Why we’ll always have ‘Casablanca’

Editor’s Note: Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the author of “The Back Page: The Personal Face of History.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

Story highlights

Val Lauder: Small testaments to the film and its stars show up in the news -- even decades later

From obituary headlines to political pundits quoting famous lines, "Casablanca" still resonates, she writes

CNN  — 

November 26, 1942. The Hollywood Theatre in New York City. A new movie is about to open. “Casablanca.”

Nobody could have imagined that a film that seemed to tie in so perfectly to the real-life unfolding of World War II would remain woven into our lives, memories, and conversations and lexicon even 75 years later.

Val Lauder

Yet here we are, generations later still taken with the story of Rick and Ilsa. For one thing, we can’t stop quoting from the famous film.

Just last month, on cable news, a group of political pundits was discussing the latest news of the day; I had to smile when one man said, sampling a quote from “Casablanca’s” Capt. Louis Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that there is gambling going on in here!” Another time, another pundit wrapped up his observations with the Renault line: “Round up the usual suspects.”

The movie has such a hold on the cultural consciousness that news items pop up that remind us how revered “Casablanca” is.

When the upright piano on which Sam, portrayed by actor Dooley Wilson, played “As Time Goes By” in the Paris flashback scenes was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in December 2012, it sold for $602,500. And when the piano he played in Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca was put up for auction at Bonhams in November 2014, it brought $3.4 million.

“Casablanca” trivia is as plentiful as weeds in an untended field. Including that one of the most famous lines in the film was not even written into the draft screenplays, but apparently ad-libbed by Humphrey Bogart, who reportedly used it while teaching Ingrid Bergman to play poker between takes. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

The film would make both Bogie and Bergman stars.

It was Bogart’s first romantic film and Bergman’s official website calls Ilsa her “most famous and enduring role.” Although it was widely reported that she never ceased to be surprised – amazed, to the brink of shock – when fans asked her about “Casablanca,” and not about one of her “more important” films such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls” or “Saratoga Trunk.” But “Casablanca” is the Bergman movie fans remember.

As I’ve watched the film through the years, I’m reminded, during the Paris flashback scenes, of my first year in high school. The newsreel footage of the Germans advancing on Paris shown in the film is what I saw in newsreels (the television of the time) at my neighborhood movie theater that spring, May 1940. The German invasion came up almost every day in my French class.

I saw “Casablanca” my first year in college: Stephens Junior College in Columbia, Missouri. Each Sunday, after dinner in the dorm dining room, my friends and I would go into town and see the latest movie. That long ago winter, one of them was “Casablanca.” And we returned to campus and our social gathering place, the “blue room,” humming “As Time Goes By.”

You must remember this

A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.

The fundamental things apply

As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo

They still say, “I love you.”

On that you can rely.

No matter what the future brings

As time goes by.

Very romantic for college girls – granted, we didn’t know all the lyrics.

And we weren’t the only ones who were smitten with the movie.

It was nominated for eight Academy Awards; it won three – best picture, best director, and best screenplay. In 1989, it was one of the first 25 films selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” And in 1998, in the American Film Institute’s first list of the 100 Greatest Movies Ever Made, it was No. 2, second only to “Citizen Kane,” and ahead of “The Godfather” and “Gone with the Wind.”

Ten years later, marking the 100th Anniversary of Movies, the AFI’s list of the Greatest Movies had it at No. 3, “The Godfather” having moved into second place, but it was No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Love Stories of All Time. The AFI also compiled a list of the Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time, and – surprise! – Casablanca had the most. Six. Twice as many as runners-up “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

“‘Casablanca,’” Roger Ebert said, “is probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title, including ‘Citizen Kane,’ because of its wider appeal.”

There are also books on the film – on its making, offering anecdotes and trivia. You can even get a copy of the shooting script. Or Google it, as I did for this scene after Laszlo and Renault learn Rick and Ilsa had known each other in Paris.

Talk about undercurrents. The undercurrents have undercurrents.

Ilsa: “Let’s see, the last time we met ….”

Rick: “It was ‘La Belle Aurore.’”

Ilsa: “How nice. You remembered. But of course – that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.”

Rick: “Not an easy day to forget, was it?”

Ilsa: “No.”

Rick: “I remember every detail – the Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”

The scene, like so many, endures. Along with the quotes. And we did not appreciate the ever present – perhaps in subtle ways – background of the war.

Just before Bogart pours another drink in his empty café and says one of the most famous lines in film – “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine” – he says to Sam, who is playing softly in the background: “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” Sam, concerned about Rick waiting for Ilsa, says, “My watch stopped.” And Bogart says, “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.”

You don’t have to be a senior citizen like me, who remembers Pearl Harbor, to have that resonate.

The next night, in one of the more dramatic scenes at Rick’s place, when two of Maj. Strasser’s officers sing the German song “Die Wacht Am Rhine,” everyone else in the cafe remains silent. Strasser joins them in support. Then Paul Henreid, who played Victor Laszlo – the resistance hero – walks over to the orchestra and says, “Play ‘La Marseillaise’! Play it!”

Unsure what to do, the orchestra members look to Rick. He nods almost imperceptibly and everyone joins in, drowning out the Germans. When the music ends, Yvonne, the French girl at the bar, shouts: “Vive la France. Vive la démocratie!”

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    It was a confrontation between the Germans and the free world in a café, singing a song, rather than on a battlefield, firing mortars.

    As a small testament to the power of the scene – and the film – when the actress who played Yvonne, Madeleine Lebeau, died last year, The New York Times ran an obituary with the headline: Madeleine Lebeau, Jilted by Bogart in ‘Casablanca,’ Dies at 92.

    An obituary in The New York Times for, as the Times put it, “the French actress who attained movie immortality with one scene, when the camera zoomed in on her tear-stained face as she sang ‘La Marseillaise’ in ‘Casablanca.’”

    True to its time but touching ours. Characters caught in the currents of life. Themes resonating across all 75 years. Here’s looking at you, “Casablanca.”