The Best Bad Timing and Getting Everything Wrong
After a trip to Vienna and France in 1938 where he went to a jazz club overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, schoolteacher Murray Bennett got the idea that he and playwright Joan Alison would turn into “Everybody Comes To Rick’s.” Their play would never be published, but the manuscript showed up on a desk at Warner Bros. on exactly the right wrong day.
Irene Lee, head of the story department, discovered the play during a trip to New York to visit East Coast story editor Jack Wilk. It had sat on various desks for a year, Lee found it, and it was officially submitted for studio consideration on December 8, 1941 – the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With an immediate interest in patriotic stories and strong advocacy from Lee, studio runner Hal Wallis approved the purchase of the play for $20,000.
That play would become Casablanca.
Not only was the iconic film born from a trip to Nazi-occupied France and some fated timing, it was crafted by doing almost everything wrong. In fact, there’s an apocryphal story that Michael Curtiz only took the directing job after thinking he was totally wrong for a different project. The story goes that he was supposed to direct Sergeant York, but switched productions with Howard Hawks after the pair had lunch and both complained that they had no idea how to make their respective movies.
If that’s true, it was a bad bargain for the crew because Curtiz was notorious for treating everyone viciously and his conduct on the Casablanca set was no different. On top of that, writers were still making changes to the script two months into filming, many of the actors disliked each other, and since the war made it impossible to film actual airplanes, the famous final sequence was shot in front of a flimsy plywood plane with as much fog surrounding it as the machine could handle. Humphrey Bogart was vocal about his issues with the production, and Ingrid Bergman appeared in the movie merely as a backup gig after being turned down for the role she wanted in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Oh, and music composer Max Steiner hated the song “As Time Goes By.” In fact, he requested that they change it, but they were stuck with the tune used during filming because Bergman had already moved on to shooting For Whom the Bell Tolls (after replacing Vera Zorina, the actress who originally got the part over her). Tricky scheduling could have been worked out, but she’d cut her hair so short for the role that there was no way to do the necessary pick-up shots for Casablanca, and the song stayed in the picture.
In essence, all of the most memorable elements of the movie were either done shoddily, on the fly, or against the wishes of the direct creative forces.
Oddly enough, its script (from Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein & Howard Koch) scored the duel distinction of winning an Oscar and of being deemed not good enough to produce by several studio readers in the 1980s who didn’t recognize it when it was sent around prank-style as Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
The Conclusion of The Beginnings
Movies come from somewhere and from anywhere. It’s an obvious sentiment, but the raw truth doesn’t illuminate the fantastical nature of a situation that sees a spark crafted into a wildfire.
Who knew that a writer’s digging around in a basement would cause the creation of one of the best movies of the 1980s? Or that a folk tale first printed in the 17th century would launch hundreds of pieces of art in a form that wouldn’t be born until over a hundred years later? Or that an unpublished play from a school teacher would take all the wrong steps and become a titan of cinema?
All of this goes to prove that inspiration can truly come from anywhere.
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