Saturday, April 08, 2006

We’ll Always Have “Casablanca”

[[F I L M]] * “Sophisticated hokum.” That’s how Warner Brothers characterized the unproduced Broadway play (originally titled Everybody Goes to Rick’s) that it bought in 1942 and soon turned into one of America’s cinematic classics, Casablanca--a film that tops the Writers Guild of America’s debut list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays of all time.

The path from hokum to masterpiece was winding and chaotic. As Howard Koch, who wrote the script with famed twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, explained in his 1973 book Casablanca: Script and Legend, “The play provided an exotic locale (later to become newsworthy by reason of the Casablanca conference of [Franklin] Roosevelt and [Winston] Churchill) and a character named Rick who ran a café, but little in the way of a story adaptable to the screen.” Yet, with a “superb cast”--including Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and a near-unknown Swedish actress named Ingrid Bergman--waiting to begin shooting, a script had to be prepared. And prepared fast, since cameras were set to start rolling on the picture just six weeks later. Koch describes the process as turbulent, with the Epsteins pulling out of the project early, and little more than some “amusing lines and incidents” and a separation between good guys and bad guys having been settled as the shooting date approached. “Fortunately,” writes Koch,

I had the help and encouragement of Humphrey Bogart and the other principals in the cast who had become aware that we were in a Pirandello situation--six characters in search of a story. Bogey would invite me into his dressing-room with his usual “relax and have a drink.” We would talk and sometimes a genie popped out of the whiskey bottle and off I’d go to develop the idea into a scene.
On the day filming commenced, May 25, 1942, only about 65 pages of the script existed. A “vast unknown territory lay ahead with only signposts here and there to guide me,” recalled Koch. “The race was on between my pencil and the camera. I began to think of the camera as a monster devouring my pages faster than I could write them. About two-thirds of the way through the production, it was a dead heat.” So frenetic a pace inevitably led to disagreements between Koch and the film’s Hungarian-American director, Michael Curtiz, who, worried that his movie would turn out to be a flop, began monkeying with the script, insisting, for instance, on the flashback sequence in which bar owner Rick Blaine remembers his days in Paris with the younger Ilsa Lund.

Koch describes the final weeks of shooting as “a nightmare of which I remember only fragments.
When I sent down to the set the last scene and wrote The End on the screenplay, I felt like a weary traveler who had arrived at a destination but with only the foggiest notion where he was or how he got there. In January, 1943, when the picture opened at Warner’s Hollywood Theatre, I wondered what all the excitement was about. I was still blind to the virtues of the film and saw only what I considered its faults. When a year later it received the Academy Award, I was by that time inured to miracles.
In the decades since, Casablanca has been heralded for its memorable lines (“Here’s looking at you, kid”; “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”; “Round up the usual suspects”; and “Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time”). Critic Roger Ebert once called the film’s script “wonderfully unified and consistent.” Evidently, the Writers Guild agrees.

Including Casablanca’s script, the top-10 choices on the list of 101 Greatest Screenplays are:

1. Casablanca (by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch)
2. The Godfather (by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola)
3. Chinatown (by Robert Towne)
4. Citizen Kane (by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles)
5. All About Eve (by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
6. Annie Hall (by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman)
7. Sunset Boulevard (by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr.)
8. Network (by Paddy Chayefsky)
9. Some Like It Hot (by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond)
10. The Godfather Part II (by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola)

To see--and second-guess--all 101 Guild picks (including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dr. Strangelove, Fargo, When Harry Met Sally, L.A. Confidential, Singin’ in the Rain, and Harold & Maude), click here.

No comments: