Everybody Comes to Casablanca

Everybody Comes to Casablanca
From play to screenplay, an historical perspective. – DB

Casablanca is one of those films that everyone feels like they know. The many famous lines from it are part of the American lexicon. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” But for many reasons, the source material, a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, has gone largely unrecognized and unappreciated.

It’s a wonderful play. Not perfect, but powerful. Although the script was purchased for a record breaking $20,000, sadly it has often been dismissed by the filmmakers as having nothing much to contribute except for a character named Rick.

This is a rather cruel and completely undeserved estimation of a provocative and stirring piece of material. Whatever their opinion of the quality of the writing in the play may be, Warner and the screenwriters they hired built the house of Casablanca entirely on what playwrights Murray Burnett and Joan Alison created. The tone of the film is more patriotic, its morals squeakier, the romance more romantic. But Rick’s café, the characters, the story beats, the letters of transit that everyone wants… all of that was invented by the playwrights. The most memorable elements of the story – Sam and the song that’s too painful to hear, the bittersweet romance that got away, the Germans and the French facing off in the form of song – all in the play.

While many things both big and small mark the difference between the play and the screenplay, perhaps nothing is quite as interesting as the historical timing of these two scripts and how world events seem to have affected the take on the material.

One of the two playwrights, Murray Burnett, was inspired to write this anti-Nazi story after a trip first to anti-Semitic Eastern Europe then to a culturally rich nightclub in the south of France in 1938. Later, he and co-writer, Joan Alison, wrote the play in in a six-week stint in the summer of 1940. It didn’t get backers until Warner  swooped in and made the purchase in January of 1942. Supposedly, this was because of the moral questionability of the love affair in the original story, but it might have been far more political than that.

The play was written the same summer that the Germans marched into Paris, occupying France. Nazis had already been imprisoning and murdering people in concentration camps for years. However, the United States was still taking a staunch position of isolationism. Americans by and large did not want to enter another war no matter what. Everybody Comes to Rick’s could find no support.

But in January of 1942, only one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor that effectively thrust America into WWII, Warner decided to buy the story for an unprecedented amount. America had changed its mind.

A side-by-side reading of the play and the screenplay offers a rather unique picture of Before and After the war began for the States. The scripts for stage and screen show us two very different versions of how Americans as a whole wanted to see themselves. Pre vs. Post Pearl Harbor, the United States went from isolation to engagement.

In the play, it’s spoken of and overtly demonstrated throughout that Rick is “neutral” about everything. He doesn’t take sides regarding the law, or politics, or the war between Germany and the rest of Europe. He has a rule that he doesn’t ever sit with anyone in his bar because he doesn’t want to even appear to favor anyone. What he provides is entertainment, escape, and a place to conduct whatever business you want, whatever you are.

Casablanca (1942; Dir. Michael Curtiz) Starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid. Won Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, among others.

The arc of the play is that Rick goes from being a burned out ex-pat lawyer who has no alliances to becoming an enlivened man who risks his life to make sure that a leader in the resistance gets away to safety, taking his own lover with him. He goes from being neutral to the point of being negligent to choosing a side and sacrificing himself for it. He goes from isolation to engagement.

The play tells and shows us that neutrality in the face of evil is complicity. This is what Rick has to learn because it’s what America had to learn. The writers of the original play could see this, and they clearly believed that America should enter the war against Hitler.

The screenplay is a different animal altogether. While the same basic story beats happen, Rick’s arc has been completely flattened out. He no longer grows or learns anything, quite possibly because the film script was written after the U.S. entered the war. We were neutral no more and didn’t want to remember ever having been. To show any ambivalence, such as Rick’s in the play, must have seemed amoral to the filmmakers. The story in the film still takes place before U.S. engagement, but clearly the hero has been given a spit shine.

The film script makes Rick a dyed-in-the-wool good guy. It tells us that he ran guns for Ethiopia and fought against the Fascists in Italy. This Movie Rick is not allowed passage to America because of all the good but dangerous deeds he’s already done. He doesn’t want people to know, of course, that he’s been fighting for the underdog all along, but it seems to be an open secret.

Play Rick is rife with moral relativism, selfishness, and desire. Movie Rick is all cleaned up. Yes, he gets crabby around Laszlo, his lover’s husband, and holds out on giving him the letters of transit apparently out of jealousy. But Rick, in the end, does the right thing, because he’s always done the right thing. Movie Rick takes some risks, but it’s not that big of a deal because he’s just that kind of guy. The theme has been stripped because Rick in the film is never an isolationist to begin with. His former neutrality was apparently of no value to an American audience who now roared into war with vigor and purpose.

It’s never a great idea to make one’s characters have less of an arc or be less dynamic, but the film script manages to do that. The intentions behind that choice seem artistically questionable. If America didn’t want to help the beleaguered people of Europe until we ourselves got bombed, Casablanca the film helps them forget that. The film reframes American participation in the war against the Third Reich as something that was inevitable. It wasn’t. It’s hard to say if this represents an intentional whitewashing of history in the guise of a romantic thriller, or if the studio just saw the opportunity to tell a clean anti-Nazi story as part of the new wave of lucrative pro-American propaganda films it would continue to make throughout the war.

There are other shifts from stage to screen. Most adaptors seek to open up the space of a play, make it active, get in some blue sky, establish context. For some, theatre is just a “two hour wide shot.” And indeed, all three acts of Everybody Comes to Rick’s takes place in the large open space of his café, a glamorous nightclub with music provided by the famously beloved piano man, Sam.

While for some, the single location staging might be considered a limitation, this play actually makes the point in its very conceit that Rick’s café is the world. There’s no need to go anywhere else to get a drink, buy illicit goods, sell a valuable commodity, place a bet, hear your favorite song, or reunite with a long lost lover. Quite literally, everybody comes to Rick’s.

While the film script seeks to open up the world for cinematic purposes, it’s truthfully not necessary at all to tell this taut, clever story. It’s somewhat ironic, perhaps, that the entire film was shot inside a studio with the exception of the Van Nuys airport playing the airfield in Morocco and some stock footage of Paris.

So what does the screenplay give us that adds to the impact of this material? How did this become such a quotable, lovable film? It’s all about the dialogue. The play does have some solid dialogue. Almost everything about Ilsa asking Sam to play “As Time Goes By” came directly from the play. But the sock-it-to-you zingers, the real poetry, arrived freshly with the film.

As the screenplay was a group effort, we don’t know who wrote what line, including possibly the actors themselves. Credited are twins, Julius J. Epstein & Phillip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch. The script sparkles with crisp, exacting, funny and earnest dialogue. It’s curious to imagine what these lines must have read like when they were brand new. Reading them now is like hearing the voice of an old friend. They’re rousing, passionate, and wise.

Both written forms of this story are strong. Both have very different things to say about moral relativism and what America looked like before and after its decision to join the war. The shift from stage to screen here is nothing short of America’s newfound determination to engage the Axis powers in war and the desire to willfully believe that the intention to do the right thing was part of America all along.


Additional reading:

Everyone Comes to Rick’s — the original play by Murray Bennet and Joan Alison
Casablanca — screenplay by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch

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