Casablanca Turns 80

80 years ago today saw the Hollywood launch of the motion picture classic Casablanca (1942). It went into nationwide release a couple of months later.

I first got heavily into this classic movie at about the midway mark of those 8 decades, when I was a teenager. It was a favorite of my girlfriend, who had a thing for Humphrey Bogart. In turn, I developed a thing for Ingrid Bergman. I’ve never heard of anyone having a thing for Paul Henreid, but I suppose it’s possible. Then, as now, Casablanca was one of the best known Hollywood pictures of all time, though I think its status has ebbed somewhat in the ensuing decades. There were also numerous subsequent films in dialogue with the movie which helped amplify its reach, like the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca (1946), Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam (1972) and the cantina scene in Star Wars (1977). By now, the latter film is as old as Casablanca was then, and possesses a status in the popular mind as great, or greater. Later films sent up Casablanca too, like Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective (1978) and ZAZ’s Top Secret (1984). Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) draws from it [along with such other classic movies set in North Africa, such as Morocco (1930), Algiers (1938) and Universal’s Mummy cycle.]

What was the key to its power? There’s the love triangle, one of the most iconic since Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot. There was the romance of its setting: the French colony of Morocco during World War Two, a time when France had capitulated to the Nazis, but was itself divided. The ambiguity of the political situation and the remoteness of the location from Europe makes the picturesque city a hot bed of plots and intrigues, heroes, villains, and untrustworthy cynics who exploit both sides. At the time I was discovering the film, the events of its convoluted story were not yet 40 years old. The start of the Contra War in Nicaragua is as distant from us now as the North Africa campaign was then, which doesn’t feel ancient at all at my present time of life. We learned tons about World War Two from movies when I was a kid. Some of it was bollocks, but I’ll contend we walked away with the basics about right, which is more than today’s young people learn that’s worth learning from most pop culture in today’s chaotic landscape. Even so, Casablanca can only set you on a path. It cannot possibly clarify a political situation that was and is confusing: Occupied France vs Free France vs French Resistance vs French Colonies vs Domination by Nazi Germany. In the story, Casablanca (the city) is a kind of safe haven, but only to an extent. Those fleeing the tyranny of Europe who can make their way there can potentially make their escape…if they’ve got the right paperwork.

Henreid’s character is a Czech Resistance leader. His wife, Ilsa Lund is, like Bergman, presumably a Swede. They are trying to elude German authorities. Ilsa’s old flame, Rick (Bogart), an American ex-pat nightclub owner, can help them — if he can find the forgiveness to do so. His heart had been broken when Ilsa ditched him during the Nazi invasion of Paris. He is full of anger. His outer attitude is one of cynicism (“I stick my neck out for nobody”), but unlike the true criminals from whom he obtains the letters of transit (the delightful Warner Brothers stock players Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in their most iconic roles) he is known as a soft touch who usually sides with the good guys even when it goes against his interests. The other major character who plays the middle is Claude Rains, the lovably and frankly corrupt French Prefect of Police. The Nazi villain Major Strasser is played by German actor Conrad Veidt, who had literally fled the Germans himself with his Jewish wife.

The internationalism of the situation is one of Casablanca‘s principal charms. That, and the determination of producer Hal B. Wallis and director Michael Curtiz to throw everything plus the kitchen sink into the mix to entertain audiences, contribute to what I call its “vaudeville”. It takes place entirely in a nightclub, after all. Much powerful use is made of music. There is Sam the piano player (Dooley Wilson) and his sentimental rendition of “As Time Goes By”. There is the moving “battle of anthems” (French and German) by the characters in Rick’s Place, in which La Marseillaise eventually drowns out the Nazi song, much to the perturbation of the German officers. And then there are all the supporting players, seemingly drawn from all the nations of Europe. We’ve already written about some of the more recognizable ones, such as S.Z. Sakall, John Qualen, and Leonid Kinskey (who also had a small but memorable part in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup). The husband-wife team of Madeline Lebeau (pictured above) and Marcel Dalio had literally fled the Nazis. Mexican-American-Russian-Jewish Joy Page and Austrian Helmut Dantine play a Bulgarian couple. There’s Russian born Gregory Gaye as a German, Danish Torben Meyer as a Dutchman, Italian Frank Puglia as a Moroccan, Hungarian Richard Ryen as a German, Mexican singer and guitarist Corinna Mura, and many other exiles and refugees among the extras, many of them Jewish, including Louis V. Arco (Austria), Trude Berliner (Germany), Ilka Grünig (Austria), Ludwig Stössel (Hungary), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Germany), and Wolfgang Zilzer (Germany). Wallis was Jewish, of course, as was Curtiz who had come to Hollywood from his native Hungary. The lore is that Jack Benny is in it as an extra, the same year he starred in To Be or Not To Be. To me it all adds up to my idea of America, the refuge where all these characters wanted to go, and where these artists DID go.

Missing from that line-up of course: actual Moroccans. Their own struggle for independence from France, achieved in 1956, would appear to be a different chapter, a different story. The ethics of colonialism are not dealt with here. Audiences sob at La Marseillaise but to a Moroccan, what’s the difference between the French and the Nazis? Surely one of degrees, not of kind. And we also get a hint that America is not perfect itself. Sam, though a trusted friend, definitely appears to have second class status. And though America did help Morocco attain its independence, it took over France’s bloody colonial war in Vietnam a few years later. Nobody’s perfect, I guess?

For all that we love it, the story is a logical chop-salad, a hodgepodge of theatrical occurrences, calculated with respect to dramatic value: “danger”, “romance”, “patriotism”, “comedy”, “ethnic sentimentality”, “music”, which is why I refer to it as vaudeville. Yet somehow, the incoherence of the story merely reinforces the dreamlike power of the film, aided by the glamorous beauty of Curtiz’s images. I thought of this movie all the time during the Trump years. Will WE need “papers of transit”? Will WE be refugees? Come to that, yes, as times get desperate, Ilsa’s choice seems the right one in ways we never could have imagined in our fair weather disappointment that she doesn’t run away with Bogey. If America, flawed though it may be, falls to Fascism, so goes the world’s last hope.

For more on the diversity and showmanship of vaudeville, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.