“Everybody Comes to Rick’s” … At least that is what I assume was written on the invitation.
My first experience with Casablanca was a fancy-dress housewarming party, thrown by my parents after they had finished constructing our new home in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The event took place in our spacious, fully-furnished basement, and neither my sister nor I were invited. It was after our bedtime, but I remember our doorbell ringing, adults strolling in wearing trench coats or elegant gowns. They looked different from the grownups I was used to, many of them having traded their Stetsons for Fedoras. This was because, I later learned, the party was Casablanca-themed (my parent were such nerds). Today, the only momentos of that dreamlike occasion are the movie poster that hangs on Robin’s wall (my Dad, Richard, invited all the guests to sign the back of the frame), and the peacock-blue, bejeweled dress that hung for years thereafter in my mom’s closet.
This was “the start of [my] beautiful friendship” with the quintessential Hollywood flick. As summarized on its IMDb page: “A cynical nightclub owner protects an old flame and her husband from Nazis in Morocco.”
Looking back on Casablanca, what I first notice is how often it subverts many of our more modern cinematic expectations. For a film set in the turmoil of World War II, it is surprisingly quiet. There are few “action” set pieces, with the exception of two shootouts lasting about 10 seconds in total. It is a simple story, as the trailer says, of six people struggling to survive in a world that has gone mad. And although there are grand, sweeping themes at its core, the film never feels preachy. For example, Rick’s famous monologue about how “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans,” is not played to the balcony, but directly to Ilsa (his love; lost, found, and soon-to-be lost again).
As reluctant hero Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart is an unconventional figure of romance; he is short, craggy-faced, and world-weary. Yet his performance in Casablanca has made many a theatergoer swoon over this cynical, secretly sentimental, barkeep. One reason why the film is so affecting is because Rick is a believable, fully-realized character. Bogart is a brilliant film actor; his best work can be seen in closeups. Watch how his eyes glisten with emotions he would rather hide, or how a minuscule muscle spasm in his cheek betrays his despair when the one-who-got-away walks into his desert gin-joint.
One of the elements that sets Casablanca apart from other films is how immediate it feels (and was) to the events that inform its story. The movie takes place in 1941 Morocco. Rick’s Cafe American is open to everyone: Nazi officials, soldiers from Vichy (occupied France), and war-refugees from all across Europe. It is the perfect setting to explore a diverse cross-section of people impacted by World War II. Although Casablanca is Morocco’s largest city, this movie makes it feel like the place “where everybody knows your name,” for better and for worse. It is intimate, but also claustrophobic. However, even in the midst of this suffocating city, there is hope for a better future, both for our characters and for “this crazy word.”
Finally, no discussion of Casablanca is complete without mentioning its music. “As Time Goes By” is one of the most recognizable tunes in Hollywood history (“play it again, Sam” is also one of its most-misquoted lines). However, the moment that best illustrates the power of Casablanca‘s narrative is the “La Marseillaise” scene. We open with Rick arguing with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech Resistance fighter (and Ilsa’s husband). They are then interrupted by a cadre of German officers singing “Die Wacht am Rhein,” a battle hymn appropriated by the Third Reich. As the camera pans out, we see that this is not sitting well with the other patrons, until an enraged Laszlo storms downstairs and orders the band to play France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” After receiving a subtle nod of approval from Rick, the musicians take up their instruments, and the entire cafe rises to their feet; singing passionately, they drown out the Nazis soldiers.
What makes this even more powerful, however, is that many in the cast were real-life European war refugees: Henreid was a famous Austrian actor and “enemy of the Reich”; Peter Lorre, playing the black marketer who sets the film’s plot in motion, fled from Germany in the 1930s because he was Jewish, as did Conrad Veidt, who played Major Heinrich Strasser; S.Z. Sakall, known to audiences as Carl, Rick’s head waiter, was a Jewish Hungarian whose three sisters died in the holocaust; and last, but most important to the scene in question, there is Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau), who we see sobbing as she sings. LeBeau had fled Paris in 1940 with her Jewish husband (Marcel Dalio, who played Rick’s croupier). The couple managed to successfully travel to Lisbon (the goal of all refugees in Casablanca), and board a ship to the Americas. Months later, after securing temporary Canadian visas, they entered the United States. Dalio’s entire family died in the Nazi concentration camps; LeBeau’s anguish and defiance in this scene is very real.
When Casablanca debuted in 1942, little about its plot was make-believe for its audience members, especially those who knew all-to-well the uncertainty of victory against the Nazis. Yet the film’s message of love, self-sacrifice, and courage deeply resonated with those first film-goers, and continues to resonate long after V-E Day. It is currently ranked as the American Film Institute’s (AFI) second greatest American film of all time.
In closing, here is what Casablanca has to offer:
- A perfect film that is neither too showy, nor too subtle
- A masterclass in narrative, character, dialogue, and cinema at large. In addition to the great Humphrey Bogart and the inimitable Ingrid Bergman, viewers can expected to be delighted by Claude Rains’ roguish Captain Louis Renault; a corrupt, thoroughly enjoyable, and quotable official
- A story that is both timeless and extremely relevant to the times in which it was set
Head’s Up: This 1940s film deals with issues of war, resistance fighters, refugees, Nazis, occupied nations, crime, corruption, violence, and death. That being said, I feel it is still accessible enough for most ages, particularly older children to whom parents want to introduce “classic Hollywood” films. This movie is a great one for sparking discussions, and I encourage viewers to consider its impact on popular culture and its importance in modern times (and beyond).
What Memories do you have of this film? Do you have Suggestions for my next post? Additional Resources to share on this one? Please, Comment below!
As always, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”