In a recent Internet posting, the Writers Guild of America chose Casablanca as the greatest screenplay of all time. The list of 101 titles included only two foreign films—Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Fellini’s 8 1/2—worth including. I don’t know how people find time for such insipid silliness, but they do. This is not to deny that the film, which was directed by Michael Curtiz (1888–1962), frequently appears on lists of favorite films, and I admit that Casablanca has an ingratiating charm, even after several viewings, but the film is no closer to being the best than its signature song, “As Time Goes By,” is to rivaling Mozart. Casablanca is not even the best American film of 1942.
It is hard to argue with Andrew Sarris’s assessment that Casablanca is a happy accident, one that’s difficult to account for in auteurist terms. Over his 50-year-career the Hungarian-born Curtiz worked in numerous European film industries before coming to Hollywood in 1926. About 80 percent of his silent films are lost, but Sodom and Gomorrah (1922) and Moon of Israel (1924) were sufficiently close to the spectacles of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille to bring Curtiz (then Michael Kertesz) to the attention of Jack Warner. At Warner Brothers, Curtiz became involved in the studio’s nascent sound experiments, and continued his exploration of Biblical themes with Noah’s Ark (1929). In Hollywood, he worked in all genres, but unlike Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh, his films didn’t reveal a scintilla of personality. His work with Errol Flynn, James Cagney, and Joan Crawford was praiseworthy, but Curtiz’s versatility and availability for all assignments mitigated against attempts to elevate him above the level of a very competent hack. In short, there’s no “there” there. What can one say about a guy who could follow up The Egyptian with White Christmas, or jump immediately from Francis of Assisi to a John Wayne western?
Humphrey Bogart had already worked for Curtiz in three previous films, and the director helped save us from many bad memories by insisting on Bogey rather than the announced first choice for the role of Rick: Ronald Reagan. The great Ingrid Bergman somehow won out over Ann Sheridan. Much of Casablanca’s continuing popularity has to be attributed to its glowing ensemble cast. The script, by the Epstein Brothers and Howard Koch, is first-rate, and the film, photographed by Arthur Edeson (All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon) does look good and authentic. Even the work of composer Max Steiner, usually given to excess, is tolerable. No doubt, Michael Curtiz was around for all this and may have given helpful suggestions, but his whole career argues that he didn’t give a fig for the romantic issues facing Rick and Ilse, or the cosmic issues facing the world in 1943. He was, no doubt, already looking ahead to his next assignment.
My recent post on John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon got two responses. This is certainly welcome, since I’m never quite sure anybody out there is paying attention. I do want to reply to the gentleman who cited Huston as the foremost American adapter of literary works, comparable to David Lean in Britain. I would not disagree with this, but it seems to me a relatively minor achievement in the context of the dozens of major cinema artists who have made original contributions to the medium, which is primarily visual. Some of the greatest films have been adapted, after all, from literary works of the pulp variety, films by John Ford, Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Howard Hawks, to cite just a few.