Released at Thanksgiving 1942, the Warner Bros. feature won three Oscars in 1943 -- for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing -- but it didn't achieve classic status right away. Helped largely by arthouse and repertory showings, the movie developed a sort of cult following in the '50s and '60s. Its popularity grew with Woody Allen's hit play, "Play It Again, Sam," which was adapted for the screen in 1972.
As the movie's near-mythical status grew, it became the subject for books and scholarly articles, and eventually took its place as a touchstone of U.S. pop culture -- a common point of reference for examining American attitudes regarding such critical issues as war, honor, love, romanticism and patriotism.
In 1998, "Casablanca" came in at No. 2 when a panel of film experts ranked the 100 greatest American movies for the American Film Institute. Earlier this year, a blue ribbon panel voted "Casablanca's" protagonist, Rick Blaine, No. 4 on the AFI's list of greatest American movie heroes.
Part of the reason for the film's enduring popularity, of course, is the exquisite care with which it was constructed. Aljean Harmetz' 1992 book "Round Up the Usual Suspects, The Making of Casablanca" provides a thorough account of the wartime production -- including the painstaking process of developing the script that won an Oscar for Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein.
The book, reissued last year as "The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman and World War II," benefited greatly from the studio's practice of keeping meticulous records on its projects. Memos from producer Hal B. Wallis and others involved in the production -- combined with notes on everything from casting decisions to costume fittings -- all contributed to a highly detailed picture of the studio's insistence that "Casablanca" be a first-class professional project from start to finish.
Film historian Rudy Behlmer told United Press International that, although it is difficult with some other Hollywood studios to find that much primary source material, there is a "vast treasure trove" of data on "Casablanca." Behlmer -- whose book credits include "Inside Warner Bros.," an account of the studio during the so-called "golden age" of Hollywood -- provides one of two feature length audio commentaries on the new DVD edition of the movie. Critic Roger Ebert provides the other.
The package also includes "A Tribute to Casablanca" hosted by Humphrey Bogart's widow, Lauren Bacall -- as well as newly discovered additional scenes and outtakes, and the Warner Bros. cartoon "Carrotblanca," starring Bugs Bunny. Other features include the premiere episode of "Who Holds Tomorrow?" -- the 1955 TV series based on the movie -- and a radio adaptation of the movie featuring Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid.
Asked to account for the enduring popularity of "Casablanca," Behlmer cited a lengthy list of reasons.
"It has that exotic atmosphere," he said. "And it has the richness -- it's a melodrama, it's romantic, it's funny. It has a great staccato pace and, fortunately, a tremendous number of very good people in front of and behind the camera."
Behlmer singles out director Michael Curtiz, who won the directing Oscar.
The movie also benefits from its association with the timeless song "As Time Goes By," and -- for Rudy Behlmer's money -- the invaluable contribution of Claude Rains as the morally ambigious Capt. Renault.
"The picture would still be a good picture without him," said Behlmer, "but he really puts it into another level."
Another contributing factor to the continuing public fascination with "Casablanca" was the notion that Ronald Reagan was originally supposed to play expatriate American Rick Blaine -- the role that earned Bogart his first Oscar nomination and helped expand his screen persona from that of a tough heavy to a tough romantic lead.
Students of "Casablanca" may know already that the Reagan story is an urban myth, the product of pre-production studio publicity that gained a life of its own. Behlmer said the story got started with a memo instructing studio publicists to put out word that Reagan would star in the movie version of the Murray Bennett-Joan Allison play "Everybody Goes to Rick's."
"The internal memo says 'please announce blah-blah-blah, that we've purchased "Everybody Goes to Rick's" and that it will star Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan,'" said Behlmer. "They wanted to say something other than that we've bought an unproduced play."
Behlmer said "Casablanca" represents a period in the American movie business when studios relied on "well structured, well constructed screenplays" -- a time he said that has long since passed.
"I'm sure you've probably read or heard about the little prank from several years ago, where they changed the title (from 'Casablanca') and changed the script -- in the sense that it didn't look like an old script -- and sent it around," said Behlmer. "It was presented as a new piece of material, but it was 99 percent the original material -- and nobody took it."
Although "Casablanca" continues to reap both love and respect from film fans, Behlmer wonders whether that will last forever. He suspects some future generation will eventually reject the movie on some annual list of all-time favorites.
"You do wonder when is the law of diminishing returns going to set in," he said. "Somewhere along the line it's going to happen."
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