Was ever less than a million spent so successfully on any movie?
I cannot recall (so would welcome the nudge) who originated the one about war-time propaganda — “Thank goodness Mickey Mouse was on our side!” — but I equally cannot doubt the power of Casablanca. Beside a VHS tape (that’s never going to get another run) and a birthday prezzie DVD, I have here Richard J.Anobile’s illustrated script — looks that my £1.50 investment (reduced from £1.99!) hasn’t lost too much on the second-hand market.
Casablanca was one of many war-time movies that fell foul of Irish censorship during “The Emergency” (© E. de Valera). Even after, thanks to some extensive “cuts” in the interests of moral welfare, Irish audiences were not allowed to know “Rick” and “Ilsa” had history and “Paris”.
The Production Code, better known as the Hayes Code, dates from 1930. More observed in the word than the deed, it pledged:
No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
Similarly, from 1934, the Catholic Legion of Decency had as many as ten million Roman Catholics signed up
to refrain from viewing all objectionable movies or attending any theater that showed such films.
Yet in Casablanca we enjoy a whole mess of amoralities. When the politics get in the way of morals, film the politics?
At the moment of Pearl Harbor, the United States had neither an “official” intelligence service nor a propaganda arm. In both, that makes the US government unique among major powers, and — arguably — too honest for its own good.
What the US did have was William “Wild Bill” Donovan, already in-and-out of FDR’s office, officially (w.e.f. July 1941) “Co-ordinator of Information”, and from early 1942 head of OSS. That sorted the intelligence arm, but — in the context of this post — that’s another story (and a good one).
Twelve days after Pearl Harbor, Congress passed the War Powers Act. This allowed FDR to sign EO8985 (as if anyone was going to stop him) and set up the Office of Censorship. Byron Price of AP was nominated as Director of Censorship: the intention, underlined by that appointment, was “light-touch”
The Office of Censorship was essentially “negative”, attempting to prevent breaches of security, enforcing scrutiny of communications, mail and cables. In all truth, US media had been largely applying voluntary censorship since the outbreak of hostilities in Europe — for an obvious example, Canadian troop movements were not reported.
It was not until 13th June 1942 that something “positive” emerged: the Office of War Information, actively “selling” patriotism and propaganda:
to formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, motion picture, and other facilities, information programs designed to facilitate the development of an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort, and of the war policies, activities, and aims of the government.
Its Director was Elmer Davis. By the very nature of the First Amendment the OWI had a fraught relationship with the media and the public.
Seeing what/ the man will do/ unbribed, there’s /no occasion to
Humbert Wolfe, famously, on the nature of the unbribable “British journalist”.
Similarly Hollywood didn’t need to be obliged to crank up war propaganda. The studio moguls knew and still know their audience.
Casablanca originated with Murray Burnett’s and his lady-friend Joan Alison’s unproduced play-script, Everybody Comes to Rick’s. About all that survived of that was the notion of a cynical American bar-owner, a former embittered and adulterous lawyer, in Casablanca, who has a reunion with a former inamorata, and who facilitates her escape, with her anti-Nazi current squeeze. Oh — and the undeveloped character of Victor Laszlo.
Burnett’s script — it had already been rejected by MGM — arrived at Warner Brothers the day after Pearl Harbor, and was passed to Stephen Karnot for appraisal:
Excellent melodrama. Colorful, timely background, tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, sophisticated hokum. A boxoffice natural for Bogart, or Cagney, or Raft in out-of-the-usual roles, and perhaps Mary Astor.
The play-script had only got so far because of the advocacy of Irene Lee, who had come across it in New York, and ran the story department at Warners.
On 27th December, with (Jack Warner’s 2 i/c) Hal Wallis’s OK, Lee paid $20,000 for the rights. Wallis was ambitious, and tired of being Warner’s gofer. On 12th January 1942 he became Hal Wallis Productions, with a contract for four films a year and 10% of the profits.
A significant part of this was the availability of actors.
On the insistence of director Michael Curtiz, Bogart was cast in mid-February (over a certain Ronald Reagan — which must have changed history), even before there was anything like a developed film-script. Bogart had just completed The Big Shot, and was about to start Across the Pacific. He was allowed a fortnight break between that and Casablanca.
As the script developed, so the Epsteins changed “Lois Meredith” of Everybody Comes to Rick’s into the European “Ilsa”. Ingrid Bergman was available from the Selznick stable. Paramount — it seemed at that moment — had passed her over for the “Maria” part in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Her husband was a medical student in New York; and at $25,000 she came cheaper than any competition (Michèle Morgan‘s agent was demanding $55,000). Another contender had been Ann Sheridan, mainly qualified for filling a sweater.
The next key ingredient was Howard Koch added to “polish” and improve the Epsteins’ script. While this was the norm in the Warner assembly line, it means that the script became more spare, less earnest and more “political”.
At 9 am on 25th May 1942 Bogart and Bergman were on Stage 12A to do the flash-back to Paris. The last shoot was 3rd August — though four days later Bogart was recalled to record the last line of the alternate ending.
Lou Macelle, an announcer for a local radio station, was brought in to do the heavy voice-over intro. Don Siegel (who would have to linger until 1946 before he became a certified director) was told to create the spinning globe and the montage of refugees. The rough cut went to the Production Code Administration for approval — who loved it. At that point, Casablanca became a “major production” a bit more so than the usual hype.
Selling the thing
Considering where I started this post, around now is when it becomes interesting.
The 26th November 1942 showing was opportunist.
Operation Torch — the North African landings — launched on 8th November 1942. The coincidence was too good to miss.
The film didn’t get a national release until January 1943 — and even that was an advance on the schedule of the Spring. The publicists were not just selling the movie — as with any movie — they were selling the War. War bonds were sold by, and on the fame of Hollywood stars — along with fund-raisers for the Red Cross, War relief, the USO. Female stars had to be depicted doing their own housework. Cinemas were bases for recycling collections of metal, rubber, fats and fabrics.
There was a pay-back: as Hollywood stars were morale-boosters, they (and key production staff) were dissuaded from enlisting — though, technically, these were “deferments”. Darryl Zanuck went so far as to lobby for the film industry to be classified as “war-work”. The Screen Actors Guild, on the other hand,
believes actors and everyone else in the motion picture industry should be subject to the same rules as the rest of the country.
An intriguing collision between the need for “lustre” and self-regard?
Some “got away”. Clark Gable (#3 earner in the entire movie industry for 1941) enlisted as a private in the Air Corps — and inevitably graduated from Officer School — to serve as a gunner in the UK (but, equipped with an aerial camera, did five bombing raids). John Ford, making Across the Pacific, had a scene with Bogart tied to a chair, with Japanese guards at every window and door, then walked off the set to join the Signal Corps (Vincent Sherman, as Ford’s underling, had to untie the dramatic knot).
And so on, and so forth …
Leaving the small matter of Burnett and Alison’s 1941 copyright on Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
In 1987 they gave notice to Warner Brothers that they would be ending the arrangement when the copyright was due for renewal. That would have rendered the characters free for whatever purpose Burnett might wish. Warners went into panic mode: $100,000 “refreshers” each to Burnett and Alison, and the underwriting of a stage production of the original play. It opened at London’s Whitehall Theatre in April 1991, and closed, with scornful reviews, six weeks later.
Proving, perhaps, it is possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.