In the dark era of Trump, the idealism of “Casablanca” is more relevant than ever

Round up the usual suspects…
Round up the usual suspects…
Image: Reuters/Andy Clark
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On the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, a script arrived at the Burbank offices of Warner Bros. Everything about the work seemed doomed—the horrible timing, its rejection by almost every other studio, and a pedigree of being, in the words of producer Hal Wallis, an “obscure play” that was “written by two unknowns.” And yet, there was something about it that caught the studio’s eye. The war suddenly underscored the play’s portrayal of American ideals, although the script still “needed a great deal of work,” Wallis remembered. His first change was the lackluster title, which he remedied by dashing off a staff memo announcing, “The story that we recently purchased entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s will hereafter be known as Casablanca.

In a new book about the making of the film, We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie (Norton), author Noah Isenberg provides a story worthy of its own film. He also explores how the film’s message, of ditching complacency to confront political evils, remains urgent.

Isenberg quickly brings the relevancy of the past into focus with an anecdote about Ronald Reagan. Even back then people loved using the future president’s name for propaganda. Shortly after Casablanca began production, Warner Bros. said it would cast the popular actor in the lead role of Rick Blaine. That announcement, however, was just an ‘alternative fact’ to spin up publicity. Humphrey Bogart—Reagan’s opposite in many ways—would star instead. This lucky casting break not only helped him escape a rut of playing gangsters and street thugs, it created a character who would become, “A symbol of the nation itself, at first wary and isolationist, then changing incrementally until it headed in the opposite direction,” according to Bogart Biographer Stefan Kanfer.

Other casting decisions quickly became a rebuttal of Nazi Germany. For years Hitler had been making refugees out of some of Germany’s brightest talents, driving them to Hollywood. The European Film Fund, supported by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz and actors Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, and S. Z. Sakall, all immigrants themselves, provided money. Hans Kafka, a reporter from the German-language émigré newspaper Aufbau, soon noted that, “it’s a grotesque, almost freakish situation; Hitler’s gangsters, trying to annihilate all those [European-born émigré] actors finally succeeded to weld them to an almost perfect ensemble and give them the chance of their lives, artistically as well as financially.”

Nearly all of Casablanca’s some seventy-five cast members were immigrants, many of them donning Nazi uniforms to play their former oppressors. Their headquarters was Stage 8 of the Warner Bros. lot, which housed the set for Rick’s Café and quickly became known as International House. Studio press agents quickly bragged that, “The cast and crew of the production represent so many different nationalities that the set is the most cosmopolitan spot in Southern California.”

The cast drew strength from its differences, celebrating them even. Ingrid Bergman, playing the film’s female lead, became “famous for her unwillingness to conform to the norms of Hollywood. She eschewed the conventional star makeover, refusing to pluck her eyebrows, wear thick makeup, or change her name,” Isenberg writes. Upon receiving an Oscar for directing, Michael Curtiz poked fun at his own patchy English by quipping, “So many times I have a speech ready, but no dice. Always a bridesmaid, never a mother. Now I win, I have no speech.”

America’s willingness to adopt Casablanca’s message was never guaranteed. Hollywood often pushed back, or at least dragged its feet, along the way. Even after Hitler’s stunning ascent in Germany in 1933, and Italy’s gradual embrace of fascism, many studios dodged controversial subjects that might upset their export markets. After a trip to Germany in 1934, MGM producer Irving Thalberg wanted to ignore the problem, claiming that, “Hitler and Hitlerism will pass.” It didn’t, and even after Kristallnacht sparked a violent wave of pogroms against Jews across Germany in 1938, “Hollywood, instead of crying out against the bunglers, still scrambles for the fruit,” journalist Helen Zigmond reported at the time.

Warner Bros. was an exception. The studio’s brand had always been scrappy and working class, celebrating its vaguely ethnic lineup of stars. As early as 1933, Harry Warner, himself a Jewish immigrant from Poland, voiced his determination “to expose Hitler and Nazism for what they truly were.” He approved anti-Nazi cartoons, worked on ideas for anti-Nazi features, and was relentless in the face of isolationist senators like Republican Gerald Nye of North Dakota. “Go to Hollywood,” Nye shrieked during a US Senate Subcommittee on War Propaganda. “It is a raging volcano of war fever. The place swarms with refugees.”

It did swarm with them, but they had better angels on their side, ready to oppose such dark tumors of hatred. Jack Warner, spoiling for the fight he knew was necessary, had already told the Brooklyn Eagle that, “Every worthwhile contribution to the advancement of motion pictures has been over the howl of protest from the standpatters, whose favorite refrain has been, ‘You can’t do that.’ And when we hear that chorus now, we know we must be on the right track.”

They were on the right track, and America eventually won the war. Casablanca had reminded them that, “when people lose faith in their ideals,” as one studio writer noted about the script, “they are beaten before they begin to fight.” Screenwriter Philip Epstein’s son Leslie tells Isenberg that the film is, “the signature archetype of how Americans would like to think of themselves, as tough (‘I stick my neck out for nobody’), but underneath there’s a heart and they do the right thing somehow. It’s a tough morality, but it is morality.”

After the war, America helped construct a new global system. The first half of the twentieth century had been disaster, marked by two world wars and economic turmoil. The second half was a comparative golden age, built on lessons learned the hard way. A new set of global institutions, defense alliances, and trade pacts helped create peace by linking nations, not separating them. Casablanca quickly found itself a universal reference point of this new order. It’s famous lines—“Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “round up the usual suspects”—became legendary around the world. In the US, references surfaced in what seemed like every other movie, from Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam to Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, while the film’s hit song, “As Time Goes By,” was covered by Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, Liberace, and the Muppets. Even in postwar Germany Casablanca found an enthusiastic audience, and inspired the lucky few able to watch bootlegged copies behind the Iron Curtain.

Casablanca had reached cult status, and its message continued to reach people no matter the conflict. During Vietnam, its unsullied patriotism managed to stay “startlingly fresh and completely removed from the toxic political culture of the day,” Isenberg writes. “Casablanca is the kind of film that makes a radical feel like he’s part of the mainstream,” he quotes a later political activist say in the 1970s. “Doing the right thing is what this movie is all about,” says another.

But alas, Casablanca might be losing its resonance, Isenberg laments. He cites the blank expression of an increasing number of younger people who fail to recognize Casablanca references that were once universally appreciated. These same age groups, polls show, have also become increasingly comfortable with authoritarianism. Instead of adopting the idealism of Casablanca, they’ve instead become cynical, voting to smash the old system rather than fix it.

But old monsters never die, they just hibernate, waiting for time to erase lessons that were learned the hard way. The American émigré newspaper Aufbau warned of this in its original review of Casablanca: “Those in the know—you and me—people from a Europe that has gone to pieces, now have a duty to enlighten those for whom such moments may seem unbelievable from their political or spiritual standpoints.”

Today, those words feel like something discovered in a time capsule. Nobody knows how our new era in history will end, but Isenberg offers a hopeful suggestion by recalling a social media post from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to her constituents about how she always celebrates New Year’s: with champagne and Casablanca. The film is “a creative triumph,” she tells them. “Much like America—made stronger because it’s woven together by people who are not a single race or a single religion, stronger because we choose to come together to build a new country,” she writes. “Each time I watch it, Casablanca gives me hope.”