The Legacy and Lasting Influence of 'Casablanca,' 70 Years Later

Monday, November 26, 2012

On November 26, 1942, in the midst of World War II, a film called "Casablanca" premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City. Warner Brothers actually rushed the release of the film, as the Allies, led by General Dwight Eisenhower, secured their hold on North Africa and invaded Casablanca that month. 

The film became an American icon, ranking third on the American Film Institute's 100 best movies of the last 100 years. "Casablanca" launched Ingrid Bergman's career and established Humphrey Bogart as a romantic lead. It is one of the most referenced films of all time, from Woody Allen's "Play it Again, Sam" to the Muppets

Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University and author of "The Star Machine," curates the Ingrid Bergman archives. She says that the "Casablanca" team had no idea their film would become such a major part of American film history.

Basinger attributes the movie's durability to it's technique, rather than it's content. "The plot really isn't the point of it, it's the way it's done that's made it last," she says.  

"It's about the myth of Americans as being heroic, as going out into fights that aren't necessarily their own to fight, for people who are being treated unjustly," she says. "The romantic hero of Rick represents that." 

"There's a kind of melancholy quality to it," she says. "The reluctance to fight unless you have to. It's romanticizing a definition of our personal American hero." Bogart has the face for this part, she says — he isn't a pretty boy. He looks weathered, rugged, and tough. 

Though the movie may have been quite timely in its spirit of wartime patriotism, it has held up for 70 years. And while Bergman and Bogart will always have Paris, we will always have Casablanca. 

Guests:

Jeanine Basinger

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer and Jillian Weinberger

Comments [5]

Valdaquendë

A Post Script (to my previous comment): I wrote the previous comment after hearing the show; I had not read the summary on this page. The summary puts slightly greater emphasis on the plot than the overall show did, so after reading it, I consider that I that I might have been a little more florid in my criticism than I intended. If I have ruffled any feathers, I apologize.

Personally, I don't think that the film deals with 'the myth of Americans as being heroic' as much as it does with the theme of ordinary people (whether saloon-keeper, a professor-turned-political-activist, a nondescript Norwegian who is a member underground, etc.) becoming heroic because they are called upon to to so by extraordinary circumstances.

Like the British milkmen and cabbies and tradesmen who fought in the trenches in WWI or the 'ordinary' citizens in Europe and America who fought in WWII, they rose to the occasion and did heroic things far beyond what they, themselves, might otherwise have expected. And that's no myth.

The comment about reluctance to get into a fight but a willingness to do it when one must or to defend victims of injustice, though, is spot-on; that is an ongoing part of the American spirit.

Nov. 28 2012 11:49 PM
Valdaquendë from Albany, Oregon

I don't mean to offend anyone but I have to say that I don't think I have ever heard a more vapid or mis-perceptive treatment of a film than the other day's 'appreciation' of 'Casablanca'. In fact, I fear for the future of film appreciation in this country if it is guided by the apparent perceptions of such professors of film studies as your panelist. The piece completely ignored almost every significant aspect of the film, its origin and its message in order to dwell on the iconic quality of the actors and the technical perfection of the film. Clearly these are the only qualities your panelist considered significant; it would have been a lot fairer to have had at least one other panelist with a more comprehensive point of view.

First of all, this is not and never was a film about an American who swoops in to save a world in which a bunch of bumbling foreigners have gotten themselves in trouble, which many of your comments implied. It addresses and sends a message to an America whose culture, during the 1920's and 1930's, was comparatively agrarian, comparatively parochial in its outlook and comparatively isolationist in its politics despite its heritage and fundamental character as a pioneering, dynamic, optimistic, 'can-do' culture with an innate sense of fair play.

The film does so by presenting a protagonist who, an isolationist within himself, is faced with a world in which a menace to the common good is gradually becoming so ascendant that it cannot be ignored by Rick Blaine and which threatens people and circumstances closer and closer to him, making isolated self-absorption less and less tenable in a world drifting toward totalitarianism. Woven into the plot is the powerful theme of Rick's bitter denial of the world, the cause and the futility of that denial, contrasted with the redemptive power of love.

This may or may not have been the intent of Warner Brothers, but it is central to the play (Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) upon which the script was based. It was written after Murray Burnett had traveled to Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938 and had seen what fascism held for the rest of the world.

Second, 'Casablanca' was one of many dozens of films made by Warner Brothers in 1942; though it was a 'A-List' film, it was not given a particularly large budget nor did anyone expect much from it. It was hampered by changes in screen-writers, numerous re-writes of a script based upon an unpublished screenplay, Humphrey Bogart trying his first romantic lead role and other problems. In spite of all this, its message to a nation suddenly plunged into war, its emotional content, the excellent performances of actors like Bogart, Bergman, Claude Raines, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet and the inspired direction of Michael Curtiz won it three Academy Awards, including 'Best Picture' and made it an enduring classic to this day.

Any or all of this could have been brought out in the piece. And should have.

Nov. 28 2012 07:17 PM
Max Roberts from Portland OR

Disagreeing with the host's Mon 26 Dec remarks on foreigners' views of Americans as clownish:

Tho' Chaplin oft shot films in Hollywood, the English regarded him one of their own, as did Americans and people of other nations. His humor, was and still is viewed as rather clever, considering silent films' limits.

Until exposed to droves of American servicemen during and after WWII, other nations viewed us mostly as a straightforward, friendly, fair, helpful, slow to anger, but definitely finish-the-fight sort of people.

When invading Japanese interned most foreigners in Hong Kong, all evidence suggests that internees, even English, turned to Americans among them as camp leaders and spokesmen. A recent novel based on scrupulous research of those events abundantly supports this.

Our countrymen's image as gauche, uninformed, unrestrained, jingoist infants grew after WWII and now prevails.

I have witnessed fellow Americans in English-speaking Canada act either as if they had just landed on another planet or assume the wrongful attitude of representatives of superior civilisation. If anything, in both cases, the shoe was definitely on the wrong foot.

If any of us out there want to stun foreigners, just learn a few phrases in their language (assumed as not English), use a map, learn local history, and whatever you do, do not think aloud. The last habit seems uniquely American (when outside our borders). It only exhibits poor manners, vast ignorance, or suggests to foreigners that as far as we are concerned, they are not even there [in their own country.] Think about it!

Nov. 26 2012 02:36 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Bogart is the "Outsider" with his own moral code. He makes his own rules which both sides disagree with but both sides admire.

Nov. 26 2012 11:27 AM
bob hunter from Savannah , Ga

one of the more intriguing aspects of Casablanca is the willingness of current audiences to not let the intricacies of the Vichy French, Free French, and the Nazis in the French colony of Morocco get in the way of such a marvelous story.

I went to high school just outside of Casablanca starting in 1959 just a few years after the French left Morocco so the French influence was still widespread. Casablanca didn't resemble the movie as much as Fez or some of the other cities.

Nov. 26 2012 10:10 AM

Leave a Comment

Register for your own account so you can vote on comments, save your favorites, and more. Learn more.
Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief.
Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Names are displayed with all comments. We reserve the right to edit any comments posted on this site. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to New York Public Radio's Privacy Policy and Terms Of Use.