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In the summer of 1998, I attended a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The program was titled "A 75th-Anniversary Tribute to Warner Bros: The Music and the Films." As film segments from various Warner Brothers’ films were projected above the Bowl, the orchestra played the music written for these scenes, mostly from original scores. Two works by Max Steiner were performed: Music written for the 1942 movie Now, Voyager and the movie Casablanca made in 1943. Now, Voyager is a drama starring Bette Davis and Paul Henreid (who played Victor in Casablanca). The scene shown from Now Voyager was classic Bette Davis, and during the film segment the audience could not contain itself. There was giggling, whispers, and at one point loud laughter (and these scenes were not meant to be funny!). In contrast, the audience (almost 17,000 people) sat in utter silence as we watched, most of us for the umpteenth time, the last scenes from Casablanca and listened to Rick and the others speak their familiar lines as the orchestra played Steiner’s original score. When Rick and Captain Renault walk off into the fog and The End appeared (but before the orchestra finished playing), the audience applauded loudly. Fifty five years after it was made, Casablanca still wows the audience.

, considered the "best" or one of the best movies ever made, is based on a play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, that James Agee calls "one of the world’s worst plays." There are many reasons for Casablanca’s success, and one of those is that Howard Koch, Julius J. Epstein and Phillip G Epstein, the writers of the screenplay, had to figure out a way to make the story, with its exotic location and strange characters, work and end.

It’s pretty well known that during the making of Casablanca, Koch and the Epstein brothers hadn’t figured out how the movie would end. Conventional formulas would have had Rick and Elsa leave together with Victor killed off by the Nazis. One of the most satisfying things about this movie, is that the writers did not fall back on this obvious ending but come up with something that was honest, non-melodramatic and consistent with the integrity of the characters.

To get a sense of how meaningful this is, imagine that Casablanca had never been made and someone thought that the original play, Everyone Goes To Rick’s, was a great idea for a movie. It’s intriguing to think of how other film makers might have solved the problem with the ending. Here is a sample possible (and whimsical) endings reflecting different formulas and styles:

Romantic (and most obvious):
Rick and Elsa on plane. Victor killed by the Nazis.

Elsa on plane. Rick and Victor killed by the Nazis.

Victor on plane. Elsa and Rick killed by the Nazis.

Black Comedy:
Rick and Victor on the plane. Elsa dumped.

Rick and Captain Renault on the plane. Elsa and Victor left behind.

Rick, Elsa, and Victor killed by the Nazis.

Film Noir:
Elsa is a Nazi spy and kills Victor. She dumps Rick for Captain Renault and the two get on the plane. Sam kills Ferrari but is shot by Major Strasser. Rick kills Strasser.

Rick on plane. Elsa and Victor blow up the German compound.

Politically Correct:
Elsa and Sam on the plane after Rick and Captain Renault come out of the closet and Victor reveals that he is really a supercilious, patronizing bore

Student Film (entered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival):
Victor and Rick beat up and gang rape Elsa. Sam shoots them and gets on plane. Plane blown up by the Nazis.

            *                     *                       *                         *

Many film makers have very personal styles that they have developed and have become associated with them. Consider the results if one of these auteurs were to do a treatment of Everyone Goes To Rick’s. It’s very possible that we would see an entirely different film:

Oliver Stone:
Overhearing a conversation between Rick and Major Strasser, Sam uncovers Rick as a Nazi agent who has been using Elsa to get information on Victor. Captain Renault assassinates Victor and Elsa is sent back to Germany. Nobody gets on the plane.

Woody Allen:
Elsa dumps Rick for Victor and gets on the plane. Rick follows but cannot win Elsa back. In the meantime he runs into Yvonne, the Romanian girl he had saved from a night with Captain Renault. She’s been dumped by her husband, and she and Rick get an apartment together in Brighton Beach. Within a week Yvonne dumps Rick for Captain Renault.

Spike Lee:
In Paris, Elsa had an affair with Sam. Rick finds out when she comes to Casablanca and is enraged. He sells Sam to Senor Ferrari and has Captain Renault jail Elsa. Sam escapes from bondage and incites the Negro Colonial soldiers to mutiny against the Vichy French and Germans. Rick is killed in the rebellion. Sam rescues Elsa, and together they get on the plane.

Steven Spielberg:
Elsa and Victor get on the plane but it is forced down by the Nazi’s after Major Strasser regains consciousness. Rick and Captain Renault break into the heavily guarded concentration camp, rescue Elsa and Victor and get out of the camp in a Panzer tank. Major Strasser captures the four and takes them to a secret, underground Nazi command center. Rick breaks loose, blows up the place, finally killing Major Strasser, and gets out of the cave with Elsa, Captain Renault, and Victor. This time Rick, Elsa, Victor, and Captain Renault are on the plane.

Kevin Costner:
Doesn’t matter how it ends; it’s just two hours longer and costs a fortune to make.

James Cameron:
Elsa, Victor, and Rick get on the plane. Victor resents Rick and demands that Rick sit in the back of the plane. After a terrifying chase by German fighters, the plane is shot down. Rick tries to save Elsa but dies in the crash. Victor is also killed. Only Elsa survives to tell her story fifty years later when the remains of the plane are uncovered in the Sahara Desert.

Okay, I went overboard. But I think I made a point: There are many ways that Casablanca could have been made, reflective of common trends and patented approaches of various film directors. But Casablanca is what it is because, in its creation, something original, strikingly honest, "noble," and appealing to our hope of rising above our less desirable tendencies was realized. Casablanca is a unique, affirming film.

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Last modified: 18 March, 2009