Nov 262017

On this date in 1942 the film Casablanca premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York. It was a moderate box office success at first, but not stellar. It was not expected to be more than a run-of-the-mill wartime movie, rushed into release to take advantage of the publicity from the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca a few weeks earlier. It went on to win three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director (Curtiz), and Adapted Screenplay (the Epsteins and Koch) – and gradually its reputation grew. Its lead characters, memorable lines, and theme song have all become iconic and the film consistently ranks near the top of lists of the greatest films in history. I saw Casablanca first in the early 1960s when old Hollywood black and white movies were the stock-in-trade of South Australian television because movies had to be at least 10 years old to be shown, and my parents (both Second World War veterans) would not have missed it for the world. My father anticipated and then cheered for the scene featuring the clash between Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” drowned out by the house band and patriots singing “La Marseillaise,” and my mother got a bit weepy during the finale. I had no idea what the movie was about at age 10, but the scenes stayed with me over the years, and I’ve seen it many times since. Taken out of context it isn’t such a great movie in my oh-so-humble opinion, but you really can’t take it out of context any more. People still quote classic lines when making a point, and clips from the movie itself show up in other movies – in When Harry Met Sally, for example.  Here’s that great iconic scene:

There are plenty of complete versions of Casablanca on YouTube if you need your fix.

The story for Casablanca was based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Story editor Irene Diamond convinced producer Hal B. Wallis to purchase the film rights to the play in January 1942. Brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein were initially assigned to write the script. However, despite studio resistance, they left to work on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series early in 1942. Howard E. Koch was assigned to the screenplay until the Epsteins returned a month later. Principal photography began on May 25, 1942, ending on August 3. The film was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California with the exception of that climactic sequence at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.

The cinematography of Casablanca has been much commented on. The cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a veteran who had previously shot The Maltese Falcon and Frankenstein. Particular attention was paid to photographing Bergman. She was shot mainly from her preferred left side, often with a softening gauze filter and with catch lights to make her eyes sparkle; the whole effect was designed to make her face seem “ineffably sad and tender and nostalgic.” Bars of shadow across the characters and in the background variously imply imprisonment, the crucifix, the symbol of the Free French Forces and emotional turmoil. Dark film noir and expressionist lighting was used in several scenes, particularly towards the end of the picture.

The music for Casablanca was written by Max Steiner, who was best known for the score for Gone with the Wind. The song “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld had been part of the story from the original play. Steiner wanted to write his own composition to replace it, but Bergman had already cut her hair short for her next role (María in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and could not re-shoot the scenes which incorporated the song, so Steiner based the entire score on it and “La Marseillaise,” transforming them as leitmotifs to reflect changing moods. Even though Steiner didn’t like “As Time Goes By”, he admitted in a 1943 interview that it “must have had something to attract so much attention.” The duel of the songs between Strasser and Laszlo at Rick’s café is, of course, a critical turning point in the plot. Originally, the opposing piece for this sequence was to be the “Horst Wessel Lied”, a Nazi anthem, but this was still under international copyright in non-Allied countries. Instead “Die Wacht am Rhein” was used. “Deutschlandlied”, the national anthem of Germany, features in the final scene, in which it gives way to “La Marseillaise” after Strasser is shot.

In 1942 Casablanca garnered decent reviews.  Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “The Warners … have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.” He approved of the combination of “sentiment, humor and pathos with taut melodrama and bristling intrigue.” He also noted the film’s “devious convolutions of the plot,” and praised the quality of the screenplay and the performances of the cast.  Variety commended the film’s, combination of fine performances, engrossing story and neat direction” and the “variety of moods, action, suspense, comedy and drama that makes Casablanca an A-1 entry at the b.o. Film is splendid anti-Axis propaganda, particularly inasmuch as the propaganda is strictly a by-product of the principal action and contributes to it instead of getting in the way.” The review also applauded the performances of Bergman and Henreid and noted that “Bogart, as might be expected, is more at ease as the bitter and cynical operator of a joint than as a lover, but handles both assignments with superb finesse.” Other reviews were less enthusiastic. The New Yorker rated it only “pretty tolerable” and said it was “not quite up to Across the Pacific, Bogart’s last spyfest”.

In the 1,500-seat Hollywood Theater, the film grossed $255,000 over ten weeks. In its initial U.S. release, it was a substantial but not spectacular box-office success, taking in $3.7 million, making it the seventh highest-grossing film of 1943. By 1955, the film had brought in $6.8 million, making it the third most successful of Warners’ wartime movies (behind Shine On, Harvest Moon and This Is the Army). 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. Other colleges have since adopted the tradition. By 1977, Casablanca was the most frequently broadcast film on US television.

You might object to me saying that out of context Casablanca is not a great movie. Such judgments are personal, of course. It has the aura and mystique of the Golden Era of Hollywood which I don’t care for, and the characters are all stereotypes (archetypes if you want to Jungian), with some complexity, but no real development. Fortunately, Umberto Eco agrees with me. He wrote that “by any strict critical standards … Casablanca is a very mediocre film.” He viewed the changes the characters undergo as inconsistent rather than complex: “It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects.” He did add, however, that the use of multiple archetypes allows “the power of Narrative in its natural state without Art intervening to discipline it.” He also wrote that the movie reached “Homeric depths” and that was a “phenomenon worthy of awe.” A bit over the top towards the end there, but sums up my feelings (more or less).

Chicken Casablanca needs to be the dish of the day. There have been plenty of cocktails created to celebrate the movie if that’s your poison, but I’ll stick with chicken. This recipe uses ras el hanout as the primary flavoring, commonly used in Moroccan dishes. You’ll find recipes without it, but I hardly think they are worth considering. Ras el hanout plays a similar role in North African cuisine as garam masala does in Indian cuisine. The name is Arabic for “head of the shop” (similar to the English expression “top-shelf”) and implies a mixture of the best spices the seller has to offer.

As with garam masala, there is no definitive composition of spices that makes up ras el hanout. Each shop, company, or family may have their own blend. The mixture usually consists of over a dozen spices, in different proportions, although some purists insist that it must contain exactly 12 items. Commonly used ingredients include cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, and dry turmeric. Some spices may be particular to the region, such as ash berries, chufa, grains of paradise, orris root, monk’s pepper, cubebs, dried rosebud, fennel seed or aniseed, galangal, long pepper. Ingredients may be toasted before being ground or pounded in a mortar and mixed together. If you cannot find it locally you can get a version online.

Chicken Casablanca


2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1 onion, peeled and diced small
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 stalks celery, diced small
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 pint pureed butternut squash
1 cup chicken broth
2 tbsp ras el hanout
2 tsp ground cinnamon
salt and pepper
1 cup shelled fresh peas
⅓ cup raisins


Place the chicken broth and the squash puree in a saucepan and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking or burning. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot over high heat and quickly brown the chicken breasts on both sides (in batches if necessary). Do not cook all the way through. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.

Reduce the heat under the pot to medium and add the onion. Sauté until lightly browned. Add the garlic and for another minute. Add the celery and carrot and sauté together for another 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low,  cover the pot, and leave the vegetable mixture to sweat for 10 minutes.

Pour the squash and chicken broth mixture over the vegetables in the pot, stir and bring to a slow simmer. Season the mixture with ras el hanout, cinnamon, and salt, and pepper to taste. Cover the pot and simmer for 40 minutes.

Cut the chicken breasts into chunks and add them to the pot. Stir in the peas and raisins and simmer for 15 minutes longer. You want the chicken to be cooked and juicy, but not overcooked.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

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