Sue and I returned from a trip to China last weekend. I’ll soon be posting on that trip, but this one is about a coincidence. I know some people don’t believe in coincidences, but this really was one. At least, I’m pretty sure about that.
The flight back to the States from Shanghai was a long one, some 13 hours to Detroit, and after a short layover there we hopped a 90-minute flight to Minneapolis, then our usual two-and-a-half hour drive home capped a very long day of travel. Plus, upon arriving home around 7pm CDT, I had another hour’s drive up to the kennel near Hayward to pick up our dog Sophie, and then another hour back. I had just enough energy left before retiring to check the news on msn.com, and I was surprised to read that Madeleine LeBeau had died several days earlier after a fall in Spain, 40 days shy of her 93rd birthday. I had just seen her, on the plane from Shanghai.
Of course, I didn’t see Madeleine in person, but I saw one of her first and undoubtedly her most notable roles in the movies. At the age of 19, LeBeau had a small but memorable role in one of the most famous movies of all time: Casablanca. Even on the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me, she was luminous. She was the last surviving member of the cast.
LeBeau plays Yvonne, the jilted young lover of Rick Blaine, the owner of Rick’s Café Americain, an upscale saloon with a backroom casino. Rick, of course, was played by Humphrey Bogart, in what is surely his most famous role. Casablanca was released in late 1942, just two years after LeBeau had fled France along with her Jewish husband Marcel Dalio, who had the role of Emil the croupier in the film. She had married Dalio in 1939, when she was only 16 and he was 36. A year later the Germans invaded France, and the newlyweds, like thousands of other French citizens, made the difficult decision to leave their country. LeBeau and Dalio, along with dozens of their countrymen, had to undergo an ordeal that could have been made into a movie all by itself.
They made their way through Spain to Portugal, where they had to wait two months to obtain visas to Chile. In Lisbon the refugees chartered a Portuguese ship, the SS Quanza, to take them to the New World and freedom. The captain, suspecting that many of his passengers’ passports were forgeries, made them all pay for a round-trip, just in case. The ship had never made a crossing of the hazardous North Atlantic, and this one was dangerous indeed, dealing with bad weather, including a hurricane, not to mention the possibility that a German U-boat could send a torpedo into the hull at any moment. But they made it to New York, where 196 passengers disembarked, 66 of them Americans. The remaining 121 passengers, most of whom were Jewish, were denied entry, and they stayed on board as the ship sailed to Mexico, arriving in Veracruz on August 30th. Another 35 passengers were allowed to disembark, leaving 86 aboard, including LeBeau and Dalio. To their horror, the ship was ordered to return to Europe.
The Quanza sailed from Veracruz and stopped in Norfolk, Virginia, to load up on coal for the voyage back to Europe. The desperate passengers made contact with a Jewish-American lawyer, Jacob Morewitz, who filed suit in federal court on behalf of the passengers against the Portuguese National Line, owners of the ship, alleging breach of contract. The ship’s departure was delayed for six days, and one passenger leaped overboard and swam to shore, only to be apprehended and returned to the ship. To prevent any more escapes, the captain posted armed guards on deck. The fate of the passengers made the newspapers, but Quanza was not the first European ship to arrive in America with refugees, and it wouldn’t be the last. This time, though, the news made it to the ear of a certain woman who had an influential husband. The woman was Eleanor Roosevelt, who persuaded her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to investigate. FDR sent a State Department representative to Norfolk, and visas were granted to all of the 86 remaining passengers, although six chose to return to Europe. The 80 who stayed included LeBeau and Dalio, who made their way to Hollywood and used their talent and French film and stage experience to get work. Less than a year after their arrival, they were both cast in Casablanca.
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…
The movie is set in Casablanca, a city in the North African country of Morocco that had been under French rule for more than 30 years by the time of the movie’s setting, the first week of December in 1941. Based on an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the film was produced for Warner Bros. studios by Hollywood legend Hal B. Wallis, who had also produced now-classic films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Maltese Falcon. Over the course of his career, Wallis would be nominated for 16 Academy Awards for his work as producer, but his only win would be for Casablanca. He hired Robin Hood director Michael Curtiz to helm the project. Curtiz had come to America from Hungary at the age of 40 in 1926 to work in the movie industry and had already made a name for himself, having garnered two Oscar nominations for his work as director. He would add a third nomination for Yankee Doodle Dandy, which was released while he was working on Casablanca in the spring of 1942.
Wallis corralled a number of big names for the cast. Bogart, who had starred in The Maltese Falcon, would play the lead role of Rick, an American expatriate who had retired from a life as a gun-runner and mercenary to run a saloon and casino in Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman, a Swedish actress who had just come to America a few years earlier, got the female lead role, Ilsa Lund, and Paul Henreid, who had left his native Austria in 1935 to avoid being caught up in the Nazi wave from neighboring Germany, was given the role of Czech freedom fighter Victor Laszlo, Ilsa’s husband. Bergman and Henreid were just two of the many European expatriates who appeared in the film, many of whom had come to America to escape fascism.
Although it is almost impossible to imagine anybody other than Bogart as Rick, he was not an automatic choice for the role, at least by the studio. Early in 1942, Warner Bros. issued a press release saying that another young actor was set to star in Casablanca. That actor was none other than Ronald Reagan, and Ann Sheridan was set for the role of Ilsa. But the Reagan/Sheridan pairing was only a publicity stunt by Warner, a ploy to keep their names in the limelight in advance of the release of their film King’s Row. Wallis never seriously considered anybody but Bogart for the role.
There be spoilers here!
If you haven’t seen the movie, skip the next couple sections and go right to A theme that hits home.
The German invasion of France in 1940 had resulted in the capitulation of the French government, and the Germans occupied most of the country, including Paris. The rest of France was still nominally under French control, with its government based in Vichy, but the Germans were calling the shots, both there and in the French colonies of North Africa. The opening minutes of the film set the scene: Casablanca is a city on edge, filled with Europeans desperate for exit visas so they can escape to America. The most popular route is by air to Lisbon and then across the Atlantic, and many of them are willing to do whatever it takes to get those visas. The city is also home to legions of thieves, shysters and con men, preying upon the refugees, and the local French government and police are more than happy to take a piece of that action while trying to stay on the Germans’ good side by offering their grudging cooperation.
On the night the film opens, Rick comes into possession of two letters of transit, signed by the French authorities and granting unquestioned legal rights to leave the country. The letters had been held by two German couriers, who’d been found murdered just outside the city, and now the hunt is on for the murderer and, most especially, the letters. Rick is given the letters by a con artist named Ugarte, who knows the police are looking for him. Rick is content to run his saloon and stay out of trouble, but even though he despises Ugarte he agrees to hide the letters until Ugarte can sell them, undoubtedly with the understanding that he will get a cut for his trouble.
But the Germans are ratcheting up the pressure because of the arrival in Casablanca of Laszlo, who has been a leader of the anti-Nazi resistance in Europe and has recently escaped from a German concentration camp. A German officer, Major Heinrich Strasser, has arrived with orders to find the letters and make sure the French police detain Laszlo indefinitely. Rick has long had an understanding with the French police captain, Louis Renault, who doesn’t bother Rick’s customers as long as he’s allowed to win occasionally at the casino, but that’s about to change.
Only minutes after Ugarte gives the letters of transit to Rick, who hides them in the saloon’s piano, Renault orders Ugarte’s arrest, setting it up to happen in the saloon with the German officers in attendance. Later in the evening, Laszlo and his wife arrive at the saloon, expecting to meet Ugarte and purchase the stolen letters. What might have been a simple business transaction for Rick turns into something far different, because Ilsa Lund, it turns out, was Rick’s lover in Paris just before the Germans occupied the city a year before. Rick discovers her presence in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, when Ilsa recognizes the piano player, Sam, and asks him to play the tune she and Rick danced to in Paris. Reluctantly, because he’s been ordered by Rick never to play it again, Sam begins to play and sing what would become one of the most famous songs in movie history. You can hear the song and see clips from the film here: “As Time Goes By.”
Sam is played by Dooley Wilson, a Texas-born jazz drummer and bandleader who actually couldn’t play the piano. It is said that Wallis considered changing the part to a woman and hiring Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne for the role, and even after production he thought about dubbing another singer’s voice to replace Wilson’s. Sometimes it’s better to leave things be, and this is a classic case for not tinkering with something that works.
The man who sticks his neck out for no one…
The arrival of Ilsa is a game-changer for Rick, who’d been left at the Paris train station 17 months before, holding a note in the rain. His plans to escape with Ilsa to Marseilles and marry her dissolved like the words she had written, saying she couldn’t go with him and couldn’t explain why.
The intrigue continues over the next couple days, as Laszlo searches for the letters and Ilsa visits Rick at the saloon after closing time, refusing to say why she left Rick in Paris. She asks him to give Laszlo the letters, if he has them. Still upset at her, Rick says no. But the next night Laszlo visits Rick and says he has learned from Ferrari, who runs a rival saloon and has his fingers in everything in Casablanca, that Rick almost certainly has the letters. Laszlo wants to buy them and offers 200,000 francs, but Rick refuses, telling Laszlo to “ask your wife” about why he would decline to sell.
Rick’s cryptic remark is still hanging in the air when another of the film’s most gripping scenes occurs. Out in the saloon, the Germans have hijacked Sam’s piano and are singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” (“Watch on the Rhine”), a classic German military song. The other patrons, most of them French nationals, are cowed by the Nazis, but not Laszlo, who leads Rick’s house band in a stirring rendition of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Defying the Germans at last, the French men and women stand and proudly sing, including a tearful Yvonne, who is back at the bar with a new man, a German officer. Furious at being drowned out and alarmed at Laszlo’s ability to rally the French, Strasser orders Renault to close the saloon. You can see the scene here: Laszlo leads “La Marseillaise.”
The screenwriters had intended to use “Horst Wessel Lied,” the unofficial anthem of the Nazi Party, but were prevented from doing so by copyright law. The issue was the overseas movie market. Countries at war with Germany would have had no problem showing a movie with a song that violated German copyright law, but neutral countries, such as most of South America, would have prohibited the film from being shown there. Curtiz chose to use “Die Wacht am Rhein,” which dates back to the mid-19th century and refers to Germany’s ancient conflict with France over the Rhine River itself. One can imagine Strasser deliberately choosing this number to sing, just to annoy the French in the saloon. The fourth stanza personifies Germany to many outsiders, and perhaps the Germans of that day wanted it that way:
Solang ein Tropfen Blut noch glueht, noch eine Faust den Degen zieht, und noch ein Arm die Buechse spannt, betritt kein Feind hier deinen Strand!
(As long as a drop of blood still glows, a fist still draws the dagger and one arm still holds the rifle, no enemy will here enter your shore!)
The French anthem, dating back to the 1790s, also speaks to the conflict with Germany over the Rhine. Here’s the chorus:
Aux armes, citoyens, Formez vous bataillons. Marchons, marchons! Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons!
(To arms, citizens, form your battalions. Let’s march, let’s march! May a tainted blood drench our furrows!)
…finally decides to take a stand.
Later that night, while Laszlo is attending a secret meeting of the resistance, Ilsa returns to the shuttered Café Americain, pulling a gun on Rick and demanding he give her the letters. She finally confesses the reason she left him at the train station: she had come to Paris expecting to meet her husband, but then had heard he’d died in a concentration camp. She met Rick on the rebound, but at the last minute got another message, this one saying her husband was alive, had escaped and was injured. But she still loves Rick, and she lowers the gun. Rick’s enmity dissolves and he says he will let Laszlo leave if she stays behind with him.
Laszlo shows up, having escaped a raid at the resistance meeting, but he’s been tailed to the saloon by the police and is arrested. The next day, Rick approaches Renault and asks him to release Laszlo, saying he will set up the Czech for another arrest on far more serious charges: possession of the stolen letters. Renault agrees, and Rick then sells his saloon to Ferrari. That night, Laszlo and Ilsa are at the still-shuttered saloon, expecting Rick to give them the letters, when Renault arrives. To everyone’s surprise, it is Rick who pulls a gun, forcing the French captain to drive them all to the airport, after first placing a phone call to the guards there, ordering them to hold the plane that is soon to depart for Lisbon. Unknown to Rick, Renault dials Strasser’s number, alerting the German that something is up. At the airport, Rick orders Renault to sign the letters and put the names of Laszlo and Ilsa on them. He tells a tearful Ilsa that this is the way it has to be, and when Strasser shows up, Rick shoots him dead. Renault calls for help, saying the German major has been shot. With a look at Rick, he says, “Round up the usual suspects.” As the plane taking the Laszlos to freedom takes off in the fog, Rick and Renault walk away together, as Rick utters the last of many classic lines in the film: “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
A theme that hits home, then and now.
The emotion of the dueling-anthems scene was very real for almost everyone in the cast. Bogart and Wilson were two of the very few Americans who had speaking roles. Observers on the set said that the many Europeans in the scene were not acting as they sang, wept and cheered. We know LeBeau’s story, and so it’s no surprise to see the emotion on Yvonne’s face and hear it in her voice, especially as she cries “Vive le France! Vive le libertie!” Laszlo’s fierce determination to challenge the Germans undoubtedly came from Henreid’s own experiences opposing the Nazis in Austria. Many others in the cast had similar backgrounds. Conrad Veidt, who played Strasser, was a German who had decided to leave his own country rather than live under the Nazis; ironically, many of his wartime Hollywood roles were playing German officers and Nazi agents. Richard Ryen, who played Strasser’s portly, bespectacled aide, was an Austrian Jew. Curt Bois, who plays a pickpocket who appears early in the film, was a German Jew who escaped to America and had one of the longest film careers in history: his first on-screen appearance was in 1907 and his last 80 years later. Helmut Dantine plays Jan Brandel, the young Bulgarian whom Rick helps out at the roulette table so that his wife, Annina, doesn’t have to go to bed with Renault in order to obtain exit visas; an Austrian, Dantine had spent time in a German concentration camp. The young wife was played by Joy Page, an American who was the stepdaughter of studio head Jack Warner. The actors who played Ugarte the con artist and Carl, the headwaiter and accountant at Rick’s, were Peter Lorre and S.Z. Sakall, respectively, both Hungarians who preferred freedom rather than living under the Nazis. Other prominent cast members were European, as well, such as Claude Rains (Renault) and Sydney Greenstreet (Ferrari), both Englishmen, and Leonid Kinskey (Sascha, the bartender who has a crush on Yvonne), who was Russian.
Many actors who had bit parts in the film, like Bois, also had history with the Nazis. Wolfgang Zilzer, who is shot in the opening scene, was a German actor who left his homeland after the Nazi takeover. He married a castmate, Lotte Palfi, who plays the woman trying to sell her jewelry to buy a visa. Palfi, like Zilzer, had a career on the German stage but left rather than live under Hitler. Hans Twardowski plays the German officer who escorts Yvonne back to Rick’s and then has a violent argument with a French officer; Twardowski was born in what is now Poland but left Germany because he was gay, and the Nazis weren’t exactly tolerant about sexual orientation. Ludwig Stossel plays the German émigré who tells the waiter that “my English is not so good”; an Austrian who was imprisoned by the Nazis after the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, he fled to England and then to America. The actress who plays his wife, Ilka Grunig, was also Austrian. Trude Berliner, who was at the baccarat table, was a famous German cabaret singer and film actress who left the country rather than risk suffering the fate of so many of her fellow Jews.
They never expected it to be much, but it was.
Wallis never expected much out of the picture, especially after it exceeded its budget, costing the studio just over a million dollars, the equivalent of $15.25 million today. A budget like that was on the high end for 1942, but would be peanuts nowadays. The script was not finished by the time principal photography began, so it was filmed in sequence, a rarity then and now, and there were frequent rewrites. There was no location photography; everything was filmed on the Warner Bros. lot, except for the scene showing Strasser’s arrival at the airport, which was shot in Van Nuys. The closing scene, also at the airport, was actually shot using midgets as extras and a cardboard scale model of the Lockheed Model 12 Electra Junior aircraft. Fog was used to mask the simplicity of the set. Some stock footage of Paris was also used during the scenes that flashed back to Rick and Ilsa’s romance in the French capital. Speaking of the two main characters, Bergman later claimed that because she was nearly two inches taller than the 5’8″ Bogart, Curtiz had the actor stand on blocks or sit on cushions during their scenes together.
There was some controversy over the score, specifically the use of “As Time Goes By.” The song, written by Herman Hupfeld several years earlier, was almost written out of the script, believe it or not. Max Steiner, who scored the film, wanted to use one of his own songs, but that would have required the scenes featuring the song to be re-shot. By then, Bergman had already cut her hair short for her next role, so Wallis decided to leave the song in. Steiner carried some weight in the industry, having previously scored Gone with the Wind, but accepted the decision and based his entire score on “As Time Goes By” and “La Marseillaise.” During his 61-year career he would write over 300 film scores and was nominated for 24 Oscars, winning three times.
Of the film’s many classic lines, the one that’s often associated with the film, “Play it again, Sam,” was never actually in the film at all. There were several variations of “Play it, Sam,” spoken by both Ilsa and Rick, but never the one that became famous. Another one, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” was Bogart’s own addition to the script. He’d used it with Bergman while teaching her how to play poker during downtime on the set.
Bogart and Bergman had a cordial but strictly professional relationship. She had a well-deserved reputation for falling in love with her leading men and then dumping them as soon as production ended, but there’s no indication Bogart fell into that category. He had enough problems; his wife, actress Mayo Methot, was an alcoholic who frequently haunted his movie sets, suspecting infidelities at every turn. Unlike most Hollywood leading men of the day, Bogart didn’t fool around with his co-stars, but that would change when he began shooting To Have and Have Not early in 1944. His leading lady was 19-year-old model Lauren Bacall, making her movie debut. She would become Bogart’s fourth and final wife in May 1945, shortly after his divorce from Methot.
Henreid considered Bogart to be merely “mediocre” as an actor, and insisted that he be given equal billing along with him and Bergman. This didn’t sit well with the other two stars–Bergman later referred to Henreid as a “prima donna”–but their own careers far eclipsed the Austrian expat’s. Bogart later won an Oscar for his role in 1951’s The African Queen, and is widely regarded as one of the best actors of Hollywood’s classic (pre-1960) era. He died of esophageal cancer early in 1957, just weeks after his 57th birthday. Bergman, only 27 when the film was released, would later garner three Oscars, for Gaslight (1944), Anastasia (1956), and as supporting actress for Murder on the Orient Express (1974). She also won four Golden Globes, along with two Emmys for her television work and a Tony for her stage work in Joan of Lorraine (1947). Although beloved for her screen work in the forties, she was no stranger to scandal. In 1949 she left her Swedish-born husband, a dentist, and their 11-year-old daughter in the U.S. and went to Europe to make a film with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini; they began an affair and she became pregnant. After her divorce from her husband, she married Rossellini in 1950, three months after their son was born. Later she bore him twin girls, one of whom, Isabella, followed her famous mother into the movies. Bergman died of breast cancer on her 67th birthday in 1982, four months after completing work on a TV miniseries in which she starred as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. She was awarded her second Emmy posthumously for her final role.
Casablanca was released in November 1942, timed to coincide with the Allied landings in Morocco that began the counterattack against the Germans. Once it went into nationwide release two months later, it became a modest box-office success, eventually ranking as the seventh-highest grosser for 1943. Reviews were generally good, and the film garnered eight Oscar nominations, winning three: Best Picture, Best Director for Curtiz, and Best Screenplay. Bogart lost out in Best Actor to Paul Lukas (Watch on the Rhine); Rains was eclipsed for Best Supporting Actor by Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier). Max Steiner was nominated for best musical score, but lost to Alfred Newman for The Song of Bernadette. That prevented a three-year sweep for Steiner, who had won the previous year for Now, Voyager, and he would win again the next year for Since You Went Away. Because Casablanca went into nationwide release in January 1943, the Academy considered it for awards for that year, but when the ceremony rolled around on March 2nd, 1944, it was not the most-nominated film, nor would it wind up to be the biggest winner. Both of those distinctions went to The Song of Bernadette, starring Jennifer Jones, who would be honored as Best Actress. Her picture garnered 12 nominations and four wins.
Casablanca, however, was the people’s choice. When Bogart arrived on the red carpet at Grauman’s Chinese Theater with his wife, he was mobbed by fans, and it took a dozen police officers to get the couple into the building. Wallis was all set to take the stage to receive the Oscar for Best Picture, as is customary for the winning film’s producer to do, but studio head Jack L. Warner rushed on stage with a huge smile, stealing his producer’s thunder. Warner’s family blocked Wallis’s attempt to share the spotlight. The producer never forgave Warner for the insult; he left the studio just a few months after the snub and was still bitter about it when interviewed 40 years later.
And what of Madeline LeBeau? Her work on Casablanca was part of her six-month, $100-a-week contract with Warner Bros., which declined to renew the contract when it expired. Dalio filed for divorce during the filming, citing desertion. Even after that, they worked together in Paris After Dark in 1943. After the war, she returned to France and made some two dozen more films in Europe, most notably appearing in director Frederico Fellini’s 8-1/2 (1963). She married one of the screenwriters for that film, Tulio Pinelli, in 1988, and was widowed in 2009. She said in a 1990s interview that her part in Casablanca had originally been larger, but the script rewrites kept shrinking it. “It was not personal, but I was so disappointed,” she said.
The impact of a classic.
Nearly three-quarters of a century after its release, Casablanca is one of America’s most beloved films. In 1989 it was included in the National Film Registry; in 2005 it was named one of the 100 greatest films of the past 80 years by Time magazine; and in 2006 the Writers Guild of America voted the screenplay the best of all time.
How come there was never a sequel? Wallis considered one, to be called Brazzaville, the French colonial city in what is now the Republic of the Congo, mentioned at the end of the film as Rick and Renault walk off into the fog, speculating about their next move. Getting to the Free French garrison in Brazzaville would’ve been a long hike, about 3,000 miles from Casablanca. The sequel, though, never got off the ground, but there were two attempts at bringing an expanded version of the story to TV. The first aired ten episodes on Warner Bros. Presents in the 1955-56 season, starring Charles McGraw as Rick and Marcel Dalio, who’d played Emil the croupier in the film, as Renault. Twenty-seven years later, a short-lived series based on the movie aired on NBC in 1983, starring David Soul as Rick. It lasted only five episodes.
Like most films, there are some inconsistencies. Renault tells Strasser that he was with French and American forces when they marched into Berlin in 1918. After Germany signed the armistice that ended World War I, some areas of the German frontier were occupied by the Allies, but none of them ever made it all the way to Berlin. It’s also been pointed out that the Germans never would have let Laszlo have any freedom of movement in Casablanca, or anywhere else in territory controlled by the Vichy French government, and also that the primary escape routes for refugees did not go through Casablanca to Lisbon. But why quibble about minor details?
It’s the story that is important, after all. Casablanca is about people struggling to be free, and about a man and a woman caught in the midst of it all, trying to salvage their own love while their world crumbles around them. It’s about redemption, and courage, and how, when you get right down to it, doing the right thing even at the expense of your own short-term happiness and comfort is, well, the right thing to do. Rick could have turned Laszlo over to the Germans and gone about his business. (That might have changed quickly, though; Pearl Harbor was attacked only a few days after the events of the film.) He probably would’ve lost Ilsa forever, but there would be plenty of other women. But would there be true love? Would there be honor? Ultimately, Rick Blaine, the embittered cynic who stuck his neck out for nobody, took a stand and stood up for what was right. It should be no surprise that audiences then and now respond to that message.