When Casablanca came out in 1942, it was a popular and critically acclaimed film that helped America understand exactly why it was fighting yet another world war. As time went by, it came to be considered one of the greatest films ever made.
Seventy-five years later the classic film is still popular, still critically acclaimed and still relevant to American public opinion and the country's self-image — but now for very different reasons.
What has always been viewed as one of the greatest pieces of wartime propaganda — softened by an equally great love story — also can be viewed as a meditation on the sad, brutal plight of immigrants and refugees fleeing terror and persecution in their war-torn countries, and of their undying faith in America as the land of the free and the home of the brave.
If President Donald Trump could spare 102 minutes from his daily round of taunts, tweets and threats in order to watch Casablanca, he might rethink his seven-country Muslim immigration ban and other “extreme vetting” measures that destroy families and are contrary to our history as a nation of immigrants who don't lock the door behind them.
Or, better yet, Trump could just read Noah Isenberg's insightful, revelatory new book, We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie (W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95)
The best art educates as it entertains. By that criterion, Casablanca is indeed the greatest film ever made. Hidden in plain sight beneath the Hollywood confection of a perfect love triangle is a patriotic pitch for fighting the Nazis.
As saloon owner Rick, Humphrey Bogart's character arc takes him from a tough guy who proclaims early on, “I stick my neck out for nobody,” to a guy who's willing to shoot a Nazi officer trying to stop Victor and Ilsa's getaway. It's a subtle metaphor for the American public's prewar isolationist mood, which morphed into the we're-all-in-this-together patriotic fervor that carried America and its allies to victory in World War II.
Casablanca is one of the most written-about, discussed and dissected films ever made. After 75 years, what else could there possibly be to say about a film that started out as just another product on the Hollywood assembly line and ended up an all-time classic?
Isenberg meets and defeats that literary challenge by going far beyond the basic lore that has grown up around the ultimate product of the studio system. Oh sure, he mentions that it began as an unproduced stage play whose authors received $20,000 up front and not a penny more despite all its success; that the screenplay adaptation was a group effort without any single author but rather a series of writers who took a crack at it, each adding his own distinct flavor; that despite their on-screen magic Bogart and Ingrid Bergman had no off-screen chemistry; and that script changes were being made so late in the production process that actors often were handed pages just minutes before shooting began. As Isenberg lays out in great detail, there is some dispute over who gets credit for individual lines of dialogue. But there is no dispute that it's the most quoted film of all time, with six entries on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 most memorable lines.
But Isenberg, who proudly says he has watched the film well over 100 times, has chosen to focus on the immigrant and refugee themes bubbling beneath the intoxicating mix of romance, comedy and patriotism. The director of screen studies and a professor of culture and media at the New School in New York City, he says it was a conscious choice — not because he ever thought that Trump would actually become president, but because during the year and a half he spent writing the book Trump was launching his campaign on a promise to ban Muslim immigration and build a wall on the Mexican border.
“It was in the back of my mind the whole time I was writing the book,” Isenberg says. “It was impossible to avoid, given the campaign rhetoric and all the news about Syrian refugees and the fallout in Libya.”
But he doesn't just make a convincing case that Casablanca is subliminally about America's traditional melting-pot role as a sanctuary for immigrants and refugees. He takes it one step further by pointing out that immigrants and refugees bring something special and unique to America — and to Hollywood.
Although it was filmed entirely in Southern California and mostly on the Warner Bros. backlot, Casablanca is able to convey an authentic Moroccan feel and wartime ambiance. The mysterious alchemy of Casablanca's enduring legacy as America's most beloved cinematic achievement, Isenberg argues, can be directly attributed to the role so many European refugees and immigrants played in making the film.
Start with the stars. Although Bogart was born in the United States, Bergman was an immigrant from Sweden. Paul Henreid, who played her husband, Victor Laszlo, was an immigrant from Austria who was so anti-Nazi he had been designated “an official enemy of the Third Reich.”
Conrad Veidt, who played the slimy, arrogant Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser, was one of the great German actors — star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — who fled the Nazis and found a new home in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, just a few months after Casablanca was released, he died at age 50 of a massive heart attack while playing golf at the Riviera Country Club in L.A.
Then there is the great Peter Lorre, who plays the small but important role of Signor Ugarte, who kills the German couriers for the two letters of transit but is quickly arrested at Rick's Café Americain. Despite Ugarte's frantic pleas for help, Rick refuses to stick his neck out for him. Lorre first made his mark as the child murderer in Fritz Lang's 1931 German masterpiece M. He too fled the Nazis and headed for L.A. Claude Rains, who plays Police Captain Louis Renault — and at the end begins a beautiful friendship with Rick — was an English actor born in London.
Even most of the supporting players were immigrants and refugees, including Curt Bois, who played the pickpocket; Leonid Kinsky, who played Russian bartender Sascha; and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, who played Carl the waiter. The Jewish-Hungarian actor fled Germany in 1939, but his three sisters stayed behind and died in concentration camps.
These actors and many other refugees and immigrants in the cast of extras brought an emotional truth to the film that never could have been supplied by Americans from Central Casting playing Europeans. Indeed, on-set witnesses swear that during the patriotic high point of the film — the “dueling anthems” scene featuring a small band of German soldiers who are drowned out by the larger cafe crowd singing “La Marseillaise” — many of the extras were shedding real tears.
Today, when real tears are being shed at airports all around the world by people who thought they were on their way to America but instead are being separated from their families, it's relevant to ask if there's any chance that President Trump would ever consent to watch Casablanca and rethink his policy of rounding up the usual suspects.