Sunday, October 28, 2018

Long Live Democracy - Casablanca (1942)

A pivotal moment in the film Casablanca (1942) occurs when Major Strasser and the other Nazis are drowned out in their singing of “Die Wacht am Rhein” by everybody else in the café singing “La Marseillaise.” It is a stirring scene, and one that never fails to bring some of us to tears. It has been reported that the much of cast in that scene were brought to tears as well. In one of those almost supernatural moments when art really does reflect life, the desperate European refugees in the café were played by actors who actually were European refugees. It is a spine-tingling moment of reality in an otherwise not very realistic film.

We revisit Rick’s Café Americain with the bulk of this essay having been previously posted on this blog in 2007, the first year of Another Old Movie Blog.  A great deal has changed in the world since then, though the most comforting aspect of our love of classic films is that the world we explore in them never changes.  We can visit a place and time and it is ever the same, and ever fresh.

Casablanca has become larger than life for us, a film whose reputation has grown with the decades. It will likely always be a favorite for its witty dialogue, its charismatic actors, and its fast-paced plot. It has the irresistible veneer of glamour in an otherwise dark and frightening time.

But, even those of us who love the film cannot overlook the fact that Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund would not have played a cat-and-mouse game of hidden threats over cocktails with Nazi officers in French-occupied Africa. The Nazis would have taken both of them into custody the moment they arrived in Casablanca, tortured them, and filmed their corpses with newsreel cameras. The movie would have been over in ten minutes. No cocktails, no white dinner jackets, no game of hide and seek with omnipotent “papers” that will set them free.

In this respect, Casablanca could be called an escapist film, because it gives us heroism and hope, redemption, a fairy tale of intrigue. The most fanciful scene in the movie, carrying this fairy tale along, is the scene with “La Marseillaise” trumping “Die Wacht am Rhein.”

And in that same scene, ironically, we see the real truth of the film, not always recognized, but there. S.Z. Sakall, who plays Carl, fled Hungary in 1939. His three sisters didn’t make it and died in a concentration camp, along with other relatives.

Madeleine LeBeau, pictured above, who played Yvonne, who pines for Rick and who is fought over by the Nazi soldier and the French soldier; and her then real-life husband Marcel Dalio, who played Emil, the gambling room croupier, both escaped from Nazi-occupied France through Lisbon, just as in the film. Reportedly, the visas they obtained for Chile were forgeries, but they managed to arrive in the U.S. through hastily arranged temporary Canadian passports.

Curt Bois, who played the pickpocket, fled Germany in the early 1930s. Helmut Dantine, who played the young Bulgarian man losing at the gambling tables, whose wife beseeches Rick to help them, fled Austria. Dantine was an Austrian who was put into a concentration camp after the Anschluss. He was arrested for leading an anti-Nazi youth movement. He was then nineteen years old.

Mr. Leuchtag, who practices his English by asking his wife the time, “What watch?” was played by Ludwig Stössel, another Austrian who fled after the Anschluss.

Ilka Grünig, who played Mrs. Leuchtag and replies “Ten watch,” escaped Germany in the early 1930s after the Nazis came to power.

Even the Nazis were played by actors who escaped real Nazis. Richard Ryen, who played Colonel Heinze, was a Hungarian-born actor who was actually expelled by the Nazis from Germany. Hans Twardowski, who played the Nazi officer who fights with the French soldier over Yvonne, fled Germany in the early 1930s.

Even Major Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt, escaped the SS, who pursued him for anti-Nazi activities, and he fled to England where he became a British citizen and supported Britain’s war effort with his salary.

There were actually very few American-born actors in the cast of Casablanca and not all of the rest were refugees, but a good many of them were. This gives the film a legitimacy that certain fanciful elements of the script did not.

When you watch the “La Marseillaise” scene, think of the refugee actors with genuine tears in their eyes, and remember that the Nazi regime had not yet been defeated at the time this film was made. It was not known then if they would be.

It was certainly never imagined that we’d be fighting them in our own country in the next century.  This is why we must vote on Tuesday.  At the very end of the “La Marseillaise” clip, Madeline LeBeau shouts, “Vive la démocratie,” and it is almost drowned out by the jubilant crowd triumphing over the smug, cruel Nazis in a nightclub songfest.  But it’s there, and it’s the whole point of the song.  

Vote for every Democrat on the ballot next Tuesday, in all local, county, and national categories.  Voting is no longer an expression of political opinion in this country; it's a chess game.  The politicians know that, and so do the pundits.  The voter has yet to realize how we are being played, and we must use our vote -- while we still have it -- to block the machinations of our impending doom.  Halting the progress of a corrupt and vile administration that now controls the executive branch, both legislative houses, and the Supreme Court can only be done now by making the Republican Party, which has ceased to be the Republican Party, fear more for their jobs than they fear the evidently powerful influence of a shameless grifter, the NRA, and the Russians from whom they have accepted bribes, and indeed, several corrupt members of their party, whom they’ve chosen to embrace and blindly support in the unholy name of holding power.  

When I think of the “La Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca, I also think of my father, who, still in his early twenties, left his wife and baby and fought in the South Pacific during World War II for over three long years.  No furloughs, no coming home until it was over.  When I was young, we watched Casablanca together, and he surprised me by belting out the French national anthem during this scene in his powerful, resonant bass voice.  He really had a very good voice, sounding a lot like Tennessee Ernie Ford only with a New England accent, but we used to tease him because he could not remember the words to anything. But like an automaton, he launched into “La Marseillaise” without any effort, and I think he even surprised himself that he remembered it.  

He explained, in that somewhat reluctant way all men of his generation did when talking about the war, that when he was stationed for a bit in that island-hopping campaign on the French colony of New Caledonia, they were required to stand at attention for the raising of the French flag and playing of their anthem in camp, as well as the American.  He also related the mournful tradition of answering roll call in their memory for pals who had just been killed.  The Vichy government was chased off the island and like the struggle in Casablanca, became Free French. Their symbol is on the paper money above, a souvenir my father brought home.

My father and his surviving comrades; and my mother, who was Rosie the Riveter in a war plant making parts for PT boats, thought their job was done on V-J Day.  

I mourn as much for the memory and the inspiration of that generation as I do for the future of this country if we do not remember the lesson that was so easily absorbed in Hollywood films of the 1940s:  The authoritarian fascists were the bad guys.  Frank Capra explained that to us, if we didn’t know already, in Prelude to War (1942).

How many Trump supporters and apologists would root for Bogart, Henreid, and Bergman today?  How many would look at those refugees with loathing that filled the Café Americain?  How many would turn Madeleine LeBeau away at the border today?

We already know from surveys done that many Millennials cannot even name who fought in that war and on which sides.  Right and wrong has become lost, and history, which should be a compass, has become a muddle.

Fans of classic films inevitably adore them for a world that is, among other things, rife with moral clarity.  We have lost that in our society, probably for many reasons, but one of the things I admire most about classic films is the courageous idealism.  It seemed to stream from the directors.  Frank Capra, a conservative Republican such as they used to come in this country, gave us Meet John Doe.  William Wyler, who gave us Mrs. Miniver; and the man who directed Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, were refugees, as was Billy Wilder.  John Ford, like Wyler and Capra, served in the military during World War II.  They had no patience for Nazis.  Ford would have punched them in the face.

Frank Capra & John Ford

The word Nazi is not bandied about carelessly when it is used correctly.  It is the word Republican that has lost its meaning.  The Grand Old Party surrendered and became complicit to survive in a more vicious environment, like the capitulating French Vichy government.  

When you vote on Tuesday, remember that Hitler was elected to office, and that was the last election.  He killed democracy in Germany.  Putin is angling for the same result here  by remote control and he has already lined the pockets of several Republicans to that end.  Unlike the troubled conquered countries in World War II, we will have no one to save us.  We have to do it ourselves.  There have never been higher stakes than this coming election.

Vote Democrat on Tuesday.  If the Republican Party regains its soul in having lost the election, that will be for the benefit of all of us, because nobody, including intelligent Liberals, want a one-party government, even one of Liberal Democrats. We need the vibrancy of differing opinions and perspectives.  

But first, we have to rid ourselves, democratically, of the traitors to our democracy who gerrymander precincts; who scrub voters off the registration lists; who cheat to deny the vote to African Americans, Mexicans, and Hispanics and other minorities; who attack the free press and shout that truth is not the truth, who praise Nazis and even become them. Vote Democrat.

Vive la démocratie.  Long live democracy.


Todd Mason said...

While I can see voting for non-Democrats in certain offices today (which doesn't mean voting for Republicans...I've done so twice in my life, and both of those were actually reformist Republicans running fruitlessly against machine/big business Democrats in local races, one about five years ago, the other 35 years ago), there is no reason to give the current GOP any support, and they were running utterly corrupt before Putin started handing out the rubles.

Even our corrupt sitting Senator Menendez is a better deal than helping the current GOP solidify ifs hold on the Senate...and, it does seem likely, the GOP will lose the House. The march of fascism and close enough around the world, including here, does most definitely need to be stopped. Let's hope the Democrats manage to get their act together.

Caftan Woman said...

Today, for the first time in a long time, I watched American commercial television on a direct feed which gave me access to local Western New York political ads. Like Canadian electioneering, the machinations of the ads are obvious to the media-savvy viewer of today. However, the vitriol and demonization of opponents are shocking and overwhelming. It is a wonder that citizens don't go mad! Voting has never been more important.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome fellow members of La Résistance. When this is all over, I hope we can share some champagne cocktails at the bar of Rick's.

Caftan Woman said...

Looking forward to a victory celebration.

PS: I love the story of your Dad and La Marseillaise.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you. He was a nice guy with a tough exterior. He would have punched Nazis in the face, even in his 80s.

Fresca said...

Wow, I loved hearing the backstories of the refugee actors.
I've seen "Casablanca" many times since I discovered it when I was eleven in 1972 (via Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam", out that year)--my family lived in a university town with an active film club, open to civilians, where you could see classic films––
BUT I never knew that about the cast.
Thank you!
Very moving.

Odd to think of the people trapped in Casablanca as a "caravan" of refugees, and modern Americans as ones who want to keep them trapped...
Something is wrong with this picture!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Fresca. Yes, it's maddening to think we must continually fight the same battles over and over again. But classic films provide a kind of collective memory to remind us of a past of which most of us have no personal memory. These movies are so important.

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