Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca never seems to date. Watching this at the BFI the audience was totally absorbed and clapped at the end, although I am sure most had seen it before. I ought to declare that this film has been amongst my favourites for at least 20 years and I don’t see it leaving that list any time soon. It may well have been a large reason for my choice of dissertation topic – “A Kiss is Still a Kiss: Women and Romance in British Cinema during World War Two” (I know it isn’t British but believe me it was why I chose it).

A film that has influenced filmmakers from the Marx Brothers (A Night in Casablanca (1946)) to Woody Allen (Play it Again Sam (1972)) and has provided possibly some of the most famous movie quotes (or misquotes) of modern times it is unsurprising that its 70th anniversary is being marked around the world but if you haven’t seen it then why should you? “Yes, indeed, the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.” – New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (My favourite film critics name) upon its release.

This film has it all. Glamour, adventure and buckets of romance all offering a clear wartime message. They really don’t make them like this any more. It is based on a play Everybody Come’s to Rick’s which was written by Murray Burnett, a New York high school teacher and Joan Alison, a socialite. Burnett was inspired to write it after a visit to Europe before 1939 during which he saw a black pianist in a bar called La Belle Aurore entertaining refugees from across Europe on their way to Casablanca. (Lebo, H. 1992). Warner Brothers turned the play into Casablanca, keeping many of the themes and the central character of Rick Blaine. Originally it was planned to be released in summer 1943 but as rumours of a US landing in North Africa, specifically Casablanca, started circulating the studio sped up release and the film’s premier was on 26th November 1942. 19 days after the Allies landed in North Africa. The film was a patriotic masterpiece.

Of particular interest to me is the fact this film epitomises the change in the portrayal of romance in both British and American films. During the pre-war years screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday (1940) and It Happened One Night (1934) were the typical romantic stories. Strong women meeting with men and ending up together (not unlike some modern romcoms). However the wartime message is one of sacrifice to be made for the greater good or as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) puts it “… The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Underlying the entire plot is the suggestion that without Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) Victor Laszlo won’t be able to do his work to subvert the Germans and he is vital to the resistance across Europe. The message is clear. Now is not a time for romance, it is a time for putting the war effort first. Indulging in romantic fantasy was selfish and un-patriotic and Casablanca was a reminder that sacrifices have to be made for the greater good, as much part of the official narrative as films such as A Yank in the RAF (1941).

Throughout the film modern audiences are amazed at the themes discussed. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and there are many references to the Gestapo and German brutality. One can only imagine the effect the scene where Laszlo instructs the band to play La Marseillaise as the Germans are singing had on rousing contemporary audiences.

There is humour, not least in the pickpocket and general corruption and there is glamour. Largely brought to the screen by Ingrid Bergman. She is shot like a star. Often dressing in white (as is Bogart) so she literally seems to glow on the screen while all around her are dressed in duller colours. Her hats are something else, allowing her to look out from under them. In fact Bergman’s part is all about the glances and lingering looks. The eyes have it.

Music also plays an important role. Dooley Wilson plays Sam who provides most of the music as well as being Rick’s one true friend. The previously mentioned playing of La Marseillaise is one of the more powerful scenes in the film but As Time Goes By is the signature tune. Its lyrics* contain the essence of the story being played out on screen. The message is that love continues, even with a background of war. A reassurance, perhaps, that love will endure whilst the audience focuses on the war effort.

“And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.”

If you get the chance to see Casablanca then do. It may well start a love affair that lasts As Time Goes By (Sorry couldn’t resist).

Crowther, B. (1942) Casablanca (1942), New York Times Retrieved 19/2/2012

Lebo, H. (1992) Casablanca: Behind the Scenes. New York: Simon & Schuster

*Lyrics to As Time Goes By:

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
© 1931 Warner Bros. Music Corporation, ASCAP


What people watched at the cinema in world war two.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Image via Wikipedia

As shown in my post on cinema-going in wartime despite the potential threat to life and limb people needed to occupy themselves and people flocked to the cinema. According to Kinematograph Weekly’s annual round ups (Table 1) the most popular films at the British box office were often melodramas and part of the counter-narrative. Few of the critically acclaimed films such as Millions Like Us appear in the listing with only This Happy Breed featuring.

Although it doesn’t appear on the Kinematograph Weekly’s list, the most popular film released in the UK during World War Two was Gone with the Wind which showed continuously between April 1940 and D-Day. It remains the most successful film of all time at the British Box Office[1] (BFI 2004). The Wicked Lady is often considered a wartime film despite featuring in the list in 1946. It was produced during the war and was the most successful of the Gainsborough melodramas.

Year Biggest Winner(s) Best British film
1940 Rebecca Convoy
1941 49th Parallel 49th Parallel
1942 Mrs Miniver The First if the Few
1943 In Which We Serve,Casablanca, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Hello Frisco Hello, The Black Swan, The Man in Grey In Which We Serve
1944 For Whom the Bell Tolls, This Happy Breed, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, This Is the Army, Jane Eyre, The Story of Dr. Wassell, Cover Girl, White Cliffs of Dover, Sweet Rosie O’Grady, The Sullivans, Fanny by Gaslight This Happy Breed
1945 The Seventh Veil The Seventh Veil
1946 The Wicked Lady The Wicked Lady

Table 1: British Box Office Information, 1940 – 1950[2] (Lant 1991, 231-233)

The Seventh Veil
Image via Wikipedia

It is clear a large number of the most popular films  were American and the idea that American films could be the films consumed in Britain was something to be feared during the pre-war years

Of all people they [Americans] are closest to ourselves in mind and spirit. But to allow these cousins of ours to put a stranglehold on this fundamental power of national expression, which is the British cinema, is carrying blood-relationship a trifle too far.

Editorial essay  1937

The reasons for the appeal of American films included in large part the perceived glamour. Something that the films produced by Gainsborough Pictures began to address. They signified an increase in escapism. The importance of glamour in British wartime cinema will be explored in later posts.

[1] This is in terms of tickets sold.

[2] Due to the lack of British Cinema statistics this table is taken from Kinematograph Weekly’s  annual survey, compiled by R.H. “Josh” Billings and collated in Antonia Lant’s Book Blackout


BFI. 2004. The Ultimate Film, 4/9/2006 2004 [cited 03/07/2010 ]. Available from

Editorial essay. 1937. World Film News (No. 8):5.

Lant, Antonia. 1991. Blackout : reinventing women for wartime British cinema. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Cinema-going in Wartime

During the research for my dissertation I looked at the experience of cinema-going in wartime and unearthed some great quotes from contemporary resources about why cinema was so popular.

It has been well documented that cinema was at is most popular during world war two with admissions rising from 990 million in 1939 to 1585 million in 1945 (Browning and Sorrell 1954, 134) Browning attributes the increase in admissions of nearly fifty per cent between 1940 and 1943 to the financial prosperity of the British public due to full employment and the lack of other ways of spending money (1954, 135). His view is backed up by Wallace (1941)

The war has made no difference to the cinema-going of my friends. Everyone I know has ample “pocket” money so that the loss of matinee prices does not affect them much. Actually they tend to go to the cinema more in the evening as there is no advantage to get there before 3 o’clock as there used to be. I go to the cinema just as many times as I used to before the war, on an average, during 1939, one visit to every 10 days. Sometimes I go twice a week and then not for a fortnight, varying with the quality of the releases.

While this certainly explains some economic reasons for the upturn in attendance the desire for escapism appears to be a reason as valid as the economic ones as people wouldn’t have paid repeatedly to see films they didn’t enjoy. The high level of admissions and mass observation contributions (Richards and Sheridan 1987) suggest that many people saw films more than once.

I like the cinema because I get ideas, ideas about politics, make-up, wit, life, service – in fact, you go in and you don’t know what you are coming out with. One might come out with a new hair-style, or a solution to the world’s problems.

Have seen as many as three films in a day, and don’t feel tired. If there is a double feature programme and there is one film I don’t want to see, I time it so that I do not have to sit through the one I don’t want to.

(Cross, Beryl. 1940)

People commented that the war had made people more vocal while watching a film:

Mussolini (left) and Hitler sent their armies ...
Image via Wikipedia
Wartime cinema audiences are definitely more responsive than they were before the war, except possibly for the short period immediately before the outbreak. With regard to chorus-singing, for instance. People will sing perfectly happily in a music-hall, and extremely unwillingly in a cinema, yet, when I went to one of our larger local cinemas on the evening of Sept. 2nd, everyone, myself included, bawled happily at the tops of their voices. This chorus-singing, mainly with an organ, is catered for to a much larger extent since the war….
To sum up, it would appear that the war has made the cinema more popular, especially for afternoon and early evening entertainment, but it has also made it dearer. However, in their rush for enjoyment, the audiences have not lost their interest in the films they see. They are just as critical, and certainly much more carefree whilst they are in the cinema. Hence the chorus-singing1. In fact as far as the general public is concerned, the war will probably do the cinema good rather than harm.
(Carley, R. 1940.)

Children, by the way, are amused at the sight of any Germans “Goose Stepping,” they shout with decisive laughter. They also boo loudly at any picture of Hitler.

(Ausden, 1940)

Not everybody appreciated the increased interaction in the cinema  ‘there is much more clapping, cat-calling, whistling during a feature film. This can be directly connected to the enormous numbers of evacuee children and of soldiers now billeted in this neighbourhood.’ (Wallace 1940, 5) It is difficult to know if the bad behaviour was directly attributable to the influx of soldiers and evacuees but another Mass Observation correspondent commented on increased noise at her local cinema:

‘…there is now a strong “Foreign” element of Welsh,MidlandandNorth countryfolk (the result of the trainee system). These keep the cinemas in a state of continual murmur… if a film goes wrong, even a momentary blackout, the whistling and catcalls are very nasty. We ‘natives’ sit quietly to wait for the film to go on, knowing that operators cannot hear anything in their ‘box’ and not wishing to fluster them as they mend a broken film. But the noise now is really disgusting, though the films are listened to more quietly.’

(Ausden 1940)

The increased interaction led to some interesting reactions to newsreels …

Quite a different aspect of people’s rather free-and-easy attitude in the cinema was shown by the fact that quite large numbers of the audience booed and hissed when Hitler appeared on the screen. Rude remarks were shouted too such as “I’d like to wring his bloody neck”, and “Pity somebody doesn’t bump him off.” These, however, have died down not, although there are occasional humorous remarks when any members of the German Government appear on the screen. The sudden outburst of songs and jokes about them have made the German Cabinet appear to the average man in this country to be a secondary “Crazy Gang.

(Carlyle, 1940)

Even when escaping to the cinema the public was reminded that this was a war very much on British shores not in a distant land. Cinemas displayed notices advising that the programme would continue during air raids and each cinema had an Air Raid Warden attached to it. Some managers stopped showing the warnings because they felt it turned people away.

Well, one evening I was sitting in the gallery just behind a party, I should say a son and his wife and his mother, the mother coming to the pictures for the first time since the war broke out, and obviously the old girl had got out of herself. Then came this air raid warning notice. And within five minutes they had left the theatre. May be they had seen the programme round. I don’t know. But as soon as they saw that notice they became very quiet and within five minutes they had left. Now it’s been cut out.


Once the air raids began it was clear many would stay and watch the film. Len England1 reported

It is true that less than one fifth of patrons leave on hearing that a warning has been sounded – observation and official pronouncement agree on this point – and it is also true that many people go into the cinema when the warning is heard.


As the war continued people became more immune to bombs falling as this conversation overheard on 25/9/1940 shows:

S: The other night when we were in the cinema the sirens went and the manager said his little peace [sic] and I don’t think one person left. I tried to see because Graham always likes to know.

F: I’m not surprised, when this trouble started quite a number left, but now I’ve noticed hardly anyone leaves, after all one is as safe in a cinema as out in the streets.

S: Unless a direct hit occurs on the building.

F: That might happen anywhere, even when one is in a shelter, though I saw Tussauds cinema last week and there wasn’t much of it left.

S: Oh well, I’m never going to leave until I’ve seen the program right through.

(Mass Observation  Film 17/2/H)

Some cinema-goers were sceptical before the bombs started falling about whether it would be sensible to stay in the cinema during an air raid:

“A good cinema is not necessarily a good air raid shelter, and a bomb on a cinema-full of people would make a nasty mess.

(Carley 1940)

What these quotes show is that the experience of escaping the war was important to boosting morale and this is demonstrated by the fact people chose to stay there rather than go to air raid shelters.


Ausden, Joyce. 1940. Film Report. Mass Observation Archive TC17 M36Box1.

Browning, H.E., and A.A. Sorrell. 1954. Cinema and cinema-going in Great Britain. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A (General) 11:133-165.

Carley, Robert. 1940. Report on the War and the Cinema – observations. In Mass Observation Archive TC17 M36-50 Box 1.

England, Len. 1939. Interview with the manager of the Classic Cinema, Tooting. Mass Observation Archive TC17Box4.

———. 1940. Note on the Film Trade. Mass Observation Archive TC17Box2.

Wallace, G.L. 1940. The Cinema in Wartime. Mass Observation TC17 Box 1 page 5.

1 Len England was responsible for Mass Observation’s film work and after the war became acting director of the project.

%d bloggers like this: