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Political but not preachy

Examining Casablanca’s powerful example of unity in the face of tyranny on the film’s 75th anniversary

Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) conducting “La Marseillaise” Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns

Political but not preachy

Roy Halladay, who crashed his plane on Nov. 7 and died, threw two no-hitters in 2010, one in the regular season (which was also a perfect game) and one in postseason play. He’s the only major leaguer to have done that. Major League Baseball lists only 296 no-hitters since baseball record-keeping began in 1875, and only 23 perfect games, where a pitcher allowed no one on the opposing team to reach base.

I mention all that because one of the few things rarer than a no-hitter is a great movie, and one of the few things even rarer than a great movie is a perfect one. That’s not surprising, because a baseball game involves nine people on a side (10 if there’s a designated hitter) plus the umpires, but making a major league movie is much more complicated and involves many more people. Only a handful of films in Hollywood history seem perfect to me in the sense that I wouldn’t want any of the scenes reshot. My short list includes The Princess Bride, Tender Mercies, Chariots of Fire, and Casablanca. The last of those premiered on Nov. 26, 1942, which makes Sunday its 75th anniversary.

Noah Isenberg’s new book, We’ll Always Have Casablanca (Norton, hardcover edition published this past February, paperback coming out next February), is an easy-reading history of the film’s origins, production process, and historical role. Social historian and author Sam Wasson is right to say, “Even the die-hardest Casablanca fan will find in this delightful book new ways to love the movie they were certain they could never love more.” The following excerpt from the book, which we’re sharing with you with the publisher’s permission, examines how the movie took a political side without getting preachy. Isenberg’s reference to the famous “La Marseillaise” scene pushed me to view that part of the movie again on YouTube (see below). If you think our political situation is hopeless and there’s nothing you can do, play it again, Sam. —Marvin Olasky

One of the clever ways in which the film sneaks in the political dimension—and, indeed, drops more hints about Rick’s true convictions—is by couching it within the tense romance between Rick and Ilsa. Casablanca “recasts propaganda as a romantic act,” as critic Karina Longworth, who hosts a classic Hollywood podcast called You Must Remember This, puts it. The political lines can thus be traced along the string of romantic plot points. Of course, Ilsa serves as the unwanted reminder of Rick’s past, the figure who, in tandem with their long repressed song, recalls the torrid and ultimately ill-fated affair they enjoyed during the spring of 1940, when the Nazis marched into Paris. She causes him not only to break one of his cardinal rules—to drink with customers at his café in Casablanca—but also to become unhinged in the process. As Rick sits alone after hours, throwing back one shot after the next and doing all that he can to overcome the shock of Ilsa’s sudden appearance, he asks Sam, seated across from him improvising on the piano, “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” On this long night, in the pre-dawn hours vaguely evocative of the actual conditions surrounding the Pearl Harbor bombings, Sam claims that his watch has stopped running. Rick replies, with yet another glimmer of vulnerability, “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I’ll bet they’re asleep all over America.”

When Rick stubbornly, bitterly insists that Sam play “As Time Goes By,” the flashback to his spring romance with Ilsa begins. While much of that particular interlude is aimed at offering up fleeting images of their happy past together, it also offers a window onto the war and the Nazi aggression across Europe. Locked in a tender embrace, midway through the flashback, Ilsa and Rick hear the sound of artillery fire. “Ah, that’s the new German 77,” says Rick matter-of-factly, betraying his knowledge of military artillery (as one of many examples of Hollywood bending historical accuracy, there was no German 77—apart perhaps from the 77th division of the Luftwaffe—used in World War II). “And judging by the sound, only about thirty-five miles away.” Much later, during a faceoff in Rick’s apartment, when an emboldened Ilsa is intent on getting her hands on the precious letters of transit, she counters Rick’s flippant dismissal of the cause that Laszlo supports. “It was your cause, too,” she insists. “In your own way, you were fighting for the same thing.” And, perhaps unsurprisingly, ultimately, it is Ilsa who finally brings Rick back into the fold, helping him to resolve his crisis of faith.

Ultimately, it is Ilsa who finally brings Rick back into the fold, helping him to resolve his crisis of faith.

On the airport tarmac, Rick tells her, in one of the film’s most famous, oft-quoted scenes, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Of course, the screenwriters, director Michael Curtiz, and producer Hal Wallis needed Rick to bid farewell or face the wrath of the Production Code Administration; he couldn’t run off with a married woman—even their Parisian romance had to take place under the presumption of Laszlo’s death— and thus violate one of the Code’s foremost moral prohibitions. As film historian Thomas Doherty puts it, “The film needs Rick to stick his neck out and commit to the Allied cause at the same time it needs to respect the sanctity of the bonds of matrimony. […] One reason Casablanca endures in the popular movie memory is the aberrational decisiveness of its climax, which tackled and resolved the question of dual loyalties head on.”

In order to heighten the suspense of the film, the Nazis portrayed on screen had to reflect the same menacing threat that Harry Warner underscored in his 1941 Senate testimony and depicted in such earlier films as Confessions of a Nazi Spy and All Through the Night. Without relying on mere parody or caricature, Major Strasser conveys an unmistakably diabolical air, his venomous lines delivered with the fervor of a madman. Similarly, the other Nazi officials in his entourage do all that they can to intimidate and threaten those in their midst. In a cruel ironic twist of history, these same Nazis were played by refugees, perhaps most famous among them [Conrad] Veidt, who had fled the very regime whose officials they were now embodying on screen.

Near the start of the film, when we hear snatches of conversation from refugees seeking a way out, a pair of Germans in uniform march by leaving a trail of untranslated words in their wake. “Ich verstehe es gar nicht. Wir sollten eine viel stärkere Hand haben in Casablanca” (“I don’t understand it at all. We should have a much stronger hand in Casablanca”), one of the officers asserts, referring both to the halfhearted devotion to Vichy rule of law and the go-for-broke card games being played at Rick’s. Later on, at Signor Ferrari’s Blue Parrot, we’re told by its proprietor that the Germans have “outlawed miracles” when it comes to dreaming up escape routes. And yet despite the overriding tragic predicament, there are brief moments of comic relief in which the Germans, no longer merely diabolical, become the butt of the joke. When Renault tells headwaiter Carl that he should be sure to give Major Strasser a good table, he responds, with the well-timed wit of a vaudeville player: “I have already given him the best, knowing he is German and would take it anyway.”

Despite all professions of neutrality and political indifference, Rick offers perceptive viewers a few glimpses of his true allegiances vis-à-vis the Nazis from the very moment he’s introduced.

Despite all professions of neutrality and political indifference, Rick offers perceptive viewers a few glimpses of his true allegiances vis-à-vis the Nazis from the very moment he’s introduced. As he sits alone at his table, playing a solitary chess game, puffing away on his ever present cigarette, and giving the okay to sundry financial transactions and to the traffic that his doorman Abdul (Dan Seymour) monitors, the head of the Deutsche Bank (Gregory Gaye) attempts in vain to gain entry to the café. Rick shakes his head, prompting Abdul to give his canned “private room” excuse. Undeterred, the German insults and threatens Abdul, at which point Rick coolly approaches the door. As he tries to sort things out—at the very same instant that Ugarte suddenly shows up, slicked-back hair and unctuous grin in place, slithering his way through the half-closed door—the German becomes increasingly haughty and indignant, handing Rick his visiting card. The fact that he’s frequented gambling parlors from Honolulu to Berlin doesn’t impress Rick, who promptly, unrepentantly, tears up his card. “Your cash is good at the bar,” he tells him. The German storms out, announcing that he’ll report Rick to the Angriff, the actual Nazi propaganda newspaper founded by Joseph Goebbels. In this otherwise rapid and minor exchange, Rick is fleetingly branded a political subversive, or simply an anti-Nazi.

Later on, after Ugarte has been captured and Rick is invited to join Strasser and his men at their table, he once more wraps himself in the mantle of political neutrality. Rather than admitting his nationality to Strasser, Rick declares himself a “drunkard” (“Which makes him a citizen of the world,” as Renault sees it). But he strikes a slightly defensive, if not patriotic position when asked if he can imagine the Nazis in New York. “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you try to invade.” Ultimately, after Strasser tries to show that Rick has not always been so uncompromisingly neutral, he leaves politics behind at the table and returns to his work as a saloon keeper. (Off screen, when accused of being a Communist by the turncoat John L. Leech in early 1940, Bogart issued a formal statement declaring a similar kind of political neutrality to that which he maintains in the film: “I have never contributed money to a political organization of any form. That includes Republican, Democratic, Hollywood Anti-Nazi League or Communist Party.”)

Of course, the film’s most rousing political scene—one that appealed even to those critics, like Manny Farber and Pauline Kael, who were generally less susceptible to Hollywood hokum—comes when Rick and Laszlo meet man-to-man in Rick’s office soon after the former has started to show a few cracks in his steely shell by allowing the young Bulgarian Jan to win at the roulette table (“a gesture to love”) so that he and his wife can afford exit visas. The scene begins with the bold reassertion of Rick’s worldview. “I’m not interested in politics,” he declares to Laszlo, in a litany of disingenuous excuses after hearing that the movement needs his support. “The problems of the world are not in my department,” he continues. “I’m a saloon keeper.” Laszlo is quick to remind Rick of his earlier involvement in anti-fascist causes, in Ethiopia and Spain, but cannot persuade him to relinquish the letters of transit at any price—a matter he’s told, rather bluntly, to take up with his wife.

It is “one of the most stirring sequences in history,” as director Steven Spielberg calls it.

Then in a swift transition, shot at a low tilt from outside Rick’s office, the two men, now standing atop the stairs, hear a boisterous rendition of “Die Wacht am Rhein” sung by a group of Nazi officers seated around Strasser’s table. Laszlo rushes down the stairs approaching the band members. “Play the ‘Marseillaise’!” he commands them, with a sudden torrent of urgency, echoing Rick’s earlier demand that Sam play “As Time Goes By.” “Play it!” he insists. Rick gives the band members his nod of approval, another silent gesture of his shifting allegiances—a gesture that we’ve already seen at work earlier in the film—and they, together with the masses of refugees crowded into the main hall at Rick’s Café, burst into song, drowning out the German chorus in a spectacular show of solidarity. Indeed, it is “one of the most stirring sequences in history,” as director Steven Spielberg calls it. “If you know the movie, you remember the guy’s face,” remarks Kent Jones, referring to the trumpet player who looks across the room to Rick for approval before playing the French national anthem. “And Bogart gives them the go-ahead. Then you take the shot of the Germans giving up and sitting down, and then you have the moment, the thing that really makes it, when it really starts to build up with the Spanish guitarist; then, more obviously, when Yvonne starts singing. But it’s really the way that it is, that it moves from bit by bit, that is almost emblematic of the whole movie.”

The incremental rise of the “Marseillaise”—an anthem that bespeaks a patriotic love of France and of freedom, more generally, echoed in the seemingly spontaneous cries of “Vive la France!” and “Vive la démocratie” by Yvonne and others in the crowed—exemplifies the common will to unite and overthrow tyranny, an impulse that Rick’s own evolution likewise encapsulates. “Everybody in Casablanca came to Rick’s,” explained playwright Murray Burnett four decades after the film’s release, “but everybody must come to a decision. Now that’s pretty abstruse, but that’s why I titled it Everybody Comes to Rick’s. It was a double meaning.”

Excerpted from We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie by Noah Isenberg. Copyright © 2017 Noah Isenberg. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. All rights reserved.


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