Here’s lookin’ at you, kid – 75 years young. On 26 November, 1942, the masterpiece “Casablanca” premiered in New York ahead of its scheduled general release in January. MG Patton’s capture of the actual town of Casablanca in French Morocco a few weeks before during Operation Torch had recently hit the news, and Warner Bros wanted to capitalize on the increased interest in the dusty North African town.
Based on the play, “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”, Casablanca followed the cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart at the top of his game, who had a fateful encounter with a stupid hot ex-girlfriend, played by the timeless Ingrid Bergman, who, of all the gin joints in all the world, walked into his. Filled with the usual suspects of early 40s Hollywood, Casablanca was perfectly cast: Peter Lorre as the conniving but surprising Ugarte, 30s sex symbol Paul Heinreid as the stiff and vaguely uncomfortable (doing the right thing tends to do that to people) resistance leader Victor Lazlo, Sydney Greenstreet as the unscrupulous powerbroker Signor Ferrari, and Claude Raines as the opportunistic corrupt bureaucrat Captain Renault.
Now I may stick my neck out for no man, but I’ll do it for Casablanca: It is the greatest movie script in history. Many movies try, but Casablanca succeeds. There isn’t a single wasted frame. To have gorgeous cinematography without any wide angle scenery shots is unknown today. I was shocked, Shocked! to learn that the script was rejected out of hand by several hundred Hollywood executives and writers when it was circulated in 2010 with the names changed. I may have been misinformed, but Casablanca’s themes of honor, duty, and redemption are considered trite in Hollywood today (probably not: it’s the Romantic in me). I don’t mind too much though: we’ll always have Casablanca.
Casablanca is a story of Redemption. Many Hollywood movies have Redemption as a theme, Casablanca only more so. Just four characters in its splendid cast weren’t redeemed for their past transgressions, but only because there was no reason to: Sam played by the always delightful Dooley Wilson was Rick’s moral compass. (Yes, where do you think Tolkein got the idea from?) The waiter Carl, played by the screen stealing SK Sakall, was Casablanca’s moral compass. And Lazlo was the world’s moral compass. The fourth was Maj Strasser, who as the un-redeemable Nazi villain, had no moral compass.
The obvious tale of redemption was Rick, who by the end of the movie realized America wasn’t a place, but an idea worth fighting for. But never underestimate a blundering American screenwriter: there are many others who found their redemption by the end of the movie. There’s also Renault, a true democrat, who realized the folly of taking the easy path by accommodating the Germans. Or Ugarte, who redeemed himself in Rick’s eyes by killing Nazis. Ilsa redeemed herself to Victor for her earlier infidelity with Rick, or Berger, or Sascha, or Ferrari, or the German couple. The list goes on. You may disagree with me, but you’ll sound like someone who is trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe in your heart. One look at Yvoone singing La Marseilles should dispel any doubts.
Yvonne’s tears were real. The autumn of 1942, when Casablanca was filmed, was a dark time for the world. The Allied victories at Guadalcanal, El Alamein, and Stalingrad hadn’t happened yet. The papers were filled with Axis advances across the globe. German panzers ran roughshod over the Soviet Union. Rommel seized Tobruk, and was poised to seize Egypt and the Suez Canal. Marines fought for their lives on a tiny South Pacific Island; Japan sank several American carriers and were threatening to cut off Australia. Hitler’s National Socialists had Europe under the iron boot heel of collectivism, and the stories of their brutality reached America through the tens of thousands of refugees that escaped. All across the country, Americans were asleep; their arrival woke America up. Yvonne, and most of the cast of Casablanca, was part of that wave of refugees.
Their stories did get out because, though they tried, even the Nazis couldn’t kill that fast. The refugee’s roles gave Casablanca an authenticity that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The vast majority of the cast either fled Europe before the war, or fled their countries when Hitler overran them. Only three credited cast members were actually born in the United States: Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Paige (the Latina singer with The Voice). Madeline LaBeau who played Yvonne was French, Leonid Kinsky as Sacha was Russian, Lazlo was a German Jew, Berger was Norwegian, Renault was English, Ugarte was Austrian, Carl was Czech, and Strasser German. Conrad Veidt, who played the evil Nazi Maj Strasser, had actually experienced Nazi persecution and demanded the role because he wanted to show the world the true face of National Socialism. (He was also the highest paid actor in the film.) On that set, the cast made a beautiful friendship, and it showed on screen.
My heart may be my least vulnerable spot, but there’s a soft spot there for Casablanca. Every time I watch it, I watch it as if it’s the last time. It may be a little game I play, but Casablanca is the “Black and White” movie that I show someone who has never seen a black and white movie before. And though I always fight on the side of the underdog, I am not a cut rate reviewer. A review of Casablanca would not be complete without a few words on the song that ties the whole movie together, “As Time Goes By”. It may be poor salesmanship, but I’ll leave that to Sam,
“You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh…
The fundamental things apply / As time goes by…
And when two lovers woo, / They still say, “I love you’ / On that you can rely…
No matter what the future brings / As time goes by…”
I think I’ll play it again.