“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.“–Humphrey Bogart in the movie Casablanca
And it’s a darn good thing she did because otherwise Casablanca would have been bereft of one of the great love stories of all time and a poignant sub-plot to the political struggle that drives the action in this classic film set during World War II. And speaking of WW II, Casablanca the movie was timed to open in 1942 to benefit from the publicity surrounding the just-completed Allied takeover of Casablanca the city. Until November of 1942, this port city in Morocco, which was formerly a part of the French colonial empire, had been under the dual control of Nazi Germany and the Nazi-puppet government in Vichy, France, that the Germans had installed after occupying France in 1940.
In Casablanca (the movie), both the Nazis and their French Vichy collaborators play prominent roles, especially Captain Louis Renault (played memorably by Claude Rains), the cynical, amoral French police chief whose chief aim is to get rich through graft and gambling at Rick’s Café, the “gin joint” owned by the equally cynical (but morally principled) Rick Blaine (Bogart).
For its part, the box office success of Casablanca (the movie) focused attention on Casablanca the war conference, which was convened in Casablanca (the city) shortly after the movie opened. And as it happened, at Casablanca (the conference) President Roosevelt and Britain’s Winston Churchill finally severed their relations with the Nazi-puppet Vichy government and officially recognized Charles De Gaulle and his Free French government-in-exile as France’s legitimate authority. Similarly, while in Casablanca (the movie) Captain Renault is initially an unsavory opportunist, by the final scene he too has renounced his Vichy connection and joined Rick in a pro-Allied partnership.
If these plot similarities seem like good examples of “art imitating life,” perhaps it wasn’t a total coincidence, for as any aficionado of this classic film knows, the Casablanca script was written from one day to the next, and the screenwriters could have easily searched the day’s front-page war headlines for thematic ideas. Indeed, neither Bogart nor Ingrid Bergman, who played his love interest, Ilsa, knew until the last days of shooting whether Ilsa would be leaving Casablanca (the city) with her husband, Victor Lazlo, or staying with Bogart.
In the end she makes the right choice (she leaves), which can only partially be said of the members of the Motion Picture Academy. Although they gave Casablanca (the movie) Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay, they denied Bergman and Bogart (especially the latter) well-deserved Oscars for Best Actress and Actor–a cinematic injustice that has become only slightly more bearable as time goes by.