The War-torn World of Casablanca

Casablanca (1942 Michael Curtiz) is one of the great romances of cinema. Set upon the backdrop of war-torn Europe and a massive exodus of European refugees into North Africa, it is significant to note that many of the leading roles were played by actors who themselves were refugees from fascist Europe. At a pivotal point in the film several of the characters sing the La Marseillaise in defiance of Nazi oppression. The camera captures the tears rolling down the face of the teenage actress Madeleine LeBeau, who – much like her character – fled Paris only two years before. She stated in later life that those tears were real.

Though Casablanca is a popular romance, it is also unmistakably a commentary on persecution in Europe at the early stages of World War II. Many viewers and critics have pointed out that it is layered with political and social comment that had resonance for its American audiences at the time. The film speaks to people at different levels.

In this guest blog – thank you JJ –  I intend to explore some of the politics behind Casablanca and its cast. And, further, while I accept a common view that Casablanca was filmed in chaotic  circumstances with constant last minute rewrites, I don’t accept the equally common view that it was just another run-of-the-mill film that somehow accidentally worked beyond all expectation. There is no other film and no other cast like Casablanca. This a summary of the film, but focused on certain aspects of it only.

To give some historic background to the setting of the film: Marshall Phillipe Petain came to power in France in 1940, and replaced the long-standing French republican motto ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ for the Hitlerite ‘Travail, famille, patrie’ (Work, family, fatherland). Despite pleas from Churchill to maintain resistance on its northern borders, as the French government had promised the year before, Petain signed an armistice with Hitler, conceding northern France to German control. More than half a million allied forces and civilians had to be hurriedly evacuated, mostly to Britain. For a short period Petain’s Vichy government and German forces made a pretense of French ‘independence’. In Vichy controlled Morocco it is estimated that more than 300,000 Jewish refugees had arrived from Europe hoping to secure transit papers to safer countries. Large numbers of others – many fighters in the Resistance – also made their way to Morocco. Germany demanded that French-Moroccan administration collect the names of all Jews in the country and assist in weeding out enemies of the Third Reich. While local Moroccans did little to assist German forces unless they were forced to, French administrators deployed resources into helping German command. It is in this political backdrop – the sham of French neutrality in North Africa, but with local sympathies for resistance – that Casablanca is set.

Casablanca started as a 1940 play Everybody Comes to Rik’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Burnett had traveled to Austria with his first wife in 1938 to help Jewish relatives. Germany had just annexed Austria, and Burnett was deeply shocked by what he witnessed. Before leaving Europe, Burnett visited southern France on the Mediterranean coast. He went to bar where a black piano player was singing songs. Burnett was taken by the volatile mix of German soldiers, French locals and apparent refugees and resistance in the bar. Two years later Burnett – with his new wide Joan Alison – finished an anti-fascist – pro-Resistance play set at Rik’s Americain Bar in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. America had not yet entered the war, and the play hoped to elicit support for the anti-fascist cause. One day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941) – the day America entered the war – Hollywood producers bought the play for a record price.

The film opens with an over-dub narrative about European refugees flooding into Morocco, and then a dramatic scene in which a refugee with stolen transit papers is shot dead by French police. He collapses under a poster of Marshall Petain, on which is written: Je tiens mes promesses, meme celles dea autres (I keep my promises, even those of others). This opening scene was a stinging comment of Petain’s betrayal of the Anglo-Franco Accord. The tension is already present, and for every character who appears thereafter the viewer needs to know whose side they’re on.

We first see Rik (Humphrey Bogart) playing chess. In real life Bogart was a regular chess tournament player. He spoke to the Director Curtiz about ‘playing’ the film like a chess game, with the constant maneuvering and uncertain ending. His first words in the film are to deny entry into the ‘private’ bar of the Deutschland Bank official, while he lets the Italian crook Ugarte (Peter Lorre) slip past. After all, ‘everyone comes to Rik’s’, but we know ‘everyone’ doesn’t include the Deutschland Bank.

A number of characters are introduced in the next couple of scenes. Most are played by actors who were real-life refugees from Nazi controlled areas in Europe. One exception is the American born Dooley Wilson who plays Sam the piano player. Wilson was a board member of the Negro Actors Guild of America, an organisation dedicated to getting roles for black actors and also lobbying to break down black stereotypes in film. In Casablanca Sam is not just an employee of Rik’s but a long-time friend and confidante. Wilson, an accomplished singer and drummer, did not actually play piano. Just off-screen was the only other black performer, Elliot Carpenter, who played the piano pieces while Wilson copied his hand movements.


Sam comforts a devastated Rik (There are several scenes of Sam and Rik together, clearly as friends

But to return to the plot: Vichy administrator, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) visits Rik to tell him not to intervene in a raid later in the night, or it could end poorly for Rik. He reminds Rik that he knows about his anti-fascist activities in the past, and while Rik might feign indifference, Renault suspects otherwise. This is such an interesting scene. The man assisting the Germans is not so keen to see Rik – with his anti-fascist history – in trouble. While Renault may have selfish motives in mind (making money from fixed-gambling) there are plenty of scenes to suggest that Renault actually likes Rik, and perhaps sees his own ‘blow with the wind’ attitude as to who is in power as not too far from Rik’s play of ‘indifference’. This is one of several scenes in which it is suggested that Rik’s cynical indifference is not the real Rik. For example, Rik excludes the Deutschland Bank from his private gambling room, rigs a roulette game to help two young refugees, and employs members of the Resistance on his staff. When Ugarte is arrested he says he ‘sticks his head out for nobody’ but that’s not the sentiments we see on his face. I label this point because so many commentators say that Rik retreated from the cause, became bitter and cynical and finally re-enters the cause at the end of the film. But all through the film Rik’s cynical indifference is clearly a front. He is however, emotionally bitter and twisted, and that has blunted his attitude to the cause. But he is hardly neutral in his friends and his activities. And in a way (perhaps I draw a long-bow) Rik is America – he knows good from bad – has always known, but delays his time to act by a cloud of reasoning about self-preservation.

Straight after, we see the appearance of the other two main characters in the film: Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). The moment when Rik meets Ilsa is electric. It is one of the great romantic moments in film. But I have to mention the musical score by Max Steiner (also Hungarian born of Jewish ancestry) – it is superb, and adds to the scene immeasurably. Before they have time to speak Laszlo and Captain Renault appear. On introduction Rik congratulates Laszlo – a man he has heard much about – for his work. Laszlo says he tires his best. Rik responds “We all try. You succeed”. There’s an acknowledgement here hat Laszlo is no ordinary man, he is someone worthy of respect, even from the cynical Rik.

Distraught after unexpectedly seeing Ilsa, Rick is up late drinking. Sam tries to get him to go to bed or perhaps to leave Casablanca altogether. It’s in this scene that one of the most quoted lines in cinema derives: “Of all the gin joints in the world she has to come into mine”. Rick is wallowing in despair. But the lines before it are sometimes interpreted in ways that many viewers did not at first conceive. Rick states that it is December 1941 and then asks Sam what time it is New York. And then he follows with, “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America”. There’s no real reason for these lines other than to remind the American audience that this is the same month that Pearl Harbour was bombed and thus entered the war. Even though the war was spreading all over the world, it was not until it was on the American doorstep that the USA “woke up” to scale of the problem. In any event, many reviewers consider these lines to be political in content, but at the very least they align the life-changing events in Casablanca with the life-changing events closer to home.

Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund hear that Rik may have papers of transit that they desperately need to escape to America. First Laszlo visits Rik to bargain with him. But it doesn’t go well. Laszlo wants to know why he won’t even consider the proposition and Rik tells him to “Ask your wife”. (Sorry to skip over the romance of the film, which is wonderful, but I am keeping to the politics). At that point the Nazi officers in the bar start singing a ‘rousing’ pro-nationalist – German song. Laszlo incensed, goes to the band and tells them to play the La Marseillaise (French National Anthem). Rik nods approval, and the band play. Almost immediately a chorus of voices drown out the Nazis. This is one of the pivotal moments in the film, and I think has an authenticity that is hard to fake; and one of the reasons for the success of the film (I would suggest). Many of the actors singing were themselves recent refugees from fascist Europe. This scene, along with Rik’s known political activities (which we are reminded of several times in the film), were considered by many conservatives in USA after the war years to be subversive. Being anti-fascist BEFORE America entered the war was a preoccupation of the leftwing.  Importantly the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) reviewed the Casablanca script in 1951, finding much of it to be subversive. Rick, after all had left America some years before the war to fight fascism in Spain and Ethiopia. Real Americans who had done the same were often deeply committed political activists of the left.

It is worth pausing here to note the real-life mini-biographies of several of the actors who had themselves recently fled Europe.

  • Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo) Born Paul Georg Julius von Hernreid, Henreid, like so many of the actors in Casablanca, was an Austrian actor working in Germany during the 1930s. He was vehemently anti-Nazi. In 1934 he refused to sign a Nazi loyalty oath as part of a lucrative Berlin film contract. He was listed as an ‘official enemy of the Third Reich’, but escaped to London. He later returned to Austria, but when German forces annexed Austria in 1938 Henreid, black-listed for the second time, was again desperate to find an escape. He made it to USA as an ‘Italian’ emigrant. He set up his home for actors and artists who fled from Europe. A few years after making Casablanca Henreid refused to divulge the political leanings of fellow actors to the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was again Black-listed, effectively ending his film career (however, he did re-emerge some years later to work in tv). The irony of his scene in Casablanca with Nazi officer Strasser in which Strasser offers him freedom (or sorts) if he names leaders of the Resistance, could not have been lost on him.
  • Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser) was a German actor of some renown. He was passionately anti-Nazi. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they began to purge the film industry of Jews, Reds and Liberals. He was given a form to fill in. He listed himself as ‘Jude’ even though he was not Jewish. Soon after he married his Jewish lover and a week later left for London, where, during WWII, he donated a large portion of his salary to the British war effort. He died one year after making Casablanca.
  • Madeleine LeBeau (Yvonne) was a teenage French actress when German forces occupied Paris in 1940. With her actor husband, Marcel Dalio, who is also in Casablanca (Emile, the croupier), escaped to Lisbon. After being at the mercy of various racketeers – they finally left Europe, but were stranded in Mexico, before making it to Canada and then the USA. Soon after both Lebeau and Dalio were cast in Casablanca. LeBeau returned to France soon after the war, continuing a long film career. She is the last of the Casablanca actors to pass away – in May this year (2016). The French Minister for Culture stated “She is forever the face of French resistance”.
  • Peter Lorre (Signor Ugarte) was born Laszlo Lowenstein (That’s right “Laszlo”). He was Jewish Hungarian (like the Director Michael Curtiz), and moved to Berlin to enjoy a prosperous film career. He was a life-long colleague and close friend of Bertolt Brecht and like him became a ‘fellow traveller’ (communist sympathies without being a party member). He quickly left Berlin when the Nazis came to power, first making it to Paris and then London. Four years after Casablanca, Lorre escaped likely prosecution from the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) by leaving the country to make a film overseas, but was added to the ‘Grey List’ in 1946. This was a huge list of artists who may not have been ‘officially’ Black-listed, but who were prevented from getting work. The following year, along with Humphrey Bogart and many other actors, he publicly advertised his support for the Committee for the First Amendment in protest against the HUAC.
  • S Z Sakall (Carl) was a Jewish Hungarian actor (Szőke Szakáll) first working on stage in Vienna, and then in films in Germany. He had to leave Germany in 1933, and returned to Hungary, but quickly left when Germany invaded in 1940. Most of this family died in concentration camps.
  • Curt Bois (Pick-pocket) was a Jewish German actor forced to leave Germany in 1934. He returned after the war to live in Germany.
  • Ludwig Stossel (Mr Leuchtag) was a Jewish Austrian actor working in Berlin when the Nazis came to power. He was compelled to leave and returned to Austria to work on stage and in film. When the German forces entered Austria in 1938 Stossel spent time in prison before escaping to Vienna, then Paris and London.
  • Ilka Gruning (Mrs Leuchtag) was also a Jewish Austrian actor working in Berlin, who had to leave quickly in 1933.
  • Helmut Dantine (Jan Brandel) was Austrian actor active in anti-Nazi organisations in Vienna. When German forces entered the country in 1938, Dantine, then 21, was placed in a concentration camp. His parents convinced a camp doctor to release him on medical grounds three months later, and quickly sent him out of the country.

In addition to the above, both producers (Jack Warner and Hal Wallis), Director (Michael Curtiz), and two of the script writers (Julius and Philip Epstein) were Jewish, and were also born overseas or their parents were. Incidentally, their colleague on the film, Jack Warner, gave their names to the HUAC as possible communists. They filled in a questionnaire provided by the Committee. To the question, “Were you ever a member of a subversive organization?” they both answered, “Yes. Warner Brothers”. The original play by Murray Burnett had Jewish family in Austria, whom he visited during the German occupation in 1938.  Howard Koch (Script writer) wrote much of the political dialogue in the film. He was blacklisted in 1951 (as I understand it, parts of the Casablanca script were used as proof of his subversive influence). He moved to the UK, where several other Black-listed artists were working.


  Paul Henreid  as Victor Laszlo


Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser

Back to the film: Ilsa visits Rik late at night, desperate to get the papers of transit. If not for her then for Victor. After every cynical rebuttal, she finally pulls a gun. Rik steps forward and tells her, “Go ahead; you’ll be doing me a favour”. She collapses in a heap and Rik moves from hurt wounded stubborn soul to compassionate lover. Racked by guilt and concern for Victor but unable to refuse Rik again she no longer knows what to do and asks Rik to “think for the both of us, for all of us”. He does just that.

Laszlo is arrested. Rik makes plans to leave Casablanca, and then convinces Renault to come to Rik’s alone to entrap Laszlo on a more serious charge – to impress Nazi officers – while Rik steals off with the girl. But it is actually a betrayal of Renault and Rik forces Renault at gun point to get them all to the airport and sign the letters of transit in the names of Mr and Mrs Laszlo. I won’t recap the heart-breaking romance here other than to say it is beautiful. The key point, however, is that Rik and Ilsa sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

When Major Strasser arrives, tipped off cunningly by Renault, he intends to stop the plane taking off at all costs. Rik shoots him. The police arrive. Renault looks at Rik and Rik back at Renault before Renault says the classic line “Round up the usual suspects”. They are about to drink a toast to a new beginning when Renault sees the Vichy label on the bottle and throws it in the bin. Thus, the fence-sitting French officer turns on Vichy-Nazi cooperation.


Casablanca came out in 1942, but most people saw it for the first time in 1943; the year USA and Britain established North African Allied ‘fight back’ from Casablanca. It featured heavily in the news, so the film had extra resonance for many viewers. And the references to December 1941, self-sacrifice and America being a refuge for the persecuted and the noble was not lost on many. But let’s be honest – the romance was the big thing.

Following the success of Casablanca, there were numerous anti-Nazi films after – often set in out-of-the-way places to add a touch of the exotic, but none of them quite worked like Casablanca. Numerous commentators, including many involved in the actual film, have made statements to the effect that they don’t know why this film – one in a batch of 50 – worked so well. But when one considers the cast of A-listed European actors who were recent refugees from Europe, as well as Bogart and Bergman, the incredible script – lines of which are repeated thousands and thousands of times – the backgrounds of the writers, the imminent list of producers and director and the musical score by Steiner (who won multiple awards in his life time), this is no run-of-the-mill cast and crew. It is about as A list as it possibly can be. There are only a handful of other films that come close in terms of the cast and crew – Gone With the Wind, for example. But even those films don’t have 14 minor parts filled by spare A-listed European actors recently arrived from war-torn Europe. I wonder (because I don’t know) whether the paranoia during the House of Un-American Activities Committee and its two or three-decade long legacy in the Hollywood film industry meant that many were keen to downplay the political importance of Casablanca (it was not only anti-fascist it was pro-refugee).I suspect that is part of it.

Casablanca is regularly voted as the greatest movie romance of all time, and often the first or second greatest movie of all time. I kind of agree. But it is disturbing that the core messages in Casablanca – the unity of the humane forces to overcome tyranny – are in as much need today as they were in 1942. Militarisation and global persecution of refugees stands out. But – all that aside – it is in its own right a beautiful love story. So, if that is the only thing you get out of it, that is not all bad.

Love and Peace


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