because of a musicians’ strike.
Now, seventy years later, the song has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Liberace, the Carpenters and many others. But no matter how familiar it becomes, “As Time Goes By” will always bring its listeners back to a small café in Montmartre, where two people in love listen to Sam play a green studio piano while outside, a frenzied Paris prepares for the arrival of the Nazis.
You must remember this…
In 1982, collector Dr. Gary Milan purchased the Casablanca Paris piano from a Los Angeles prop house. It had collected several layers of paint over the years and was simply a random studio piano that Dr. Milan intended to buy for its spare parts. But the peculiar size and the resemblance to Sam’s piano encouraged him to investigate further, and he discovered that the piano bore a Warner Bros. Studio prop number (FNP11990) and determined that it was in fact the piano used in the flashback scene at La Belle Aurore. By removing the later paint layers, Milan further confirmed his conclusion and the piano was, in a way, reborn.
Of course, the creamy green and intentionally cracked beige decoration is subtler in the movie, presented in black-and-white rather than Technicolor. The layer seen in the movie, and today, is the first layer of paint on the piano and we can deduce that on May 25, 1942 the piano was nearly fresh from Richardson’s, the Los Angeles maker, by way of the prop house. At the time, the movie industry placed no emphasis on the historical significance of props and the piano was used again in later movies. Deborah Landis, a costume designer and historian, described old costumes in a way that could just as aptly describe props: “That was the old way. We used everything until it fell off the hanger. That was the tradition in Hollywood.”
That all changed in 1970 with the landmark auction of 350,000 costumes and props from MGM’s sound stages. MGM was transitioning from movie mogul to Vegas hotelier, but it still had arguably the most illustrious history in Hollywood. It was at this sale that Debbie Reynolds began her famous passion for collecting Hollywood costumes and props, purchasing thousands of memorable pieces and helping to create a brand new market and a reverence for the movies. In 2011, Profiles in History held an auction of her collection which showed just how far the market has come. In the 1970 MGM sale, a pair of the Ruby Red Slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz sold for $15,000. In the Debbie Reynolds auction, the Arabian test pair of slippers—a pair used in test shots but not in the actual film and one of five authentic pairs known—was sold for $627,300. The sale also boosts the current record for movie memorabilia: the “Subway Dress” worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch achieved a price of $5,520,000.
The other Casablanca piano, the piano from Rick’s Café Americain, has a history similar to that of the Paris piano—it is a rental prop with subsequent paint layers which was purchased by Gary Milan in 1983. Having recently rediscovered the Belle Aurore piano, Dr. Milan purchased this matching piano, and, by recognizing that it also had a Warner Bros. prop number, as well as an unusual hinged back (in which Rick hid the letters of transit), he was able to establish that it was the other piano from Casablanca. It has since been restored. For more than a decade, the Rick's Cafe piano has been on loan to the Warner Bros. Museum where it is displayed in Burbank at the same studio site used to film the movie.
In 1988, five years after its discovery, Sotheby’s sold the Paris piano for $154,000 to a Japanese buyer. At the time, it was one of the highest prices ever paid for a piece of movie memorabilia.
Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid
Perhaps what we feel towards Casablanca was well expressed by one of its writers, Howard Koch in 1989, after it became an indelible part of cultural memory: “I’ve got almost a mystical feeling about Casablanca. That it made itself somehow….It’s just a movie, but it’s more than that. It’s become something that people can’t find in values today. And they go back to Casablanca as they go back to church…” There is something spiritual about a movie like Casablanca and the music in it, something communal and uplifting. But undoubtedly Koch felt like the rest of the team at first—it was just another movie on the assembly line.
Casablanca was released in New York on November 25, 1942—about two weeks after the Allied landing in Morocco—and elsewhere on January 23, 1943. The early release was meant to take advantage of Casablanca in the headlines, and it did. As Variety pointed out in its positive, but somewhat cynical review: “Film should be a solid moneymaker everywhere.… WB, instead of being dismayed at [Casablanca’s] changed status, is wisely cashing in on America’s newborn familiarity with the title.” The New York Times, on the other hand, was cautiously sentimental in its praise: “…they have so combined sentiment, humor and pathos with taut melodrama and bristling intrigue that the result is a highly entertaining and even inspiring film.”
The New York Times had the greater foresight: Casablanca is inspiring. Since its release, the movie has gained in popularity, both as a scholarly study and as a simple pleasure. It has been interpreted in every imaginable way: the most popular being Rick as a symbol for isolationist America finally pledging itself to the cause; the lesser so being Umberto Eco’s semiotic explanation of the film as a “hodgepodge of sensational scenes” with “glorious incoherence” and deep layers of mythic archetypes.
But as Billy Wilder puts it, “No matter how sophisticated you are and it’s on television and you’ve seen it 500 times, you turn it on.”
Crowther, Bosley, "'Casablanca' With Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, at Hollywood" in The New York Times (New York, November 27, 1942)
Diamond, Hanna, Fleeing Hitler: France 1940 (New York, 2007)
Harmetz, Aljean, The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and WWII, 60th Anniversary Edition (New York, 1992, 2002)
Postrel, Virginia, "Hollywood Auction Ends Myth of Zaftig Marilyn" in Bloomberg News (New York: June 24, 2011)
Variety Staff, "Film Reviews: Casablanca" in Variety (December 1, 1942)
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