Casablanca and the Missing Reference

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This holiday season marks sixty years since the premiere, on Thanksgiving Day 1942, of Warner Brother’s classic motion picture, Casablanca. Many myths have arisen concerning this classic American movie including the belief that the writers argued over the picture’s ending right up to the filming of the final scene. As with most myths there is a kernel of truth: The writers were writing dialogue for the ending while the filming was beyond the half-way point, unusual for a major Hollywood production; but the outcome always had Rick staying behind, as he did in the play from which the script was adapted. Studio head Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis never seriously considered having Rick leave Casablanca with the letters of transit.

The problem the writers struggled with was character motivation and the believability of their actions. I have always thought that an American movie cliche nearly entered the picture but was luckily left out. Somewhere in those last hectic days of rewrites there may have been a scene where at least one character, Captain Louis Renault, learns about the Pearl Harbor attack. Knowledge of the attack would clarify the captains behavior and dialogue in the final airport scene. Let us first set the time period and then examine Captain Renault’s personality.

Humphrey Bogart playing ex-patriot Rick Blaine sets our historical clocks for us during his drunk scene in the closed and darkened cafe: Rick says to Sam the piano player, “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” Sam says his watch stopped, but Rick continues, “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.” Rick is certainly not making a statement about time zone differences, but rather about America’s neutrality and the desire of many Americans to stay out of the war no matter how evil the enemy. Rick’s answer that they “are” asleep not “were” asleep proves the Japanese attack has yet to occur. So we know the month is December 1941, sometime between the first and the seventh.

The story plays out over a three day period. What if the writers had at one time planned to end the film on the evening of December seventh? (Because of Western Africa’s time zone the first news of Pearl Harbor arrived on the evening of the seventh.) At least three days elapse from the first scene when Major Strasser arrives to the final scene at the airport. Therefore, the writers could have started the story on the afternoon of the fifth and ended on the evening of the seventh.

Now let us examine the personality of the character played by Claude Rains. Police Prefect Captain Louis Renault is intelligent, sly, and the quintessential opportunist. During a conversation at Rick’s, Major Strasser eyes Renault and says “You repeat ‘Third Reich’ as though you expected there to be others.” Renault answers, “Well, personally, Major, I will take what comes.” The following night Strasser takes offense to the Captain’s statement that the French government can cooperate with the Germans but the Police Prefect cannot control the people’s feelings. Strasser says, “Captain Renault, are you entirely certain which side you’re on?” “Frankly,” Renault answers, “I have no conviction,… I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind is blowing from Vichy.”

Renault is also intelligent enough to know that the United States is the only major power not at war with the Nazis, and if America joined Great Britain and the Soviet Union against the Axis, the prevailing wind would change. Renault gives an inkling that he understands this fact during a conversation with Strasser at Renault’s office: The captain mentions Rick; Strasser replies, “another blundering American.” Renault answers, “Quite so. But we mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they ‘blundered’ into Berlin in 1918.”

If knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack was ever included in the script the logical place was just before the finale at the airport. Casablanca’s three main writers were Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip; they all remembered bringing freshly written pages of script to the set. These pages were typed on colored paper in an attempt to keep track of the many changes. In Round Up the Usual Suspects, Aljean Harmetz wrote, “Unfortunately, since there was never an entirely new version of the script, the old pages were simply discarded when new ones replaced them.” Was there a script page where Captain Renault, while driving to Rick’s to arrest Laszlo, hears on the radio about Pearl Harbor? Knowing about the attack would explain some of the dialogue and actions of a man who always has his finger in the prevailing wind.

Certainly, as the Police Prefect of Casablanca, Renault would have been in hot water over the death of Major Strasser, but the sly old survivor probably would have weathered the storm. Yet Renault’s actions after Rick shoots Strasser are drastic — amounting to a one hundred and eighty degree turn. The captain ignores that Rick has shot Major Strasser and tells his gendarmes to “round up the usual suspects.” Then Renault says, “Well Rick, your not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” Rick answers, “Maybe, but it seemed like a good time to start.” Renault replies “I think perhaps you’re right.” Captain Renault then symbolicaly ends his former life by throwing the bottle of Vichy water (representing the collaborationist government of Vichy, France) into the garbage can and kicks it. Acting more concretely, Renault says he can arrange Rick’s passage to the Free French garrison at Brazzaville. Then in the movie’s next to last line Renault says he will join Rick with the Free French.

Renault the survivor has turned on a dime, but what dime, the shooting of Strasser or something else more important. Did the Captain know the prevailing international winds had changed because of American entrance into the war? Without being spoken, the Pearl Harbor attack echoes through the final scene. Was the event included even briefly in those final frenzied rewrites, then lost forever?

Further evidence for the missing reference theory comes from other 1942 Warner’s productions. At this time Warner Brothers had a proclivity for using December 7, 1941 in their story lines. On May 1, three weeks before the start of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart completed the filming of Across Pacific. This movie’s action culminated on the infamous Sunday and included dramatic music as the camera closed in on a desk calendar showing the date — Saturday, December 6, 1941. Filming concurrently on the Warner’s lot with Casablanca was Air Force, a film about a B-17 bomber flying into Pearl Harbor during the attack. Warner Brothers pictures found high drama using the seventh of December in their scripts.

We will probably never know whether the Pearl Harbor attack was ever in the script or almost in the script, but we do know the event that propelled the United States into World War II was floating around Warner’s lot and hovering in the background of Casablanca,. I will always believe the writers thought about motivating opportunist Louis Renault with a dramatic opportunity to switch to the winning side.