Revered piece of Americana

Monday Book Reviews

January 11, 1993|By Neil A. Grauer

ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS: THE MAKING O CASABLANCA. By Aljean Harmetz. Hyperion. 402 pages. $24.95.

FEW films contain more indelible images and memorable lines than "Casablanca" -- and why that is so is one of the greatest mysteries about it.

How could it be that a film whose script was fiddled with by seven writers, took fewer than 10 weeks to make and cost little more than $1 million (today's top performers wouldn't burp for less than 10 times that amount) has since become such a revered piece of Americana? Why is it that a film considered "just another movie" by a studio that churned it out with factory-like efficiency, and was scorned by its stars as an "unbelievable . . . ridiculous fairy tale," now is judged one of the greatest movies ever made? And why is it still so much fun to watch -- again and again and again -- a half-century after its debut?

In a fascinating, compulsively readable history, "Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca," former New York Times reporter Aljean Harmetz does a remarkable job recounting the story of the behind-the-scenes creation of "Casablanca" and analyzing how a film that was made for a nation just thrust into World War II somehow still speaks to us today.

"There are better movies than 'Casablanca,' " the author writes, "but no other movie better demonstrates America's mythological vision of itself -- tough on the outside and moral within, capable of sacrifice and romance without sacrificing the individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism.

No other movie has so reflected both the moment when it was made -- the early days of World War II -- and the psychological needs of audiences decades later."

Given "Casablanca's" embodiment of America's mythology, it is not surprising that many myths have come to surround the film itself, particularly since the early 1960s, when it started to become an object of intense admiration -- indeed, veneration. (By 1977, "Casablanca" was the movie most frequently shown on television.)

Ms. Harmetz, a tireless researcher and incisive reporter, punctures the myths but replaces them with facts that in many ways are far more intriguing.

For example, there is no truth to the stories that Ronald Reagan, rather than Humphrey Bogart, once was slated to play Rick Blaine, or that the stars of "Casablanca" never knew until the last minute how the movie was going to end. The Reagan canard stems from one of the cynically contrived "false items" the Warner Brothers publicity department routinely planted to promote the studio's contract players. "There never was any chance that Ronald Reagan would star in 'Casablanca,' " Ms. Harmetz writes. Similarly, while the writers wouldn't (or couldn't) tell Ingrid Bergman who her character, Ilsa Lund, really loved the most -- Rick or the noble Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid -- all the actors knew that Ilsa would leave with Laszlo in the end.

Ms. Harmetz also reveals that thought was given briefly to transforming the character of Sam, the black cafe singer, into a woman, and both Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald were considered for the part that Dooley Wilson played.

What really is amazing about the making of "Casablanca" is how little was left to chance -- and yet how much of the film was determined by it. Music director Max Steiner hated "As Time Goes By" (another composer's song) and wanted to drop it, but Bergman, her work on "Casablanca" completed and her hair cropped for her role in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," was unable to reshoot the cafe scenes. Bogart apparently ad-libbed that quintessential Bogartism, "Here's looking at you, kid," and Hal Willis, the producer, actually wrote the film's classic concluding line, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," three weeks after the filming was over. (Bogart recorded it for a subsequent dubbing.)

Ms. Harmetz's "Casablanca" history is leaner and less entrancing than her masterful 1989 book, "The Making of the Wizard of Oz," but it is every bit as interesting and in some ways more thought-provoking. Director Billy Wilder, who admits to countless viewings of "Casablanca," told Ms. Harmetz that the film is "the most wonderful claptrap that was ever put on the screen," but it is claptrap of undeniable resonance and power.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist and frequent contributor to Other Voices.

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