When you think of movies that have played a significant role in the history of Hollywood and cinema at large, you must think of Casablanca. Which is why the Academy Museum's team knew, before the museum even opened, that Casablanca had to be part of the Significant Movies and Moviemakers gallery.
"Within the combination of galleries we have in this exhibition, we try to cover many definitions of what it means to be significant," explains Associate Curator Dara Jaffe. "In this case, Casablanca is paired with documentarian Lourdes Portillo and Boyz n the Hood, so three very different aspects of cinema history. For Casablanca, it is the enduring artistry of the film, and also this very particular historical context."
Directed by Michael Curtiz and featuring career-defining performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the film is an epic romantic drama set against the political tensions of World War II. Casablanca received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for Bogart and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Claude Rains, and ultimately won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
"Casablanca is a timeless classic, but it's also incredibly influenced by the specific historical context in which it was made," Jaffe says. "There's this untold history of the real-life importance of the refugee crisis that is the context of the film and is what the film is about."
The Academy Museum's exhibition features a collection of rare production objects — including both of the pianos that Dooley Wilson's Sam plays in the film — while also highlighting the European émigrés who contributed their talents both in front of and behind the camera, echoing the narrative themes of the film itself. In conversation with A.frame, Jaffe reflects on curating the gallery.
A.frame: Where do you start when curating an exhibit like this?
Sometimes, you're working on an entire exhibition because you have access to a specific object. In other cases, you choose a subject having no idea what is out there but knowing it's important enough that it deserves an exhibition. Almost always, the first place you start is research. I like to become an expert on whatever subject matter the gallery is about. After you've done your research, the next stop is you figure out the exhibition's narrative and find what objects are out there to illustrate that. For a more recent film, you might be talking to the actual filmmakers. In a case like this, I identified people related to the film or, in some cases, the children of people who worked on this movie. For the most part, I went in knowing precisely what objects I was hoping to find and what story I wanted to tell.
What did you learn in your research that you didn't already know just as a fan of the film?
Casablanca is a longtime favorite of mine, and also, classical Hollywood cinema was my focus while studying film as a student. I also curated our Citizen Kane gallery, which was actually in the same space, so that's one of my sweet spots. In terms of what I learned that I hadn't known before, the number one thing that shocks me about the Casablanca production is that almost no one working on it knew they were working on anything special. To them, it was just another routine production. I think the producer, Hal B. Wallis, whose baby this was, is the only one who thought it would be something special. Ingrid Bergman was looking ahead to the next movie she would star in. Paul Henreid and Claude Rains had just finished Now, Voyager next door on the WB lot, and their heads were still in that movie. Everybody was talking about how, on this set, there was just an air of it being any old day at the movie studio, having no idea that it would win Best Picture, let alone become the all-time classic that it is considered to be.
Where I learned the most was about the writing process. The basis for Casablanca was an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick's that was discovered by Irene Lee, who was the head of the story department at WB. She realizes it would make a great movie, and then it passes to screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein, twin brothers who are practical jokers and known for their wry comedy. They're working on the script, but so is a screenwriter named Howard Koch, who is known for his political ideals. Literally, the script is going back and forth between them, where Koch is making it political, then it'll go back to the Epsteins, and they're like, 'No, too sincere. Make it funny!' They were working on the script all the way through the filming of the movie. Every day on set, they would be delivered the latest batch. Ingrid Bergman, who is playing this love triangle, doesn't know which man she's going to end up with, so she has to play every scene as if it could be either of them, which I think works really well for the movie. The way I decided to talk about all this in the gallery is through the original copy of the unproduced stage play from the Academy's own Margaret Herrick Library, and I get to distill that whole story and name these people who deserve to be recognized for their work.
There are so many original objects from the production included in the gallery, some from archives and others from personal collections. What was the process of tracking some of these down?
The first major puzzle piece that fell into place was the piano from the Paris flashback. That was offered by a longtime friend of the museum who has an incredible personal collection of historical film objects. I knew that having that piano was the starting place. My biggest goal for the exhibition was I really wanted to have both pianos. To my knowledge, they've never been displayed with each other. They might not have even been in the same place at the same time. Knowing that I had the flashback one, I wanted to go after the one from Rick's Cafe. Both of those pianos have been sold at auction and I'd heard a rumor about who had the other one. I reached out in a cold email, and they generously agreed to lend it. Those were the biggest things to fall into place.
Other people approached us. Stan Brooks is the lender who had the Paul Henreid production-made passport for his character, Victor Laszlo, and that was a big moment for me because I realized I could pair it with the real life Immigrant ID card given to the actor Paul Henreid when he emigrated to America. This pairing really brings home the art imitates life aspect of the film because you have two official government documents with the same man's face on it—one real, one fictional—but both the actor and character were official enemies of the Third Reich who had to flee Europe.
I went to Wesleyan University and I knew they had the Ingrid Bergman collection, so I dropped a line to ask if they had anything related to Casablanca, and they had Ingrid Bergman's personal on-set diary, where she wrote about her experience on Casablanca. I have seen this diary quoted in so many books, but this whole time, I did not know it was at Wesleyan! That was a major get. It's in Swedish, so we also provide the translation. That was a funny one, because she calls Paul Henreid a diva. I've had many amazing conversations with his daughter, Monika, and I didn't want her to be caught off guard by that, so I let her know. She laughed it off and said, 'He took his craft very seriously.' [Laughs]
What is the significance of having the two pianos in the gallery, in terms of how that shaped the narrative of the exhibit?
My idea for this gallery was very symmetrical. On one side is Paris and on the other is Casablanca, and you have these two cafes: One in the past tense in Paris, one in the present tense — the one in Casablanca — and in both of the cafes, the character of Sam, played by Dooley Wilson, plays "As Time Goes By" on two different pianos with two very different meanings for the plot. For the Casablanca side, we also have the doors from Rick's Cafe, so on the Paris side, I balanced that out with the name of the cafe, La Belle Aurore. In the movie, you see as a shadow through the window; we recreated that with a Gobo light on the floor. One significant aspect of the story I was telling here was the art imitates life nature of having a movie about a refugee crisis. The characters in the film are trying to transcend this geographical space, and that is also the story of many of the people behind the movie. In my mind, these pianos also represent the emotional anchor of the film. Sam is the emotional center, and his singing "As Time Goes By" is this central motif of the film, where every time you hear the song, it means something different. You can trace the whole romantic narrative of the movie through the repetition of this song. You hear the song when you're in the gallery sung in both of these different places, and that also recreates this cyclical nature of how the song is used in the film.
The gallery explores the historical context and cultural narrative behind Casablanca's production. How did you come up with the idea to present it in this way?
It goes back to our mission statement for the museum. In many cases, we are trying to tell film histories that have not been the dominant one. It's paradoxical because when you take a movie like Casablanca, that is considered one of those all-time classics, how can I still tell a narrative about it that has not been the dominant one? At the same time that I am working on this gallery, I'm also working on our Hollywoodland exhibition. A lot of what I'd been learning about for that gallery is how the predominantly Jewish studio heads of the founding studios knew that, in order to keep their place in this industry, they could not draw attention to their Jewish identity. They couldn't be accused of having a so-called Jewish agenda, which, of course, we know is not a real thing. They're already trying to deflect away from their Jewish identity, and that intensifies during World War II. Americans weren't interested in getting involved in the war, and certainly, they were not interested in accepting refugees, specifically Jewish refugees from Europe. Even in a movie like Casablanca, which is literally about people escaping Nazis, it mentions that Victor Laszlo has escaped from a concentration camp, but you will never once hear the word 'Jew' or 'Jewish' in this movie. Even with so many Jewish creatives behind it, including the executive producer, the producer, the director, all three credited screenwriters, and several members of the cast. It is a really important context of the film, and I wanted to bring that context back. Casablanca is a timeless classic, but it's also incredibly influenced by the very specific historical context in which it was made. It really can't be removed from that.
The way I thought would be the best way to convey this refugee story is to keep it personal and choose a handful of the members of the cast and crew who had very specific stories to tell, especially if they could be illustrated with an object. An excellent example is Peter Lorre, one of the supporting actors in the film, who had barely escaped Berlin with his life a few years earlier. In 1940, there was a Nazi propaganda film called The Eternal Jew — it is a pseudo-documentary basically dehumanizing real-life Jewish people — and they use a clip of Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M, when he's portraying a killer and the climactic scene is him confessing this compulsion to kill. They use that clip of an actor acting to reflect upon Jewish people in general. They even use a picture of him in this role on the cover of the program. It occurred to me that I could find an original copy. But it's not something that I approached lightly at all. Am I really wanting to include an actual Nazi artifact in this gallery? We had special trainings for our staff on how they would talk about this object being in the gallery. When we talk about the timelessness of Casablanca, I don't want people to forget that the film is only two years after Peter Lorre was featured on that cover.
What do you think it is that makes Casablanca one of those enduring classics? Even people who haven't seen the film will know certain things about it.
First and foremost, it's the romance. There's something very human about the tension at the center of the film — the battle between personal and political passions. That will always be relatable, but there is also the iconic dialogue. I always say that I think The Wizard of Oz is the most quoted movie of all time, but I think Casablanca is second. There are so many iconic pieces of dialogue crackling all the way through the film that are now part of our lexicon, so much so that there are two other movies whose titles are based on lines of dialogue from Casablanca. Firstly, there's Play It Again, Sam, which is not a correct quote, but it has gone on to become the quote, and The Usual Suspects. That is how much the language of Casablanca looms over the rest of film history. There are also the beloved characters, the performances, and the music. The musical cue for "As Time Goes By" is still what plays over the WB logo at the beginning of a movie. Casablanca is one of those movies where you hear so much about it, then watch it, and you're like, 'I see why everybody talks about this movie the way that they do!'
The Casablanca exhibit has been open for a few months now. With people having experienced it, what are the responses and reactions you've been getting?
Actually, Monika Henreid said that she's talked to people who, when they heard there was going to be a Casablanca gallery, thought that they'd walk in and feel like they were inside of Rick's Cafe, but once they realized what I was doing there, she said, 'This is the best way to approach the movie.' Bringing in that context has made it richer for people. If you know the significance of those pianos, you'll understand how magical it is to be standing in front of them. There are so many little tidbits, even the fact that one of those pianos has a petrified wad of chewing gum underneath it. [Laughs] I keep saying we should test that for DNA!
Significant Movies and Moviemakers: Casablanca is currently open to the public at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and will run until Jan. 4, 2026.