(This post is part of the Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema)
If there is one role that the average person identifies with Ingrid Bergman, it is that of Ilsa Lund in Casablanca (1942). While Ingrid Bergman did many other roles throughout her lifetime, from Joan of Arc (in the 1949 film of the same name) to Anna Koreff (in 1956's Anastasia), it is almost always Ilsa that comes to most people's minds when they think of Ingrid Bergman. It is to Ingrid Bergman what Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind (1939) is to Vivien Leigh or Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz (1939) is to Judy Garland.
Given how identified Ingrid Bergman is with the role of Ilsa, today it might seem odd that she was not the first actress considered for the role. That having been said, as originally conceived Rick Blaine's love interest in Casablanca was to be American rather than Swedish. In fact, her name was Lois Meredith. It was on February 14, 1942 that producer Hal Wallis asked casting director Steve Trilling to consider Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan for the lead roles in Casablanca, with Miss Sheridan playing the role of Lois. It was only a matter of days later that Ann Sheridan was out of the running for the role, as the part was changed from the American Lois Meredith to the European Ilsa Lund. Despite this, Ingrid Bergman was still not being considered for the role. Instead Hal Wallis wanted Hedy Lamarr, then billed as "the Most Beautiful Woman in the World". Unfortunately for Mr. Wallis, Miss Lamarr was under contract to MGM and MGM's head Louis B. Mayer refused to loan her to any other studio. It was only then that Hal Wallis asked producer David O. Selznick to loan him another legendary European beauty (and one who just happened to be Swedish): Ingrid Bergman.
Curiously given its status today as one of the greatest films of all time, Ingrid Bergman did not particularly want to appear in Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman thought that Casablanca would be little more than fluff, and was much more eager to appear in the upcoming adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Fortunately for Miss Bergman, Casablanca finished shooting with plenty of time for her to play Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). While Ingrid Bergman would be nominated the Oscar for Best Actress for For Whom the Bell Tolls, ironically Casablanca is more highly regarded today, and it remains her best known film.
Of course, the casting of Ingrid Bergman did mean that efforts had to be taken to conceal Humphrey Bogart's height. During the Golden Age of Hollywood there was an expectation that lead actors would always be as tall, if not preferably taller than, their leading ladies. At 5 foot 9 inches Ingrid Bergman was very tall for a woman of her era. At 5 foot 8 inches Humphrey Bogart was hardly short (in fact, he was exactly average height for men of the era), but he was an inch shorter than Miss Bergman. Humphrey Bogart was then required to wear three inch blocks in his shoes so he would appear slightly taller than Ingrid Bergman!
While Ilsa Lund remains Ingrid Bergman's most famous role, it did not number among her favourites of the parts she played. She once remarked, "I made so many films which were more important, but the only one people ever want to talk about is that one with Bogart." That having bee said, I think Miss Bergman may have underestimated how well she did in the role, as well as complex the role actually was (not to mention how important Casablanca truly was). Ilsa was not simply a cardboard love interest created for the hero Rick Blaine to moon over. She had a personality and a life all her own. Having had an affair with Rick years ago, she finds herself torn between her love for Rick and her loyalty to her husband, Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (played by Paul Henreid).
Ingrid Bergman always brought a sensitivity to her roles, and it is on full display in Casablanca. She realistically plays a woman who is torn between two men. What is more, she is well cast opposite Humphrey Bogart. The two play off of one another perfectly. While Humphrey Bogart always thought he did not do love scenes well, one would not know it from Casablanca. Of course, Ingrid Bergman was among the most beautiful women of her time, and there seems to be no other film in which she is more luminous as she is when playing Ilsa Lund.
Certainly Ingrid Bergman played many more great roles than Ilsa in Casablanca, and it is regrettable that most of those roles aren't better known to the general public. That having been said, Ingrid Bergman gave not only one of her best performances in Casablanca, but one of the best performances of any actress of all time. It is little wonder that she should be so well remembered for the role. In her later years Ingrid Bergman made peace with the possibility that Casablanca would remain her most famous film. She said, "I feel about Casablanca that it has a life of its own. There is something mystical about it. It seems to have filled a need, a need that was there before the film, a need that the film filled." From its status not only among classic film buffs, but among the general public as well, it would seem she was right.