Skip to page content

FastNotes

  • Among the most beloved of all American films, Casablanca (1942) was, as film historian Rudy Behlmer once wrote, “the perfect melding of elements: colorful characters…an exotic locale…first-rate supporting players…and the restoration of idealism and heroic commitment to a cause.”
  • Producer Hal Wallis commissioned Viennese composer Max Steiner, who had scored Gone With the Wind (1939), to write the music. Unfortunately for Steiner, there was a catch. Written into the script was the song “As Time Goes By” (the subject of Ilsa’s “Play it, Sam”).
  • Steiner hated the song and preferred to write his own. Producer Wallis, however, insisted on “As Time Goes By,” and Steiner’s adaptation became a classic instance of a film composer transforming pre-existing musical material into something much greater and more impactful than anyone thought possible.
  • In addition to the song, Steiner interpolated the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” into key moments of the score. Approximately half of Steiner’s music was his own original material, and the film also contains nearly 20 minutes of popular music of the era.

Among the most beloved of all American films, Casablanca (1942) was, as film historian Rudy Behlmer once wrote, “the perfect melding of elements: colorful characters involved in what is essentially a love story; an exotic locale crammed with first-rate supporting players and melodramatic incidents; tough, cynical repartee; sentimental interludes; and the restoration of idealism and heroic commitment to a cause.”

In 1941, Warner Bros. bought the rights to an unproduced play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s by writers Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, about a nightclub in the Moroccan city of Casablanca that had become a refuge for Europeans fleeing the war. Hal B. Wallis, the studio’s most important producer, turned it into a film the next year, with Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz directing and no fewer than seven writers (primarily brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, and an uncredited Casey Robinson) tackling the script prior to, and even during, production on the Warner lot in Burbank.

Humphrey Bogart played the bitter American expatriate Rick Blaine, proprietor of Rick’s Cafe Americain; Ingrid Bergman was Ilsa Lund, his one-time paramour who mysteriously left him in Paris but turns up unexpectedly at his saloon (“of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” Rick says); and Paul Henreid played her husband Victor Laszlo, a fugitive leader of the Czech Resistance who arrives with her in Casablanca.

One of the joys of the film is its cast of brilliant supporting players, including Claude Rains as the amusingly corrupt French Captain Louis Renault; Dooley Wilson as Sam, piano player in the bar and Rick's only confidante; Sydney Greenstreet as Ferrari, black marketeer and Rick’s shrewd competitor; Peter Lorre as Ugarte, a petty thief whose stolen documents are a key to the plot; Conrad Veidt as German Major Heinrich Strasser, determined to stop Laszlo from leaving Casablanca; and S.Z. Sakall as Carl, Rick’s charming head waiter.

Wallis commissioned Viennese composer Max Steiner (1888-1971) to write the music. Already an Oscar winner for The Informer (1935) and renowned for both his landmark score for King Kong (1933) and his magnum opus Gone With the Wind (1939), he would eventually win two more Academy Awards (for Now, Voyager, 1942, and Since You Went Away, 1944) and create an enduring pop hit in his theme for A Summer Place (1959).

Unfortunately for Steiner, there was a catch. Written into the script was the song “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld for the 1931 Broadway musical Everybody’s Welcome and a minor hit for singer Rudy Vallee. In the story, it was Rick and Ilsa’s favorite song as lovers in Paris; when she visits Rick’s bar, she reminds Sam of the tune (“play it, Sam,” she says, not “play it again, Sam,” which despite its inaccuracy became the popular phrase).

Steiner hated the song and preferred to write his own (his “It Can’t Be Wrong,” based on his theme for Now, Voyager, would be a hit for crooner Dick Haymes just a few months after Casablanca’s release). Producer Wallis, however, insisted on “As Time Goes By,” and Steiner’s adaptation of the Hupfeld song became a classic instance of a film composer transforming pre-existing musical material into something much greater and more impactful than anyone thought possible. (Steiner sarcastically signed the last page of his score “Herman Hupfeld” and never mentioned Casablanca in his unpublished 1960s memoir, Notes to You.)

“As Time Goes By” is the backbone of Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score, effectively serving as the Rick-and-Ilsa love theme in all its moods: romantic, pensive, ominous, hopeful. His various renditions of the song account for nearly a third of the 40 minutes of music that Steiner composed and arranged for Casablanca.

In addition to the Hupfeld song, Steiner interpolated the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” into key moments of the score. It becomes a symbol of the French determination to overcome the Nazi menace, especially when the freedom-loving visitors to Rick’s drown out the Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” with a heartfelt, emotional “La Marseillaise”; and during the concluding moments of the film. Steiner also plays “Deutschland uber alles” for the German soldiers on three occasions.

Approximately half of Steiner’s music was his own original material, including a colorful, drumbeat-driven opening, set against a map of Africa; poignant music for the plight of the refugees; menacing sounds for the Nazis marching into Paris; a heroic motif for Laszlo; and suitably exotic music for Ferrari’s Blue Parrot club.

The film also contains nearly 20 minutes of popular music of the era, most of it “played” by the house band at Rick’s. One original song, M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl’s “Knock on Wood,” is sung by Wilson early in the film. The other songs include the standards “It Had to Be You,” “The Very Thought of You,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” and “Love for Sale,” all arranged by Warner staff composer Frank Perkins.

Warner Bros. had planned to release Casablanca in June 1943, but when the Allies landed in North Africa in early November 1942, the studio capitalized on the news and opened it in New York later that month. The general release took place in January 1943, which resulted in Casablanca winning 1943 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay; Wallis won that year’s Irving Thalberg Award.

Jon Burlingame is a Los Angeles-based film music historian.