Casablanca - a tribute to a classic

by Albert Silver
5/26/2016 – Although the timeless masterpiece "Casablanca" is adored by film-lovers throughout the world, among chess fans in particular, it holds a special place in our hearts for the famous chess scene with Humphrey Bogart. Very recently, Madeleine LeBeau, the last surviving credited cast member passed away at the age of 92. We take advantage to pay homage to the great classic.

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Warning: if you haven't already seen the film "Casablanca" (1942), then consider stopping here and watching it before reading this article. Much of what follows contains spoilers, and might dampen the freshness of the experience.

The news that came out seemed almost innocuous, a footnote of interest only to the most fervent film buffs: Madeleine LeBeau had passed away at age 92.

Carried in all the specialized press, here is a eulogy by Variety

However, the meaning of it was more than the death of an aged actress, whose name alone probably would not even raise an eyebrow to most (hesitating to write 'all') readers. So who was she? Madeleine LeBeau was the last credited cast member of the film "Casablanca", one of the movies with the greatest impact in film history, with possibly more popular quotes to this day than any other, not to mention included in almost every single list of Top Ten Films Ever. Even the chess scene with Humphrey Bogart can be considered almost unique.

It is strange to say that one of the most iconic and memorable films ever was a slow-burner, taking time to achieve its cult status, but that is indeed the case. It isn't that the film was a flop (it was not), or that it was considered a B-list film (of course not), but nor was it seen or expected to be anything exceptional that would stand out as it did. Not by the director, not by the studio, and not be the actors themselves.

Birth of a classic

It all started with a play by Americans Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, written in 1940, called "Everybody Comes to Rick's". The idea came after the summer of 1938, when the couple had traveled to Vienna to help Jewish relatives smuggle money out of Austria, which had been occupied by the Nazis since March that year. Later, on their return, the couple visited a small town in the south of France, where they went to a nightclub overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A black pianist played jazz for a crowd of French, Nazis, and refugees. Thus was born the inspiration and idea of the play.

The cover of the play upon which "Casablanca" was based

The play was written in 1940, prior to the entry of the United States into World War II, and was strongly anti-Nazi and pro-French Resistance. The couple tried to convince Broadway producers to back it with no luck, but an extreme windfall befell them when story editor Irene Diamond read it while in New York, and convinced Hollywood film producer Hal B. Wallis to purchase the film rights for a record sum (for a previously unproduced play) of US$20 thousand in January 1942.

With the film rights secured, the Epstein brothers, veteran script writers under contract with Warner Bros. were assigned to the project. Although more than one writer was given a task on it, the Epstein brothers were the bulk of it by far, and are credited with the structure and sparkling dialogue that have marked the film.  

Julius J. (left) & Philip G. Epstein won an Academy Award for their adapted screenplay

As an interesting sidenote, despite their success, the Epstein brothers' 17-year tenure at Warner Bros was tumultuous. In the 1940s and 1950s when government investigators were trying to unmask alleged communists in Hollywood, Philip Epstein, a critic of communism, was asked if he had ever belonged to a subversive organisation.

"Yes," he replied. "Warner Bros."

In spite of this, or perhaps because of their strong personalities, their work on the Casablanca screenplay earned them the academy award for best screenplay in 1943.

One might wonder how much of this credit was deserved as the film did stem from a play. However, by all accounts, while the play did provide the backbone and core of the film, it underwent many powerful changes in not only the characters but details of the plot itself. How deep? In the play Rick Blaine, immortalized on the screen by Humphrey Bogart, calls Ilsa (Ingrid Bergamn in the film) a 'bitch' and Laszlo (Paul Henreid) a 'high-class pimp', which are nothing like the classy character in the movie. Another distinction is that in the play the Nazi Major Strasser is not after the names of the underground leaders from Laszlo, but seven million dollars that Laszlo enriched himself with thanks to an underground newspaper. Should he turn over the money, he will supposedly be free to leave. The dispute is therefore not about the freedom and lives of resistance leaders but just money. All these details add up and ultimately had a profound effect on the tale and its impact, raising what was an average but promising play to immortal status.

As a tribute to just how much attention and care went into the film, consider the tale of the famous last line of the film, not authored by the Epstein brothers or any of the screenwriters. The film's producer Hal B. Wallis wrote the final line, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," after shooting had been completed, and Bogart had to be called in a month after the end of filming to dub it.

Although the film was a substantial box-office success, it was not a spectacular one, taking $3.7 million on its initial U.S. release, making it the seventh highest grossing film of 1943. The film did garner its share of praise, notably with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, but even such awards are not enough to ensure such a lasting legacy.

On April 21, 1957, the Brattle Theater of Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed the film as part of a season of old movies. It was so popular that it began a tradition of screening Casablanca during the week of final exams at Harvard University, which continues to the present day, and has been followed up by other colleges that have adopted the tradition. It is quite likely this tradition that helped the movie remain popular while other famous films of the 1940s faded away, so much so that by 1977, Casablanca was the most frequently broadcast film on American television.

Quotefest

There is no question that Casablanca is an absolute quotefest. The number of memorable lines that have entered popular culture is legion. For example, the ironic and iconic line "round up the usual suspects" has been incorporated in the titles of business, sociology and political science articles, and is certainly pervasive in conversation and dialogue.

 

A scene from Casablanca with two of its most famous lines

Six lines from Casablanca appeared in the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 Movie Quotations in American cinema, the most of any film (Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz tied for second with three apiece).

"Here's looking at you, kid" - 5th
"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."—20th
"Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'."—28th
"Round up the usual suspects."—32nd
"We'll always have Paris."—43rd
"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."—67th

 

Still, more than just famous lines, the beautiful Madeleine Beau, whose death instigated this article was
also a key component of one of the most famous and stirring scenes of the film, that of the Marseillaise,
when she is shown singing it with tear-filled eyes.

Chess

An avid chess player of expert ability, Bogart reportedly had the idea that Rick Blaine be portrayed
as one, a metaphor for the sparring relationship he maintained with friends, enemies, and tenuous
allies. One subtle element that makes it stand out over all other scenes is that Rick is visibly analyzing
by himself, with no opponent now or later. It is a chess player's thing that makes it stand apart.

Every chess player knows the famous scene in "Casablanca" with Humphrey Bogart in front of a
chessboard, but here is one off-camera, on the set of the film. In it Claude Rains (left) watches the
usual suspects, Humphrey Bogart and Paul Heinreid, play a game.

Casablanca is one of those films that never seems to lose its veneer, whatever the explanations, and there are many, from the professional Pulitzer-Prize winning movie critic Roger Ebert, who stated "Citizen Kane is generally considered to be a "greater" film, but Casablanca is more loved.", while Umberto Eco described it as a movie reaching "Homeric depths" as a "phenomenon worthy of awe." One thing is certain, its appeal shows no sign of diminishing, resisting the effects of age like no other.

Here's looking at you, kid.



Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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Karbuncle Karbuncle 6/2/2016 08:55
The off-camera chess position as best as I could reason out:

r1b1k2r/ppp2p2/2nBpq2/3p2pp/2PP4/4PP2/PPQ3PP/2KR1BNR b kq -

It looked like black was a bit of a patzer, while Bogart is already displaying a common-sense opening position.
JACERS JACERS 5/27/2016 04:02
WHOOOOAH SILVER! Another feisty masterpiece full of snap , crack and popcorn. ......incidentally .... Grandmaster Kashdan often spoke of the Maltese Falcon wonder man. Jude Acers / New Orleans
NiceChappie NiceChappie 5/26/2016 10:53
Delightful article. Much appreciated - and a reminder of what a great actor and, by all accounts, what a remarkable human being Bogart was.
SoDesuKa SoDesuKa 5/26/2016 07:59
Excellent article, Al. Great piece, topped off with great photos and clips. Much enjoyed.
americo64 americo64 5/26/2016 05:40
Beautiful !! amazing movie!!
Igor Freiberger Igor Freiberger 5/26/2016 05:28
The way chess is used in Casablanca is subtle but well thought. Rick doesn't drink with others. He has no friends or relatives. No homeland, either. It would be improper to see him playing with anyone. As an outsider, he appears studying an opening, what marks both his solitude and critical character. The way his life approach is changed during the movie is one of the elements which makes Casablanca so special.

Bogart was known as probably the best chess player of Hollywood. In 1955 he draw against Samuel Reshevsky during a simul. A joke told since then is that, after the game, Bogart said to Reshevsky: "Play it again, Sam!"
KevinC KevinC 5/26/2016 01:54
There were at least a couple of articles about Bogart in Chess Life way back, and they said Bogart was maybe 1600, which is MUCH more likely than "expert". Actually, after I wrote that last line, I seem to recall that they even printed a game or two of his, and while I certainly do not remember them, I do remember not being overly impressed from my point of view as an ordinary national master.
algorithmy algorithmy 5/26/2016 12:02
it's amazing how many people are still not mature enough to recognize how so silly these old movies are, and they still look at those movies stars as gods while in fact they are nothing but bunch of losers who found themselves ,overnight, stars.

How full of lies and illusions is our civilization!? fake emotions, fake glory, and fake wisdom.
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 5/26/2016 09:35
Iwe watched the film a million of times but never really have noticed Madeleine Beau, shes a Beauty thanks CB for the information. Hope the family have the guts to play the Marseillaise on her funeral!
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