Think about the movie Casablanca, and at least three things will quickly come to mind: Rick, Ilsa, and the song “As Time Goes By.” Though the musical score for the movie is attributed to the great Max Steiner, the song that became the love theme of Rick and Ilsa – music that was used throughout the movie to underscore every aspect of their love story – was not written by Steiner. In fact, Steiner hated the song. So why did he feature it so prominently in the movie? I’ll get to that in a minute. First I have to tell you about the history of the song.
“As Time Goes By” was written by Herman Hupfeld for a 1931 Broadway musical comedy called Everybody’s Welcome. While the musical only played for a few months, the song “As Time Goes By” became a minor hit. The most popular recording of the time was done by the popular crooner Rudy Vallee with a second popular version sung by Binnie Hale (a woman) released at about the same time. It was also recorded by a few orchestras and then it was largely forgotten.
The next chapter in this story begins in Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938 where a high school English teacher named Murray Burnett and his wife, Frances, are attempting to smuggle money out of the country for their Jewish relatives. On their way back to the U.S. the Murrays stopped at a French town on the Mediterranean coast where they visited a nightclub which featured a black pianist playing music for a crowd made up of Frenchmen, Nazis, and refugees. Murray Burnett was intrigued by what he saw and decided to write a play based on his impressions. During the summer of 1940 he and Joan Alison completed the play which they called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. In the play an American club owner in Casablanca, Morocco named Rick helps a Czech freedom fighter and his wife, Lois, escape from the Nazis. When Burnett and Alison were unable to find a producer for the play they sold it to Warner Brothers for an astounding $20,000. “As Time Goes By,” one of Burnett’s favorite songs when he was a student at Cornell University, was an integral part of the play, so Warner Brothers got both a play and a song for their $20,000.
When Casablanca started filming “As Time Goes By” was a major plot element in the script, so the great movie music composer Max Steiner was stuck with it. However, he asked if he could write a song to replace it, and was given approval to do so, but by the time he started working on the score, filming had been completed. There was talk of reshooting the scenes that had to do with the song, but due to problems, it was decided to leave “As Time Goes By” in the movie.
“If life gives you lemons,” so the saying goes, “make lemonade.” And that’s just what Steiner did. He took a song he hated and made it unforgettable. In fact, “As Time Goes By,” and the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” are the main musical elements of the movie. Steiner, the same Max Steiner who created the unforgettable score for Gone with the Wind just a few years earlier, put his ego aside and provided the music that the movie needed, not the music that would have shown off his talents. That, dear readers, is astonishing.
Since the release of Casablanca there have been countless recordings of “As Time Goes By.” Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, never sang the entire song in the movie, but he recorded a still-popular complete version of it in 1943. Jimmy Durante’s 1965 version of the song was made immortal when it was used in the 1993 hit movie Sleepless in Seattle. Other interpreters of the song include Barbra Streisand, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, ZZ Top, and Tiny Tim.
There is one other aspect of the movie that is worth relating. In a 1974 interview Ingrid Bergman, who played Ilsa in the movie, was told that Casablanca was based on a play. “Casablanca based on a play? No, I don’t think so,” she said, “for we didn’t know how the movie would end.” In fact the script for what I consider the greatest movie ever made was developed as the filming took place. The story goes that when the actors would show up for the day’s work, they would ask, “What do we do today?” If they were lucky, someone would know.