Silver Screen Standards: Casablanca (1942)
Very few classic films enjoy the iconic status of Casablanca (1942), the wartime romance that helped humanize the crisis in Europe and completed Humphrey Bogart’s rise to true stardom. The Best Picture winner would come to define the careers of many of its stars, and its lines remain some of the most quoted bits of dialogue in movie history almost 80 years later.
Most people who see the film today respond to it primarily as a love story between Bogart’s world-weary American, Rick, and his former flame, Ilsa, played by a radiantly beautiful Ingrid Bergman, but there’s a lot more to Casablanca than romance. It’s a deeply political picture made by people for whom the film’s message and the crisis in Europe were painfully personal, and their emotional investment in the story makes Casablanca all the more meaningful. For me, the stories of the people who made the film lie at the heart of its appeal; they transform a fictional romance into something very real and pressing, a call to arms to care not just about a pair of lovers but about the many thousands of innocent people whose lives were threatened by Hitler’s genocidal march across Europe.
Humphrey Bogart might be the star of the movie, but his Rick is one of only two American characters present, along with Rick’s friend and piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson). Rick’s initial position is one of self-interest and isolationism; “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he says, and his callous statement is meant to prick the consciences of Americans who had dragged their feet about interfering while the Nazis terrorized Europe. Fortunately, Rick is a dynamic character who evolves over the course of the film and comes to realize that the problems of a world on fire matter more than his own. He laments the willful ignorance of his countrymen when he says, “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.” By the end of the story he has saved a young Bulgarian couple, rescued the freedom fighter Victor (Paul Henreid) from the Nazis, given up the love of his life, shot a high-ranking Nazi, and inspired his Vichy pal to defect, all of which leads to the final scene in which he and Louis (Claude Rains) depart Casablanca to join the Free French in the fight against the Third Reich. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship, but it’s also the end of a long process by which Rick evolves from selfish loner to heroic team player. Getting Paris back is both a statement about rekindling romantic memories and literally getting Paris back from the Nazis, which Rick and Louis head off to help reclaim by joining the French freedom fighters.
The rest of the cast hail from a wide swath of European countries for whom the war was already a violent reality long before the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 catapulted the United States into the fray. Many had fled the Nazis in their own countries and eventually landed in Hollywood, and many of them were Jewish or had Jewish relatives. For them the story of Casablanca was all too real. Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet, the two British actors in the ensemble, had watched their native country endure the wrath of the German Blitz in 1940 and 1941. Hungarian Peter Lorre, who had been a film actor in Germany, left when Hitler came to power and became a naturalized US citizen in 1941. Lorre and his fellow Hungarian, S.Z. Sakall, were both Jewish. Sakall had also acted in Germany before the rise of the Nazis, and he and his wife fled Hungary for the United States in 1940, much like the couple to whom Sakall’s character, Carl, speaks while they practice their English. Sakall’s family members were not so lucky; all three of his sisters died in concentration camps. Madeleine Lebeau, who plays Yvonne, fled her native France in 1940 with her Jewish husband, the actor Marcel Dalio, who plays the croupier in Rick’s casino; their escape was every bit as fraught and dramatic as those of the refugees depicted in the film. Paul Henreid’s family had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, but the Austrian actor opposed the Nazis so publicly that he was declared an “official enemy of the Third Reich” and left Europe in 1935, first for England and then for Hollywood. In England, the man who vouched for Henreid was none other than Conrad Veidt, a German-born actor with a Jewish wife whose own outspoken opposition to the Nazis had caused him to emigrate to Great Britain in 1933. Casablanca casts Henreid and Veidt as enemies, with Veidt’s Major Strasser as the embodiment of Nazism, but in real life, they were friends bound by their common commitment to stand against the Nazis no matter the personal cost.
It’s true that Casablanca was meant to be a propaganda film to encourage Americans to support the war effort, and it succeeded in that goal just as Mrs. Miniver (1942) did, with both films winning Best Picture Oscars and capturing the hearts of moviegoers across the country. The fact that Casablanca is a political film with political aims doesn’t make it any less compelling as an artistic achievement; in fact, the more you know about the personal stories of its cast and crew the more meaningful the film becomes as both political statement and art. Michael Curtiz, himself a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, won the Oscar for Best Director for his work on Casablanca, but several of his relatives died at Auschwitz; Curtiz only managed to get his mother to the United States with the help of Jack Warner. The people who made Casablanca wanted America to wake up because it wasn’t just faceless, unknown people who were suffering and dying, it was their families, their friends, the people they had been forced to leave behind. When I watch Casablanca today, almost 80 years later, I watch the faces of those actors and think about how important this movie and its message were to them, and then I really understand the tears in Yvonne’s eyes as the band plays “La Marseillaise.” The problems of three little people might not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but the message of Casablanca still resonates. We’ll always have Paris, friends, and we’ll have always have Casablanca, too.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.