You Must Remember This : The ‘Casablanca’ Story Began as a Play--and After 50 Years, Finds a Stage
“If you find me sometimes irritable,” Murray Burnett is saying, “it’s because I feel I’ve been overlooked for the last 50 years.”
For the last six weeks at least, Burnett has been reaping some long-overdue attention with the staging of his play “Rick’s Bar Casablanca,” which finally received its world premiere at the Whitehall Theatre here--half a century after it was first written.
The play, which ended its run over the weekend, was the basis of the much-loved 1942 film classic “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, which went on to win three Oscars (for best film, director and screenplay) and five additional Oscar nominations.
In the play and movie, Casablanca is a moral no-man’s-land, where the major trade is bribery of local officials for exit visas by fugitives from the Nazis. The composure of the cynical American bar owner Rick Blaine is shattered when his old flame, who abandoned him as the Germans entered Paris, arrives at his bar with her husband--a Czech Resistance hero who needs to stay one step ahead of the Third Reich.
You didn’t know “Casablanca” was derived from a stage play?
Join the club.
Everywhere Murray Bennett goes, he bumps into people who tell him, on what they believe to be good authority, that “Casablanca” was originally written by Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein. “They were the screenwriters, and hey, it was a hell of a film,” he says. “But it was my story.”
He and co-author Joan Alison’s, to be precise. Their play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” as it was originally titled, was bought by Warner Bros. in 1941. “They gave us $40,000, which was more money than had ever been given for an unproduced play,” says Burnett, who is now 80.
So far, so good.
“But,” he says, “Warner Bros. has done its best to hide me all these years. For 50 years they have persistently downgraded the play.” A Warner Bros. spokesman in Los Angeles said the film’s credits, which list Burnett and Alison, speak for themselves.
Worse still as far as Burnett is concerned, Koch went on record to cast aspersions on the quality of “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” and claim much of the credit for the movie’s script for himself. Burnett is still bitter about that.
Attempts to reach Koch were unsuccessful.
Then there was Ingrid Bergman, who as recently as 1974 told an interviewer: “Adapted from a play? ‘Casablanca’? I don’t think so.”
Says Burnett: “She would say there wasn’t a script. But in fact the movie follows our play about 80%. I can’t understand why she would say that. Where the hell did she think these lines were coming from?”
Despite his and Alison’s listing in the film’s credits, Burnett says: “There has been a continual put-down of the play.”
The two playwrights are certainly vindicated by their play’s world premiere, if only because it proves beyond doubt that they were the original authors of most of the film’s famous lines.
“Play it, Sam” is theirs. So is “We’ll always have Paris” and “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world. . . .” The song “As Time Goes By” is featured in Burnett and Alison’s play too. “It was one of my favorite songs at Cornell University in 1931,” Burnett says. “My fraternity brothers used to threaten to throw me out of the window for playing it so much. So when I needed a song that would be their song--Rick’s and Lois'--'As Time Goes By’ was a natural.”
Lois? Yes, the original lead female character in the play was named Lois Meredith. In the film version her name was changed to Ilse to accommodate Bergman’s Scandinavian origins.
There are other changes.
“It was a great movie, and it undoubtedly improved on my stage play,” Burnett says. “The one big change and improvement they made was the ending.” In the play, it is left unclear whether the corrupt French Police Capt. Louis Renault arrests Rick; his final line of the movie--"Louis, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship"--came from the screenwriters.
So did the line “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Burnett snorts. “ ‘A hill of beans’? Cliche! Awful! Not mine.”
As for “Here’s looking at you, kid,” he says, grudgingly: “That was Koch’s. That was not a bad line.”
Producer Paul Elliott--whose musical stage play “Buddy!” about the short life of pop singer Buddy Holly is still running after two years in London--wanted to stage “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” in the West End under the title “Casablanca.”
“But Warner Bros. wouldn’t let him do it,” Burnett says. Eventually, Elliott and the studio agreed on the uneasy compromise title “Rick’s Bar Casablanca.”
Burnett likes the original title for more than sentimental reasons. “To me it meant everybody comes to Rick’s, everybody has to make a moral decision,” he says.
He wrote the play with Alison in 1938 after a trip to Vienna, where the Nazis were a dominant force and anti-Semitic propaganda was everywhere. Burnett recalls seeing a huge billboard in a Vienna square, with a grotesque caricature of a Jewish man and the words murderer and thief beneath it. Burnett, who is himself Jewish, describes Vienna as “an indescribable horror, a city of marching feet. I will never ever go back there.”
He returned to New York, related his experiences to Alison, and wrote “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” in what he calls “the white heat of anger--anger at stupid people who refused to acknowledge that Hitler and Nazism were a threat.”
Though Burnett has been disappointed at not receiving his share of recognition for “Casablanca” over the years, he has many other credits--more than 1,000 network-produced radio and TV shows. He also wrote a play called “Hickory Stick,” which was produced on Broadway.
Now he believes that the run of “Rick’s Bar Casablanca” is its own reward. He fretted that audiences might have compared the play with the film too harshly.
“It’s a different medium,” he says. “Look, I thought Bogart and Bergman were wonderful.
“But you must remember this,” he adds, unconsciously quoting from “As Time Goes By,” “a close-up is a wonderful thing. You see Bergman in close-up and it’s breathtaking. But you can’t have a close-up on stage.”
Some of the interest in the play centered in part on the presence of actor Leslie Grantham as Rick. Grantham is one of Britain’s best-known TV actors, having played the villainous character Den Watts for four years on the popular TV soap “Eastenders.”
Burnett was here to see the play through previews all the way up until its first night. Joan Alison, who is older than Burnett and in poor health, could not travel to see the production.
“I’m very proud of the play,” Murray Burnett says. “Listen, there would have been no movie ‘Casablanca’ if this play had never been written. But still the studio has refused to acknowledge it. You know what? I have a 15-page outline for a sequel to the film, which Warners doesn’t even want to look at. It’s a hell of a story.”