The Hollywood Classic Casablanca Is Eerily Relevant in 2017

Image via Warner Bros.

If you haven’t watched Casablanca lately, you might have forgotten that this 1942 classic—routinely described as one of the greatest movies ever made—opens not with Humphrey Bogart in that crisp white dinner jacket, but rather with a description of the “torturous, roundabout refugee trail” that sprang up for those desperately seeking a way to the Americas.

It is deeply unnerving to revisit in 2017.


In fact, that refugee trail was the story’s original inspiration—not the love story, which was grafted on. What’s more, many of the actors and extras on the production had themselves fled one step ahead of the Germans. More than one cast member would lose family to the Nazis, including S.Z. Skakall, who played the affable waiter Carl. Conrad Veidt, who appeared as the Nazi Major Strasser, had been a Weimar star but fled for Britain and then Hollywood with his wife, who was Jewish. The woman the camera cuts to during the iconic La Marseillaise scene, tears sparkling in her eyes? She herself had fled France via Lisbon, the city Ilsa and Laszlo are trying to reach with those letters of transit. Many others were immigrants—fourteen actors got a screen credit and only three of them were born in the United States. The movie’s moral conflict turns on whether Rick will maintain his strictly isolationist stance or rejoin the fight against fascism.

All this is detailed in We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, a recently released book by film scholar Noah Isenberg that has taken on new relevance. We discussed the refugee backstory of Casablanca—the day after Trump signed his second, revised executive order, cutting the number of refugees allowed into the country. Our chat has been edited for clarity and lengthy.


Your book caught my attention because it reminded me that the interesting thing about Casablanca is it’s so close to its subject matter. And when I was reading it, what fascinating me was that with Casablanca, it wasn’t like they had a love story and they popped it into a setting that was trendy due to current events. I’d never realized that the refugee trail (described in the beginning of the movie) was actually the original inspiration.

Very much so. Most people don’t know that. I think most people—and rightfully—think of it as one of the greatest romances ever made. But there’s obviously much more to it and you’re correct—it begins with the refugee story and then the overlay of romance, that adds an additional layer to it. But the unproduced stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, it all began with the tale of refugees.


So tell me a little bit about how the original story of Casablanca begins to germinate.

It can all be traced back to the summer of 1938, when Murray Burnett, a high school teacher here in New York City, travels with his wife Francis to Belgium. First to Antwerp, and then they are notified that his wife has relatives stranded in Vienna. And the problem with Vienna at that point is by summer of ’38, the Nazis had annexed Austria, and so Jews and other persecuted people, they’re not allowed to smuggle out their precious goods. So Murray Burnett and his wife travel to Vienna, and it’s there he begins to see what’s happened with the rise of National Socialism, and he first catches a few precious glimpses of what was known as the refugee trail—the fortunate ones who were able to get out making their way into what was still then unoccupied France and then from there in some cases crossing the Mediterranean to North Africa, and from North Africa back to Lisbon. Lisbon really was the true point of debarkation. Those with means at their disposal were able to secure passage, generally by ship or freighter, or for those who were really well off, there was the Pan Am Clipper that left from Lisbon at least once daily.

A shot from the film’s prologue, describing the refugee trail that sprang up. Screencap via Amazon.

Burnett and his wife smuggled out furs and diamonds and other precious belongings of his wife’s extended family and made their way into again unoccupied France and all the way to the south of France, on the outskirts of Nice, on the same road that leads to Monte Carlo, to Monaco. They found themselves at a nightclub and at the piano was a crooner, an African American crooner from Chicago, singing a medley of jazz standards, and the nightclub was filled with people of all political backgrounds, all nationalities, an extraordinary babble of foreign tongues being spoken. And Murray Burnett, so the story goes, turns on the spot to his wife and says, “What a terrific setting this would make for a play.” And that essentially is the germ.


Then it’s in the summer of 1940 that Burnett together with his writing partner Joan Alison, a woman who had considerable more experience than Burnett—she was also a good decade Burnett’s senior and was a divorcee and had a few kids, knew her way around the New York theater world. Their initial hope with this play was that some Broadway producer would get behind it, and they’d be able to stage it on broadway. That never happened. So after shopping it around with a number of producers in vain, they ultimately told their agent, let’s give it a whirl in Hollywood. There are some rumors or stories—they’re not exactly verified—that Paramount as well as MGM expressed varying degrees of interest. Ultimately it lands in Burbank, California, at Warners, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With that wartime backdrop, the story of this refugee trail and this lone American in this North African outpost suddenly had even more urgency to it. And it was the head of the story department, a woman named Irene Lee (she was born Levine but Irene Lee she went by), she had the good sense that this might be something that would really appeal to a larger audience. She convinced Hal Wallis, who was then a major producer at Warner Brothers. Hal Wallis got excited too, and they end up offering $20,000 for this property. And that’s the most at that point that was ever spent on an unproduced stage play.

What’s been striking, actually, with the book so far and its reception—and obviously I had no hand in this, had it been up to me things would have gone very, very differently in November of 2016.  But since they didn’t go the way I had hoped, and we have this new regime in power, one that has this isolationist and nativist bent to it, suddenly Casablanca resonates in a whole new register. And I think that that has been both exciting and alarming for me.

It was interesting—I rewatched the movie not long ago and frankly it was unnerving to watch.


Oh, I know. Totally. I feel the same way. In fact I’m teaching a course right now, this semester. Haven’t taught it for a decade. It’s called “Berlin, New York, Hollywood,” and it’s on that migration during the Hitler regime. As fate would have it, today I screened Casablanca, and of course the students, that’s all they wanted to talk about, was the sort of uncanny and almost haunting or stirring ways in which the film resonates in terms of today’s situation with, again, as of yesterday, the new, no longer the seven-nation ban, but the six-nation ban and the threat to prevent refugees from arriving. It has a new meaning in the current political context. And again, needless to say that [confluence with Isenberg’s book] was not planned. But people are definitely thinking about refugees and the refugee story of Casablanca in a new light.

I want to talk about the cast and crew. The set of Rick’s Cafe American is basically packed with real-life refugees, right? Refugees from Germany, in a lot of cases.


Yes, so they came in large numbers from Germany, from Austria, but also from France.

From Sweden—Ingrid Bergman was not herself a refugee, but she called herself a “flyttfågel”—it’s a bird of passage. In other words she too was kind of, if not totally dispossessed, at least displaced. She too was definitely away from her native country and was living among all these refugees, émigrés in Hollywood at the time.


From France, I wrote separately a little piece on Madeleine Lebeau that went up on the National Endowment for the Humanities—oh, the NEH, hopefully we can hold on to the NEH. They bankrolled much of this book. I was very fortunate, I got this NEH public scholar award that helped to make it possible for me to spend an entire year writing this book on sabbatical.

They posted on their website a piece I wrote that expands that short intro to the book, and I wrote much more about the story of Madeleine Lebeau, who’s sort of the last known surviving cast member, and in the book I don’t go into all of the detail of her very dramatic departure with her then-husband, Marcel Dalio, who’s the one who plays Emil the croupier, the one at the roulette wheel. He was a huge star in France and in a number of big, well-known pictures including a couple by Jean Renoir—The Rules of the Game, as well as A Grand Illusion, and they fled Paris just before the Nazis marched in, which is narrated in the flashback sequence in the film. They had made their way to Marseilles, and from Marseilles to Lisbon and from Lisbon on a Portuguese freighter to Mexico. They couldn’t immediately get their visas to the US so they went to Mexico. And from Tijuana, they crossed the border into California but with Canadian visas and somehow made their way to Hollywood and were able to stick around. Maybe they got an affidavit by that point in time.


I tell you that slightly long-winded story because I think it helps to indicate the kinds of experiences the people who were cast in this production had actually gone through. Many, many of the very deep supporting cast—nearly all are foreign born and many of them had experienced these events. There’s this great anecdote that when filming the flashback, there’s that scene where Rick and Ilsa are seated at a cafe and they get the news from the Paris Soir, the newspaper, about the Nazis marching in. Not only did the newspaper, so the story goes, belong to Robert Aisner, who was the technical advisor on the production, who allegedly experienced that very day and brought the newspaper with him, but when shooting that scene, there was a woman, one of the many, many extras there who was in the street scene, and she just burst into tears and was utterly inconsolable. Her husband came over and spoke to Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz and apologized and said to Curtiz, Look, I’m terribly terribly sorry for what just occurred but you don’t understand, sir, we experienced that very day. They were there when the Nazis marched it. So it was as if a trauma had been brought to the surface once more for her.

You have a lot of people who were involved in the production, including director Curtiz himself, Peter Lorre, and others who had still family members stranded. Even Cuddles, S.Z. Sakall, he too had family members stranded in Europe, several of whom would perish in the Nazi death camps. So, as we began our conversation, it wasn’t just the romance. This was something that was really happening.


When I was speaking with Karina Longworth [of the podcast You Must Remember This], one of the people I interviewed for the book, she said to me, one of the great things about Casablanca is that it delivers propaganda under the guise of romance. The propaganda is baked into the romance. So you have Rick and Ilsa but what this is really about is the conversion story of Rick, going from the professions of being an isolationist and “I stick my neck out for nobody” to suddenly doing what’s right. And I think that that too is what makes this film so completely timeless. Sure, it had so much to do with the moment that it was made, that very story is so 1941, 1942 and the US needing to move from trying its very best to stay out of the political affairs of Europe to getting on board and supporting the Allied war effort.

But even today, the reason I think that people are so drawn to the film is that that archetype of being hard and tough on the outside but then having that deep heart, knowing what to do at the right time—that still something that I think resonates very, very powerfully for Americans. I think that’s the way that we like to view ourselves. Leslie Epstein, who’s the son of Philip Epstein, one of the Epstein twins who cowrote the screenplay together with Howard Koch, he also made that point. That’s not just my point. He said that’s one of the great things about this film—this is the way that Americans want to see themselves. And I don’t think that’s really changed. If anything it’s gotten more acute under the current administration.

It’s really fascinating to be in 2017 and watch a room full of refugees shout down a group of Nazis. That scene takes on a whole meaning when you know the backstory and also in our current moment.


Absolutely. That’s another great anecdote from the production which I think you’ll be unsurprised to hear, which is that when they were doing it, they had so many refugee extras who were part of that drowning out, when they sing the Marseillaise to drown out “Die Wacht am Rhein,” that German anthem the Nazis are singing, it’s Madeleine Lebeau. She was all of 19 when she played Yvonne, Rick’s on-again, off-again paramour in the film and Rick has sort of jilted her at his cafe early on in the film and she returns on the arm of a Nazi who is played by Hans von Twardowski, he costarred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and he fled the Nazis because he was gay. He was out, he was a homosexual. And there he is donning the Nazi uniform.

So she returns and she sings that very, very boisterous rendition of the Marseillaise and she gets very, very teary-eyed, and she’s the one who then yells out, “vive la France, vive la démocratie.” Those were real tears. She’s crying in that scene. And Dan Seymour, who plays Abdul the doorman, he was interviewed in Aljean Harmetz’s wonderful book on the production of Casablanca, and he says he hadn’t realized until making that specific scene that these were all real refugees. And they were singing with such ardor, such passion, such conviction because they were refugees and because they’d experienced and gone through what they had.


So Madeleine Lebeau, who’d come to the US with her husband on that freighter from Portugal, there she is as a 19 year old singing La Marseillaise, her own French national anthem and tears streaming down her eyes. It’s not just a movie. It’s not just playing a part. There’s much, much more to it than that.

It’s very much her reality.

It’s in her lived experience. It’s not just the Stanislavsky method.

I’m sorry, I got a little long-winded there. It’s an occupational hazard of academics.

Screencap via Amazon.

So you have this movie that’s basically this urgent plea, rallying Americans to the side of the anti-Nazi forces. Situate that for me in the context of Hollywood and the rise of Nazi Germany.


I think what you’re asking about is the belatedness of Hollywood to get on board with the call for action, this clarion call, to support to Allied war effort. Warner Brothers was one of the earliest studios to get on board with that, and in fact they were criticized quite vocally, not only in Hollywood by their counterparts but in Washington on the floors of Congress for their alleged warmongering. For “beating the drums of war” as the very vocal, isolationist faction in Congress suggested. Harry Warner, who was the head of the studio, was brought in and made to testify on the floor of Congress in 1941. He was specifically called onto the carpet because of some of their earlier films, including 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Not only did it break the major taboo of having “Nazi” in the title of the film, but it called attention to real fears held by a sizable segment of the population that the Nazis could actually take root here, that we had a pretty powerful American Nazi Party and there was this notion that the “fifth column” would take root here.

So Warner Brothers, which, for their so-called premature anti-fascism, was then hailed by none other than Groucho Marx, who—and this was around the time of Confessions of a Nazi Spy—said Warner Brothers is the only studio in Hollywood with any guts. And I think that they were most certainly among the very first, if not the very first, studio to engage with what they saw as an important and increasingly urgent calling to call attention to what was going on across the Atlantic, at a time, again, when many many Americans wanted nothing to do with the political affairs of Europe. So that was pretty radical.


As early as 1937, with the biopic on Emile Zola, starring Paul Muni, then Juarez which is a couple of years later, as well as Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and even Sergeant York, too, with Gary Cooper—these were films that were at least allegorical in the case of Sergeant York, Juarez, The Life of Emile Zola. But with Confessions of a Nazi Spy, suddenly we’re not in an allegory. It’s somewhat similar to Casablanca, we’re actually in the real moment. We’re dealing with the present. And to go back to Groucho Marx’s comment, I think that took even more guts. You could deal with certain political or historical issues allegorically and get away with it. You could get by the self-censoring body, the Production Code Administration, and receive the certificate for your film to be released and distributed, if you dealt with things allegorically. But to really deal with these kinds of hot-button issues explicitly, in a naturalistic or realist vein, that was harder.

But it also had to get the approval of the Office of War Information, OWI. It had to get approval from both. In a way, this was completely antithetical to the charges that were leveled against Harry Warner when he was brought in a mere year or so earlier to testify in Congress, the allegations of warmongering. By the time it’s after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, you have the Office of War Information making sure Americans actually do support the Allied war effort. You have almost a complete about-face.


People involved in the production—did anybody have any idea what they had their hands on?

No, in fact, you have comments by the screenwriters, where it’s Julius Epstein, one of the twins: “We weren’t making art, we were making a living.” I think they had no clue what it would go on to mean, nor did the lead actors in the film. Bergman was completely confused I think, she really had no idea what she’d gotten herself into. She was continually confused and I think intentionally confused by Michael Curtiz because I think he wanted to tease out that incredible performance that she gives in terms of not really knowing who it is she’s ultimately going to board the plane with at the end. And Curtiz, in his very heavily accented English, kept telling her, “Don’t worry, play it in between, play it in between.” And she did. But yeah, I don’t think she knew.


Bogart, it was not a happy experience for him. And it wasn’t especially happy for Bergman, either, and they had absolutely no off-screen chemistry and really didn’t spend much time together. Bergman’s famous line, “I kissed him, but I never knew him,” I think is a revealing one. Bogart himself was going through a nasty split up with his then-wife, Mayo Methot. They were known as the “battling Bogarts”; they would get drunk as can be and hurl things at one another, so that was not a very good situation in his home life.

And he was very, very uneasy about suddenly being cast in the role of a romantic lead. He’d played all these street toughs, he’d played private detectives. You think of him as Sam Spade just the year before in The Maltese Falcon which is the movie, as fate would have it, that Bergman kept watching over and over again because it was still in wide release during the production of Casablanca, and she was watching that as a means of understanding who Bogart was, really. And I think that he kind of walks off that production and onto Casablanca.


There are definitely a number of scenes where he still has that same swagger and that kind of hardboiled noir exterior. That’s his hardened shell. And yet he had to give a performance that also allowed audiences into that softer spot of his. When Claude Raines calls him a “rank sentimentalist,” audiences had to believe that he does have that soft spot. That he’s going to do the right thing and tell Helmut Dantine, this Austrian-born refugee actor who played Jan Brandel, the Bulgarian husband to Annina, “Have you tried playing it on 22?” That’s just the beginning of that exterior peeling away or cracking, allowing him to win at the roulette table and secure those exit visas and then ultimately to come back into the fold to the point that Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo tells him, “Welcome back to the fight—now I know our side will win.”

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