Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film

Photo of Michael Curtiz

MICHAEL CURTIZ—A LIFE IN FILM has a November 6, 2017 publish date!

 

 

ONE WAY STREET

 

75th Anniversary of Casablanca

 

Poster of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman Casablanca 75th anniversary tcm screening It is a life-enriching event to watch Casablanca on the big screen. In commemoration of the film’s 75th anniversary, I urge everyone to take in the nationwide TCM/Fathom theatrical screening on November 12-15. For more info: https://www.fathomevents.com/events/casablanca

To whet your appetite, here’s a condensed synopsis about the making of the film from my recently published biography Michael Curtiz A Life in Film:

Casablanca was the product of some of the best talent Hollywood had to offer in 1942. Shortly before producing his final picture, executive producer Hal Wallis commented about his most enduring triumph: “We started out to make a good picture. We never dreamed it would become a classic.”

Since the collaborative nature of the production (there were at least seven different screenwriters) amounts to a refutation to the more slavish adherents of the directorial auteur theory, it begs the question: what did Michael Curtiz contribute to one of the most popular movies ever made?

Nearly the entire picture was shot on studio soundstages in Burbank and the Warner lot’s French Street. The sole location scene was Major Strasser’s deplaning arrival, which was filmed at the metropolitan airport in nearby Van Nuys. Curtiz finished shooting at the airport in a single day and had a glass technician capture the matte background of the city behind the plane on the tarmac. Casablanca was not an expensive film. The original budget of $878,000 ended up increasing to slightly more than $1 million because of the salaries of the cast and the writers who worked throughout the production.

Although the prerogative of casting the top stars rested with Hal Wallis, Curtiz had considerable input into the process. Curtiz selected most of the featured players and virtually all of the uncredited actors. Contrary to numerous accounts, Ronald Reagan and George Raft were never considered to star in Casablanca.

Jack Warner, Michael Curtiz, Hal Wallace during the filming of Casablanca

A pair of memos exchanged by Wallis and studio head Jack L. Warner disproves the oft-repeated myth of George Raft’s being offered and turning down the role of Rick Blaine. Casablanca was created specifically for Humphrey Bogart. Warner wrote to Wallis before production began: “[Raft] knows we’re going to make it and is starting a campaign for it.” Wallis’s response: “I have thought over very carefully the matter of George Raft in Casablanca and I have discussed this with Mike [Curtiz] and we both feel that he should not be in the picture. Bogart is ideal for it, and it is being written for him, and I think we should forget Raft for this property. Incidentally, he hasn’t done a picture here since I was a little boy, and I don’t think he should be able to put his fingers on just what he wants to do when he wants to do it.”

Curtiz had avoided directing Raft (who voluntarily terminated his Warner contract in 1943) whom he considered a temperamental , no-talent star. Conversely, he respected Bogart although the actor never exhibited any inclination toward preparation. After Casablanca became a hit, Curtiz observed, “Humphrey Bogart never study, but he is always great.”

The director would handle Bogart much differently from when the actor played heavies for him in Kid Galahad (1937) and Virginia City (1940). He helped Bogart to find himself as Rick Blaine. Their professional relationship would continue to evolve despite becoming severely strained by the end of the picture.

Curtiz frequently used non-star actors and particularly sound mixers as verbal piñatas in order to vent pressure. Bogart loathed the director’s malice toward those who couldn’t fight back. But he had genuine appreciation for Curtiz’s abilities. When Bogart signed a landmark contract with Jack Warner in 1946 that included director approval, he provided a list of five acceptable candidates: John Huston, Howard Hawks, John Cromwell, Delmer Daves, and Michael Curtiz.

Borrowed by Wallis from David O. Selznick, Ingrid Bergman didn’t have a clue what Casablanca was about. Curtiz immediately put her at ease. She later wrote, “I greatly enjoyed Mike Curtiz, who really taught me quite a bit.” Curtiz likewise admired Bergman’s professionalism. She was refreshingly absent the movie-star sense of entitlement that the director loathed. He called everyone “baby,” but he addressed Bergman as “Christmas baby,” denoting that she was extra-special. There was no doubt that he was attracted to her. But his affairs with leading ladies ended when he directed Lili Damita before coming to the U.S. in 1926. He satisfied himself with an alluringly platonic relationship with his female star. In a candid moment, he reflected on his dealings with actors: “I am very critical of actors, but if I find a real actor, I am first to appreciate it. I am very contemptuous to unreal things. I try to express myself real. It is very difficult to get down-to-earth result with actors who don’t act at all. I am not too much popularity, but I think Miss Bergman is my friend.”

photo of director Michael Curtiz and Ingrid Bergman during filming of Casablanca

Curtiz’s mentoring of Bergman included a recommendation that she cease playing roles such as the governess in Adam Had Four Sons and the barmaid in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1941). He advised her that trying to stretch too much professionally in the Hollywood star system of the 1940s would result in limiting her career; in addition to being true to the audience, she had to be true to herself. Two of Curtiz’s chief contributions to Casablanca were enabling Humphrey Bogart to become a star while reminding Ingrid Bergman how to remain one.

Curtiz wanted the Dutch actor Philip Dorn to play Victor Laszlo, but Dorn was already cast in Random Harvest at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He was adamant about having an appropriate European actor to match Bergman. Wallis warned him that he might have to settle for somebody different:

“I have been going over with Trilling the possibilities for the part of “Laszlo” and aside from Philip Dorn, whom we cannot get, and Paul Henreid, who I am sure will not play the part when he reads it, there is no one else that I can think of. I think you should satisfy yourself on this point; that is, that there is no one available, and then begin to adjust yourself to the thought that we might have to use someone of the type of Dean Jagger, Ian Hunter or Herbert Marshall or someone of this type without an accent. I am as anxious as you are to have a type like Philip Dorn in the part, but if there is no one available there is just nothing that we can do about it. “

One cringes at the thought of Dean Jagger as Victor Laszlo. As Wallis indicated, Paul Henreid initially believed that the part was a loser and turned it down. But after he and Curtiz watched the rushes of Now, Voyager (1942), Wallis upped the ante to costar billing with Bogart and Bergman and assumed the balance of Henreid’s existing contract with RKO. Henreid eventually accepted the part but had misgivings after the fact. He’d ended up getting the girl . . . but not really. Despite his reservations, Paul Henreid brought the precise chord of noble integrity to the part of Victor Laszlo that proved integral in making Casablanca work.

Perhaps the most important casting selection made on Curtiz’s initiative was that of his old Hungarian friend S. Z. Sakall as Carl, the headwaiter of Rick’s Café. He craved Sakall’s humor, which he believed would balance the film, but he had to perform some skillful negotiating to make it happen. Sakall demanded $1,750 per week and a four-week guarantee. The engagement duration was beyond the limit of Wallis’s financial tolerance. He wrote to Curtiz, “If Sakall will do the part on a two-week guarantee, I will pay him the $1750. It is up to you to work on him.”

Curtiz convinced both parties to compromise. Sakall was signed to play Carl at his price with a three-week guarantee. His comic timing and empathetic reactions resulted in his part being built up to where he had more scenes than nearly all of the other supporting players less Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt.

Wallis also acceded to Curtiz by casting the drummer-singer Arthur “Dooley” Wilson as Bogart’s pianist companion. Wallis tepidly termed Wilson’s screen test “pretty good,” but Curtiz was adamant that he was markedly superior to actor Clarence Muse whom Wallis favored. The pianist Elliot Carpenter, the only other African American on set, played the piano just off camera while Wilson fingered the keys. In addition to “As Time Goes By,” Wilson’s voice was used for “It Had to Be You,” “Shine,” and “Knock on Wood.” The critical accolades for Dooley Wilson in Casablanca validated Curtiz’s faith in him.

Hal Wallis knew exactly how Rick’s Café should appear onscreen: with shaded lighting through a haze of cigarette smoke and an absolute mini- mum of reflected light. Casablanca would reflect a great deal of Wallis’s personal vision, including the live parrot he had placed outside Sydney Greenstreet’s Blue Parrot Café.

But the producer never outstripped Curtiz’s own visualizations. The flourishes of Bergman knocking over the glass in the Paris café, the Vichy water bottle hurled in the trash by Rains at the finale, and Bogart’s curling cigarette smoke that precedes the flashback sequence underscore Curtiz’s brilliance. One of Casablanca’s most striking attributes is its exquisite imagery. Perhaps the most emblematic example is the initial interior sequence in Rick’s Café. It is a visual panorama of waiters with trays, patrons, and soldiers, all moving about or seated in the crowded nightclub in a faultless choreography of bustle. The sequence transitions from a close-up of Dooley Wilson singing into a dolly shot that reveals the darkly lit interior before dissolving into a quick series of shots of shady black marketers surreptitiously touting all manner of escape to a mixture of bewildered Europeans.

It was more than Curtiz’s fluid camera and faultless composition that created the authenticity. Most of the bit actors in Casablanca appear to be European refugees because they were. Many were Jewish refugees who had fled the Nazis. Curtiz personally cast all of them. All told, thirty-four different nationalities appeared in the film.

Curtiz gleaned inspiration for Casablanca’s famous “La Marseillaise” scene from Dodge City (1939) where he had Ann Sheridan warbling “Marching Through Georgia” against a competitive chorus of “Dixie” resulting in the mother of all cinematic saloon brawls. He repurposed the competing-song concept and dropped the fisticuffs with the French national anthem drowning out “Deutschland über alles,” sung by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and his cabal. The gargantuan character actor Dan Seymour, who played the doorman at the gambling den in Rick’s watched the crowd of actors on the café set during the number and noticed that many were actually crying. Seymour recalled: “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees.”

As production on Casablanca progressed into July 1942, the screenplay rewrites by Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers continued. New pages were being brought to the set each morning. On July 6 Wallis informed Curtiz:

“I see tomorrow that you are shooting in the Café with Laszlo and Ilsa arriving and with Renault putting Lazlo under arrest. All of this is in the new rewrite on which we are working with Koch with the exception of scene 245 where Ilsa asks Rick if he has arranged everything. I am attaching the new dialogue to take the place of this scene . . .. I am also attaching the new ending as Koch and I have finally worked it out. I think you will find that it incorporates all of the changes you wanted made and I think we have successfully licked the big scene between Ilsa and Rick at the airport by bringing Laszlo in at the finish of it. “

The constant rewriting meant Curtiz had to scramble to get scenes in the can and it became a race to finish the picture on schedule. The director apologized to the actors at one point because of the short time they had to memorize the new dialogue and rehearse. At the same time, he continued to fight for what he believed was best for the picture.

Curtiz had argued vehemently for inclusion of the flashback scene between Rick and Ilsa in Paris, featuring a montage of a car ride and Champagne toasts that established the basis for their romance. Howard Koch didn’t think the sequence was relevant; Curtiz overrode him. Koch later acknowledged that the sequence made the film better.

Curtiz also had to contend with Wallis because he had decided to drop some of the dialogue from the scene. Wallis viewed the script as sacrosanct parchment and insisted that all the dialogue be used for the part of the flashback that depicted Rick and Ilsa’s drive through Paris into the countryside. Curtiz believed the sequence played better without words and ignored him. Wallis’s memo of May 28 demanded that the scene be reshot with the dialogue. The scene in which Bogart says to Bergman, “I’m sorry for asking. We said no questions,” was reshot, but the process shot of the pair in the car remained without dialogue, as originally filmed. Curtiz also replaced the musical number “Tabu” with “Tango of the Roses,” a performance by the soprano Corinna Mura while playing her guitar. The substitution allowed the insertion of a brief piano interlude in order to easily cut to Dooley Wilson.

Curtiz concentrated on controlling what he could. His perfectionism occasionally exceeded the forbearance of those who liked him. At one point, he shot iterative takes of Claude Rains doing nothing more than walking into the café set. Not understanding what was wanted, Rains became exasperated and made his next entry on a bicycle, much to the delight of Bogart and the crew.

photo of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, director Michael Curtiz during the filming of Casablanca

Matters came to a head when Curtiz, Bogart, Bergman, Henreid, and everyone else did not know precisely how the picture was going to end. Screenwriter Casey Robinson’s preproduction memo (along with the original play) punctures the myth of the totally unknown ending. There was little doubt about essence of the finale, given that the Production Code would not permit a married woman to desert a noble husband to remain with her saloonkeeper lover. And killing off Laszlo in order to allow Ilsa and Rick to be reunited would ruin the picture. It was how to structure the plot to make it plausible. There was also the problem of what to do with Rick after Ilsa and Laszlo left on the plane to Lisbon.

Bergman remembered that “every lunchtime, Curtiz argued with Wallis” over the script. The director tried to calm the anxiety of the actors, one scene at a time. Bergman recalled: “Every morning we said, ‘Well who are we, what are we doing here?’ And Curtiz would say, ‘We’re not quite sure, but let’s get through this scene today and we’ll let you know tomorrow.’”

Howard Koch kept rewriting and changing the words. The need for personal sacrifice in wartime became the key that unlocked the puzzle. It was finally shot on July 17, but not until evening. Bogart and Curtiz had a major disagreement about the final scene that was filmed on Stage 1 against the backdrop of a prop mockup of an airplane. Production assistant Al Alleborn’s report to studio manager Tenny Wright chronicled the situation: “During the day the company had several delays caused by arguments with Curtiz the director, and Bogart the actor. I had to go get Wallis and bring him over to the set to straighten out the situation. At one time they sat around for a long time and argued, finally deciding on how to do the scene. There were also numerous delays due to the cast not knowing the dialogue, which was a rewritten scene that came out the night before.”

Precisely what Bogart and Curtiz quarreled about has been forgotten. The fact that Alleborn needed to summon Wallis indicates that the dispute was heated, as the executive producer visited film sets only occasionally. He had three other pictures in production concurrently with Casablanca. It is possible that Bogart initiated a quarrel with Curtiz because he didn’t know his lines that morning and needed to stall to memorize the fresh pages. The new dialogue included the “You’re getting on that plane” and “We’ll always have Paris” colloquy. Jill Gerrard, Curtiz’s last surviving intimate, said that the director told her the argument was over how the ending was to be played. Perhaps some of the Casablanca magic was created by the alchemy of acrimony that so often characterized a Curtiz set.

Casablanca was the sixth-ranked box-office success of 1943, grossing $4,496,000. In addition to winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, and Writing, it would garner five other nominations for Best Actor (Bogart), Supporting Actor (Rains), Cinematography (Arthur Edeson), Editing (Owen Marks), and Music (Max Steiner). In the midst of World War II, it became America’s symbol of what it meant to be on the right side in a world starkly divided between good and evil. What no one anticipated was the future ascent of the film into a rarified firmament of popular culture that few movies ever occupy.

Curtiz bio 52 michael curtiz onstage cbs 353w 450h

Even though Curtiz credited Hal Wallis for the picture that would finally win him his Best Director Oscar, Casablanca never would have been what it became without his brilliance. Jack Warner acknowledged Curtiz’s supremacy on the lot as he extended the director’s contract with a sizeable bump in salary. Michael Curtiz never looked back. He began directing another picture three days before Casablanca’s premiere.

Copyright © 2017 Alan K. Rode. No reuse without permission.

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