Saturday, October 3, 2009

Casablanca (1943)- Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and "La Marseillaise"

This one should be familiar to some of you; one of the great Hollywood Studio Era films, period.

Most Hollywood films of the World War II era that both entertain audiences and boost morale seem rather dated and shallow today. There are a handful of exceptions to that rule and here is an important scene from one of them.

Conceived as "just another movie" among dozens of features made in 1942 at Warner Brothers studios in Los Angeles, the film was conceived early in that year, with the future course of the war very much in doubt. By the time it was in general release (January 1943), the Russians had pushed the Nazis back form Stalingrad and the Western Allies had landed in North Africa. Churchill and Roosevelt were "nice enough" to have a summit conference in the real Casablanca the week the film opened across North America. Casablanca went on to be more than "just another movie", winning the Best Picture Oscar the following year.

Of the many extras and bit players in the scenes at "Rick's Cafe American" in Casablanca, French Morocco, many of them were genuine refugees from Hitler's Germany and other parts of Europe. The actor playing the anti-Nazi underground leader Victor Lazlo opposite Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine was Paul Henreid. He was a real-life refugee from Austria whose politics would have put him in a concentration camp. The number of German, Austrian and French refugees from Hitler's mad march across Europe had the effect of making Hollywood a shaky refuge in a new and strange land for many continental Europeans.

It's fitting then that Aljean Hermatz reports that there were actual tears on the set when "La Marseillaise" is sung.

For all the skepticism and doubt and anxiety of modern life, this film reminds me that there are times in history when such feelings need to be tabled and the fight joined if there can even be freedom to doubt and dissent the imperfect authorities we elect and struggle to wrest power from in a peaceful manner.

And, if you must join a fight against evil, what better way to do it than in a swank nightclub with booze, gambling tables, good-looking people and great lighting.


  1. My favourite era for films both American and British. Of course we were fighting a war at the time and it was a rich seem to be mined by writers. But the period threw up great actors as well and the period through to the mid late 50's produced, to my mind at least, a lot of the best films of all time.

    Jen and I watched League of Gentlemen, with Jack Hawkins and Richard Attenborough amongst many other fine character actors, a couple of nights ago. Brilliant fun and very entertaining.

    So, thank you Doug for reminding me of Bogart in this great film, it's been years since I last saw it, I may even have to go out and buy a copy now.

  2. And my favourite line from the League of Gentlemen is here, sadly enbedding has been disabled.

  3. I couldn't agree more Doug, thanks for posting this view from the Interzone that prefigured the Paul Bowles and William Burroughs shadow accounts of Morocco a few years later. Rival imperialisms slog it out musically as Bogart looks on, the archetypal individualist with a moral mission, the loveable rogue with a powerful ethical conscience that transcends the letter of the law. A worthy role model in the postmodern world I think.

  4. I agree Bogart's persona, especially in this film, captures a post-modern world-weariness about old world conflicts mixed with real American individualism that I find inspiring.

    Here is a man reluctant to commit to any cause until there is no other option, and then does it with both feet! Were that we had such weariness about foreign entanglements in our national leadership during Vietnam and Iraq, to cite just two examples.

    The fight for musical hegemony in Rick's Cafe makes for a good analogy of war and patriotism, and so much nicer than the mud and blood. Thanks for your comments AA!

  5. Sounds like a film I need to seek out, Jim. Those are two fine actors whose work I've admired in other pictures.

    The British made a lot of excellent films catching the zeitgeist of mutual survival in a world where nuthouse militancy was in power and on the march. Will comment a bit more when I have free time. Thanks for your remarks.

  6. It is so many years since I saw this movie I can barely remember the plot. I had no idea that genuine refugees were acting in it. Thank you for that extra information.

  7. You're welcome, Iri Ani. And I have to thank the book "Round Up the Usual Suspects" by Aljean Hammetz (1992) for detailing so much of the biographies of the players and crew on this great film.

    I love the way Ingrid Bergman looks at Paul Henreid when he is leading the singing; she says so much about their realtionship with just her eyes.

    Hitler's rise to power brought many fine artists to England and America in the 1930's. It changed the look of Hollywood and British films for the better.

    Many of them would have been sent home or been unable to find suitable work in America without the support of the directors, actors, writers, et al, who came earlier and helped by pooling money for their support and agreeing to sponsor refugees from the UFA studios in Berlin, for example. In some cases the sponsors didn't know the people personally but they pretended to just to satisfy US Immigration authorities.

    It's ironic that this film is set against a city with desperate refugees fleeing from a remote desert metropolis (in Morocco) which is exactly what so many of these real-life expatriates were experiencing in California as struggling aliens in a new home.

  8. LOL! That is a great line! . A bit of dry repartee from the old married man. I'll definately see if I can find this one on video or DVD. Thanks Jim.

  9. Brilliant. I posted this on my site months back too. A "song" for the times we're in.

  10. Further proof great minds think alike, Frank. :-)

  11. What a rendering of that rousing song La Marseillaise. It told those Germans a thing or two about the human spirit! Mind you, they had a good few rousing songs of their own.

  12. We'll all have to start singing our European anthems very loud before they get washed away in the tide of this new order that's coming into Europe.

  13. It's a true "moment" in American films of that time, Cassandra. From the documentaries I've seen, the Germans indeed had rousing songs.... perhaps a few too many. :-/ I know Hitler and his crowd never missed the big Wagner Festival that had every year in some place in Bavaria.

    My dad used to repeat a joke he'd heard that World War II in Europe could have been prevented if someone had locked up all the brass instruments in Middle Europe.

    The song "Watch on the Rhine" (Die Wacht am Rhein) that Major Strasser (Conrad Veldt) and other German officers sing in that scene was most popular during the Franco-Prussian and First World War. It was old hat by 1942, and likely the Germans weren't singing it too much .... they weren't worried bout defending the Rhine River ... yet.

    Here a bit from Wikipedia about the song:

    "In Jean Renoir's 1937 film La Grande Illusion, the two songs were juxtaposed in exactly the same way as in Casablanca five years later. In that film, "Die Wacht am Rhein" was sung by German soldiers, who then were drowned out by exile French singing the "Marseillaise" (which originally was the "War Song for the Army of the Rhine", written and composed at the Rhine). Originally the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" was slated to be used in the scene as the German song, since it was at that time part of the de facto national anthem of Nazi Germany. However, the producers realized that the "Horst Wessel Lied" was under copyright protection. While it would not have been a problem in the United States, the UK or other Allied nations, a copyright dispute would have hurt or prevented showings in neutral nations which still upheld German copyrights. Therefore the producers of Casablanca went with "Die Wacht am Rhein". "

    I remember in a French history class reading an English translation of La Marseillaise. Some of the lyrics are pretty grim, about the enemy snatching children from their mother's arms and such. That was written in 1791, when the revolution was in peril from foreign armies.

    Soon the French soldiers would be scaring people with that song during their path to conquest during the Napoleonic Wars. But by 1942, it was the song of the feisty underdog, a call to remind America that France was occupied, but not defeated.

  14. I would hope the EU doesn't ban anthems, Frank. Ban wars maybe, but not music.

  15. Not happy about it either. Especially not happy about the Nazi they're planning to impose on Europe as President.

  16. I'm in favour of a strong Europe with each state a First Among Equals. But anything that diminishes the nation state is WRONG. ..

    That better not be their plan. But I must admit to having a bad feeling here.

  17. Its my plan as well Frank actually. The nation state has diminished itself and is in the process of unravelling, take Ireland for example whose electorate voted in 2 referenda (1987and 2009) to effectively abolish itself as a nation state.

  18. Untrue. The majority of Irish people wouldn't be so stupid and idiotic as to commit such a crime. That goes for most other Europeans too.

    People fought for that flag, that independence, that "Irishness". Anybody who willingly kills it has no ethics, no morals, no heart.

    That goes for anybody who would willingly kill their own country. My tuppence. ..

  19. That's all I'm saying. I feel very strongly about my country, as do all educated, principled and ethical Irish people. My opinion. Which I keep.

    I'm sure most British, Americans, French, Swedish etc feel the same way about their countries. They are not to be touched. Some things are sacred.

  20. Thank you for the write up Doug. Interesting to think while we were simply watching the film, those countries directly involved with those songs were taking it far more seriously. I suppose with the rise in political identity came the rise of Nationalism in music. Russia also had a good few rousing songs. We didn't even have to know the words to be aware that these were songs about pride in one's country. It seems the faster that country went downhill the louder grew the singing.

    Your father's quote gave me a smile. I'm sure the people would have reverted to comb and tissue paper.
    What a comic scene that would have made in the film Casablanca.:-)

  21. Thanks Cassandra. Your paper comb idea would have made a scene worthy of A Marx Brothers film.

    I guess its better sometimes NOT to know the words to patriotic songs. I imagine that the Serbians had great songs when they had army units chasing about the Balkans doing things to the Bosnians that the Nazis would have admired.

  22. I think we should respect the flags and songs of all nations that are willing to live in peace with each other.

    Except Canada, of course ;-) And maybe Texas.

  23. Political solidarity across the seas ... a good feeling, Frank.

  24. Nobody touches my flag, any flag. ..

    The nationstate is anythn but dead. There are millions who will make sure of that.

    Against the little motely bunch who want some sort of world without countries.

    That dog don't hunt.

  25. They did twice Frank...all the rest is patriotic gobbledygook....when the chips are down and EU handouts are at stake..... pragmatism wins over nationalism every time.

  26. 1-2-3-4

    "Wrap the blue and gold star flag round me boys
    To buy would be more sweet
    With the Euro symbol boys
    Upon my balance sheet."

    A truly great anthem Frank, brings a tear to the eye ;-)

  27. That's insulting to a great many people. People vote for different reasons. If that's all you see I pity you. Won't comment any further. ..