After 75 Years, Here's Looking At You, 'Casablanca'

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on February 24, 2017 11:32 am

As Oscar night approaches, a beloved multi-Oscar-winning classic is turning 75. In 1942, the World War II romance Casablanca brought glory to Warner Bros., and stardom to its leading actors. The Burbank, Calif., soundstage where the movie was made doesn't look like much, but it has taken on a legendary status of its own.

Stage 7 is known as Lucky Seven, according to tour guide John Kourounis. That's because three Warner Bros. best picture winners — The Life of Emile Zola, My Fair Lady and Casablanca — and 10 best picture nominees were shot here.

To get there, Kourounis drives visitors along streets lined with facades — banks, apartment buildings, the coffee shop where Emma Stone works in La La Land. On one corner stands a tan building that doesn't look like anything special.

"As far as we know that is the last remaining exterior set from Casablanca," Kourounis explains. It was on this corner that Rick Blaine (that's Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) learned the Germans were approaching Paris.

Rick's Café, with Sam at the piano, taking requests ... the idealism, nobility, sacrifice and patriotism ... it all happened on Stage 7. But inside, the big stage (it's a fourth of a football field) looks like a warehouse. Not a hint of romance to be found — just a crew, getting ready to shoot a TV commercial.

Most, but not all, of Casablanca was made on Stage 7. Since most of the story takes place in Rick's Café, that $76,000 set remained in Stage 7 throughout the filming. Other scenes had to be done on different soundstages.

Because of World War II, and the sighting of a Japanese submarine off the coast of California, the movie was mostly shot indoors.

"People were terrified that the Japanese would attack the mainland," says Aljean Harmetz, author of the 1992 book Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca.

So no location shooting, no nighttime shooting, no car chases. Shortages meant they had to do without movie-making basics, such as rubber and aluminum.

"Costumes had to be made differently," Harmetz explains. "You couldn't have nylons any longer. Bergman couldn't wear silk — she had to wear cotton. A lot of what Hollywood took for granted — particularly the luxurious things — that dressed its female stars didn't exist in the war years."

The war affected casting. Paul Henreid, who plays resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, was Austrian. Half the film's small and medium roles were played by war refugees.

It's ironic, says Harmetz. "All of these refugees from Nazi Europe found a lot of roles for the next four years playing Nazis in the movies."

Bergman had also come from across the Atlantic. Born in Sweden, she'd made a few films there, and a few more in the U.S., but Harmetz says this was the movie that made her an American star.

Bogart — a native New Yorker — had been cast as a gangster in several Warner films. Now he was playing a cynic, unwilling to get involved in a wretched war, still missing his lost love. Bogart wasn't crazy about the part. "He thought his character was too full of self pity," Harmetz says.

Bogart was a loner — a tough, avid drinker, unhappily married to his third wife (the one who came right before Lauren Bacall).

"She drank an immense amount and she threw things a lot," Harmetz says.

And, despite all that, Casablanca made Bogart a romantic lead and a huge star. (Never mind that he was short — he had to stand on a box for his scenes with the tall Miss Bergman.)

"After the movie was made, suddenly everyone thought that Bogart had sex appeal," Harmetz says. "And he told Lauren Bacall, 'I did nothing in Casablanca that I hadn't done in 30 other movies and suddenly they say I have sex appeal.' Well, when Ingrid Bergman looks at you, you have sex appeal."

The script of Casablanca was by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, and it went through many changes and revisions. For ages, the ending wasn't known. Bergman said while shooting was underway she asked director Michael Curtiz and the writers which man she goes away with — her onetime Paris lover Rick Blaine, or the noble freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo. Bergman was told they'd let her know as soon as they knew!

The decision was at last revealed in an airport scene, as the couple leaves Casablanca. Because they couldn't shoot outdoors, Hollywood magic saved the day. Craftsmen built a plane — a very small plane — out of plywood.

"In order to make it look real, they hired very small men to act as mechanics so that, from the distance, it looked like a real airplane," Harmetz says. "In order to disguise the cutout even more, they poured fog into the scene."

And into that foggy darkness, after the plane takes off, the final words of the film — "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" — are spoken. This time the work of another author — producer Hal Wallis, who came up with the line two weeks after production was over!

The end of a beautiful, Oscar-winning film, made mostly on Warner Bros.' Lucky 7 soundstage in 1942. Seventy-five years later, it still feels powerful, moving and romantic. How lucky we are, this Oscar season, that we'll always have Casablanca.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in Southern California, Oscars night is almost here. And a beloved, Oscar-winning classic nears 75 years since its premiere. "Casablanca," the World War II romance about the fight for love and glory, brought glory to Warner Bros. and stardom to its leading actors. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg toured the Burbank, Calif., studio where the magic was made.

JOHN KOUROUNIS: And we are off. Is this anybody's first time to Warner Bros. Studio?

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Tour guide John Kourounis drives us along streets lined with facades, banks, apartment buildings, the coffee shop where Emma Stone works in "La La Land." On one corner, a tan, nothing-special building.

KOUROUNIS: As far as we know, that is the last remaining exterior set from "Casablanca."

STAMBERG: On this corner, Rick Blaine - that's Humphrey Bogart - and Ilsa Lund - Ingrid Bergman - learned the Germans were approaching Paris. That was after we'd seen them spooning over champagne in Rick's apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Here's looking at you, kid.

KOUROUNIS: And now we approach Stage 7. Our nickname for it is Lucky 7 - the reason being our first three Academy Award winners for the best picture were shot in here.

STAMBERG: "The Life Of Emile Zola," "My Fair Lady" and "Casablanca," plus 10 best picture nominees were made on Warner's Soundstage 7. Better go in.

Well, this is the hallowed ground.

ALJEAN HARMETZ: This is where Rick's Cafe was, right here on Stage 7.

STAMBERG: Bogey's big bar restaurant casino, with Sam at the piano, taking requests.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

INGRID BERGMAN: (As Ilsa Lund) Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By."

DOOLEY WILSON: (As Sam, singing) You must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh.

STAMBERG: The trace of romance remembered, the unexpected re-encounter, the desperate search for letters of transit to get to the West, out of Nazi-controlled French Morocco and safe from Hitler. The idealism, nobility, sacrifice, patriotism - it all happened on Stage 7.

HARMETZ: Looks like a warehouse.

STAMBERG: Aljean Harmetz wrote "Round Up The Usual Suspects: The Making Of Casablanca." Published in 1992, it's still the definitive book on the movie made on 7.

HARMETZ: With a rickety staircase going up to the top, where they could put the cameras.

STAMBERG: It's big, about a quarter of a football field. Not a hint of romance - just a crew getting ready to shoot a TV commercial. Most but not all of "Casablanca" was made on 7. Since most of the story takes place in Rick's Cafe, that $76,000 set remained in 7 throughout the filming. Other scenes had to be done on different soundstages. And because of World War II and the sighting of a Japanese submarine off the coast of California, in 1942, "Casablanca" was mostly shot indoors.

HARMETZ: Because people were terrified that the Japanese might attack the mainland.

STAMBERG: So no location shooting, no nighttime shooting, no car chases. Shortages meant no movie-making basics, rubber, aluminum.

HARMETZ: Costumes had to be made differently. You couldn't have nylons any longer. Bergman couldn't wear silk. She had to wear cotton. A lot of what Hollywood took for granted, particularly the luxurious things that dressed its female stars, didn't exist during the war years.

STAMBERG: And the war affected casting. Paul Henreid, who plays resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, was Austrian. Half the small and medium roles were played by war refugees. Ironic, says Aljean Harmetz.

HARMETZ: All of these refugees from Nazi Europe found a lot of roles for the next four years playing Nazis in the movies.

STAMBERG: Ingrid Bergman was also from somewhere else, Sweden. She'd made a few films there, some here.

HARMETZ: This is the movie that made her an American star.

STAMBERG: Native New Yorker Humphrey Bogart had been a gangster in several Warner films. Now he was playing a cynic unwilling to get involved in a wretched war, still missing his lost love. Bogart was not crazy about the part.

HARMETZ: He thought his character was too full of self-pity.

STAMBERG: The actor was tough, also short. He had to stand on a box for his scenes with tall Ms. Bergman - also a loner, an avid drinker and unhappily married to his wife before Lauren Bacall.

HARMETZ: She drank an immense amount, and she threw things a lot.

STAMBERG: And despite all that, "Casablanca" made Bogart a romantic lead and a huge star.

HARMETZ: After the movie was made, suddenly, everyone thought that Bogart had sex appeal. And he told Lauren Bacall, I did nothing in "Casablanca" that I hadn't done in 30 other movies. And, suddenly, they say I have sex appeal. Well, when Ingrid Bergman looks at you, you have sex appeal.

STAMBERG: The script of "Casablanca" was by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. And Aljean Harmetz writes it went through many changes and revisions. For ages, the ending wasn't known. Bergman said while shooting was underway, she asked director Michael Curtiz and the writers which man she goes away with, her one-time Paris lover, Rick Blaine, or the noble freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo. Bergman was told they'd let her know as soon as they knew. The decision was revealed in an airport scene as the couple leaves "Casablanca." Because they couldn't shoot outdoors, Hollywood magic saved the day. Craftsmen built a plane with plywood, a very small plane.

HARMETZ: And in order to make it look real, they hired very small men to act as mechanics so that, from the distance, it looked like a real airplane. And in order to disguise the cutout even more, they poured fog into the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

STAMBERG: And into that foggy darkness, after the plane takes off, the final words of the film are spoken - this time, the work of another author, producer Hal Wallis, who came up with the line two weeks after production was over.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

STAMBERG: The end of a beautiful Oscar-winning best film made mostly on Warner Bros. Lucky Soundstage 7 in 1942 and just as powerful and moving and romantic 75 years later. Near Hollywood, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX STEINER'S "AIRPORT FINALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.