In anticipation of Casablanca’s seventy-fifth anniversary this year, I’ve made a sustained attempt to reappraise the significance of the film and its illustrious afterlife—in particular how the film, which involved so many European-refugee actors and studio professionals, resonates in the current political climate, with the increasing turn to the right, toward protectionism and isolationism, and a global refugee crisis of a similar scale. But in searching out some of the lesser-known, and least likely, voices on the subject, I’ve been reminded of another critical reappraisal of the film, one that dates back several decades and that hasn’t really received much attention.
Tucked away in My Lunches with Orson, those delicious recorded snatches of midday schmoozing between directors Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (edited by Peter Biskind and published in 2013), is a late chapter titled “Gary Cooper turns me right into a girl!” in which Welles admits, among other things, his hidden affection for Casablanca. The recordings took place at Wolfgang Puck’s Ma Maison, in West Hollywood, in the early 1980s, by which time the once-towering American auteur was approaching his final years; after a string of box-office disappointments and financial hardships, he was notoriously crotchety about all things Hollywood. At different points in his conversations with Jaglom, he skewers the producer Irving Thalberg, snubs Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, throws shade at everyone from Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, and Joan Fontaine to Woody Allen and Marlon Brando, and expresses untrammeled contempt for Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Ford’s The Searchers, and Polanski’s Chinatown. All of which makes his fondness for Casablanca, the seeming apogee of classical Hollywood and “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory,” as Andrew Sarris once called it, that much more surprising.
Of course, Welles doesn’t give up his praise of the film without first getting in a few barbs and backhanded compliments, remaining ever so true to the general snark-laden tenor of the table talk. He starts off by calling Humphrey Bogart a “second-rate actor,” a comment Bogie himself, widely known for his self-deprecating humor both on- and offscreen, might not have disputed. “He was a fascinating personality who captured the imagination of the world,” Welles adds, “but he never gave a good performance in his life.” While most of these chats tend to be Wellesian soliloquies reaffirmed by his yes-man, Jaglom counters on this point: “To me, he gives the perfect performance in Casablanca.” This elicits a few more quibbles from Welles, but when pressed on Bogie’s early breakout role as Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest (1936), he acquiesces: “Well, I didn’t hate him.” The takeaway for Welles, who spent much of the late seventies doing Paul Masson wine commercials and making cameos on the talk-show circuit, is that one doesn’t have to be a good actor to be an international star, a point he drives home with the example of Gary Cooper, whose screen presence somehow turns him into a little girl, or makes him “queer,” as Jaglom teases his lunch partner.
“Neither one of them were much good,” Welles concludes in his comparison of Cooper to Bogart. “But we’re in love with ’em.” To his mind, that’s what makes them stars, if not talented actors. As for the other leads in Casablanca, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Welles holds Bergman in similarly low esteem. “No, she’s not an actress,” he fulminates. “Just barely able to get through a scene.” After questioning Bogart’s intelligence, Welles moves on to Paul Henreid, who plays the overshadowed antifascist hero, Victor Laszlo: “You know, a lot of people who aren’t interesting on screen were very bright. Paul Henreid is very bright.” His sole unqualified praise is reserved for supporting player Sydney Greenstreet (“he was wonderful in every part he did”), who brought the same verve to Signor Ferrari as he had the year before to the “Fat Man” Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon.
Then comes a surprising, and charming, shift as Welles finally loosens his grip. “I admired Casablanca very much,” he admits. “I thought it was a very well put-together piece of schwarmerei, with just the right measure of every ingredient and all that crap, and of course, tremendous luck, because they were making it up as they went along.” The credit for this, in his eyes, lay not with the actors—or even the writers, for that matter—but with director Michael Curtiz, whom Welles admired for his visual sensibility and whose German apprenticeship with theater impresario Max Reinhardt, a childhood hero of Welles’s, put him in an altogether different category.
“The war flattened everybody’s taste in a very curious way,” Welles remarks. “The best thing they could do in the movies was some delirious piece of fabrication like Casablanca. That was the great work of art, during the whole period of the war. Nothing else.” For Welles—the stylist and cinematic virtuoso whose 1941 debut feature, Citizen Kane, proved a triumph he could never repeat—a film like Casablanca could not have been further from his own ambitions as a filmmaker. Critic Roger Ebert once summed up this divide in an audio commentary he prepared in 2002. “When asked what is the greatest film of all time, I say Citizen Kane,” he asserted. “When asked what is the movie you like the best, I say Casablanca.”
As it turns out, Welles credits his belated appreciation for the film to another German in Hollywood. “The person who loved it when it opened,” he recounts, “who persuaded me to take it more seriously, was Marlene [Dietrich].” Dietrich memorably served as the acid-tongued gypsy woman in Welles’s Touch of Evil (telling crooked cop Hank Quinlan, played by the portly Welles himself, “You’re a mess, honey. You’d better lay off those candy bars”) and had made her own spectacular debut in The Blue Angel (a film Welles calls “schlock” when dishing with Jaglom). In the early fifties, Dietrich also starred as Mademoiselle Madou, a Rick Blaine spin-off in a radio series called Café Istanbul, written by Murray Burnett, one of the original writers behind Casablanca. “They’ll be showing that thirty years from now,” she predicted of the movie. “You listen to me.” Hard as it may have been for Welles to stomach, he had to grant Dietrich final authority on this one. “I guess you’re right” are the last words Biskind transcribed from that seating at Ma Maison.
Noah Isenberg directs the Screen Studies program at the New School and is the author, most recently, of We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, due out in February. He last wrote for the Daily on the centennial of the novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg.