'Casablanca' Filmed Elsewhere : At Burbank Airport, a Myth Is Just a Myth

Times Staff Writer

Great myths die hard.

An appeal to something deep in the human soul is what made them myths in the first place.

One particular myth that will probably live on for years goes like this:

The climactic scene in the classic 1942 movie "Casablanca," one of the great moments in film, was shot at Burbank Airport.

It wasn't, but the truth is nearby. According to old studio reports, the airport that audiences see in a few fleeting glimpses in that film is not Burbank, but Van Nuys Airport.

The myth did give air travel another dimension, especially for San Fernando Valley dwellers, who use Burbank Airport in large numbers. It was a daydreamer's delight, bringing to a routine airport wait the feather-light memory of a high point in American film history.

Just think. Here--where an exasperated mother is trying to herd six suitcases and three small boys on a plane to San Jose--may have been where Humphrey Bogart, playing Rick, told Ingrid Bergman, playing Ilsa, that the troubles of people like themselves in the confusing early days of World War II "don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

There--where an oil worker waiting for a flight to Anchorage dozes on a bench--was perhaps where a heartbroken Rick nobly sacrificed the great love of his life, dispatching Ilsa to the higher duty of keeping up the morale of her stuffy husband in his crusade against the Nazi evil.

Bogart Abandons Bergman

Or over there--where a pudgy businessman gallops across the Tarmac to catch the departing plane to Fresno--Rick was finally forced by love and fate to abandon the feigned selfishness that was his refuge from troubled times and take a stand with the good guys, drilling the Nazi Maj. Strasser with a concealed pistol.

With a little moonlight and a lot of fog, you could almost see the ghosts and hear the lines, drifting around the PSA baggage carts:

"Round up the usual suspects."

"Here's looking at you, sweetheart."

"But we'll always have Paris."

The myth is widespread but undocumented. "It was the first thing I can remember ever hearing about Burbank Airport," said Victor Gill, an airport spokesman. But he agreed there was nothing to back it up in the files of the airport, or of Lockheed Corp., which ran the airport in 1942.

Film Archive Keeper

Even Leith Adams, keeper of the Warner Bros. archives that the studio donated to USC, dismissed a challenge to the myth as "absolutely false." He said it was clear from studio records that the scene was shot at Burbank Airport.

The challenge came from Richard Alleman, author of the recently published "Movie Lover's Guide to Hollywood," who wrote:

"And then there was Casablanca. Movieland legends say that this classic film . . . used the Burbank airport for that last tear-wrenching moment in which Humphrey Bogart doesn't fly away with Ingrid Bergman (but instead sends her off with Paul Henreid). Actually, according to Mr. Henreid himself, the foggy Moroccan runway was created on a Warner Bros. sound stage.

"Mr. Henreid and several historians do admit that the Burbank airport may have been used for the long shot of the plane taking off--but no one knows for sure."

Right and wrong. There were those who knew, and they left records.

Detailed Files

Files from the making of many of the Warner Bros. films are in the archives. The "Casablanca" file includes everything from the pre-filming opinions of those who judged the story's box-office potential--some complained that Ilsa was rather a tramp and it was too hard to believe that any American owned a nightclub in French North Africa--to the last name of Sam, the piano player who played it again for Rick. (It was Rabbit. Sam Rabbit. Beat that for trivia games.)

In the file are the daily shooting reports written by the unit manager of the "Casablanca" company, Al Alleborn, for T. C. (Tenny) Wright, the general studio manager. They cover each day the company worked, from casting and wardrobe tests to a final scrap of dialogue. They show who did what, every scene that was shot and even when the crew had lunch. The reports establish two things clearly about the famous airport scene:

Most of what audiences see in the concluding scenes was filmed on sound stage No. 1 at Warner Studios in Burbank on Friday, July 17; Saturday, July 18, and Monday, July 20. That includes all dialogue and anything else involving the actors.

A second unit later filmed runways and an airplane at Van Nuys Airport to blend with scenes shot on the sound stage.

On the night of July 23, ("50th shooting day, company 8 days behind" schedule), assistant director Ross Lederman took a second unit to Metropolitan Airport--as Van Nuys Airport was known until 1956--and "set fog effect," Alleborn reported. The crew then spent midnight to 3:30 a.m. on July 24 "shooting the EXT(erior) AIRPORT with the plane, night sequence," he wrote. Lederman filed a concurring report.

There is a column on the report form to indicate which actors were on the set. None are listed.

An earlier location shoot at the same airport might have provided some film for "process" shots, in which actors on a sound stage perform in front of a screen on which a film of the background is projected.

On July 10, the company spent a day on location at the Van Nuys airfield, which had been taken over by the Army Air Corps when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor seven months before. But filming took place during the day, not at night, and the only major cast members who worked were Claude Rains, who played Capt. Louis Renault and Conrad Veidt, who played Strasser.

Alternative Site

Because there was a war on, the aircraft shots were almost filmed in Lancaster, in the Mojave Desert. Alleborn's reports record a running worry that the Air Corps would not issue a special permit needed to fly the plane into Metropolitan Airport, which was in a coastal defense zone from which most civilian flying was barred during the war. Lancaster was the alternative site, but the permit came through.

Burbank Airport administrators took the loss of their myth with a stiff upper lip.

"I guess we have enough lore so that the absence of one incident will not overly damage our place in history," Gill said. "At least it's one disappointing piece of news that has nothing to do with the noise issue," he said, referring to the airport's running legal and administrative battles with nearby residents over jetliner noise.

"I will go over to Van Nuys at some point and tell the management there, 'Here's looking at you, sweetheart,"' he lisped, Bogart style.

Van Nuys Airport spokesmen Tom Winfrey chortled in surprise when told of Alleborn's report. "That's great," he said. "We'll finally get the recognition we richly deserve."

But no Casablanca buffs will be able to idle away a wait for a jetliner at Van Nuys Airport by summoning up the ghosts of Rick and Ilsa and Louis. Commercial passenger flights from that airport are banned by city law, and likely will remain so. Traffic is mostly light planes and business jets. There is no passenger terminal.

There may be those who will miss the small distinction the myth gave an otherwise mundane hour at Burbank Airport, waiting for a flight to Tacoma.

Well, here's looking at you, sweetheart. We'll always have Van Nuys.

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