Casablanca—a refugee story par excellence—celebrates its 75th birthday

If Casablanca were made today—at the height of the greatest refugee crisis World War II—what would it look like? To celebrate 75 years of the classic, The New School hosted a screening and discussion of the film titled, “Casablanca at 75: A Refugee Story.” Noah Isenberg, a professor at Lang College and author of, We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, was joined by Alexander Aleinikoff, the director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, and New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott. In their discussion, the particular focus on the refugee aspect of the film brought up several topical and intriguing points that asked attendees to imagine what the film would look like and whether or not it would have the same impact.

At the start, it is important to note a few misleading elements of the original. First and foremost, the “letters of transit” that Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszlo seek were fictional; no such documents existed at the time. In Isenberg’s book, he points out that Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the original writers of the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, on which the film is based, invented the letters to create a way that made it possible for the refugees in the film to enter the US:

“They hit a stumbling block when it came time to explain how these refugees might gain access to the free world. Of course, any stateless subjects had to have exit visas of some kind, documents that would enable them to leave a Vichy-ruled zone…they had purportedly hatched the idea for ‘letters of transit’, those fictional golden tickets that ensure safe departure.” 1

          It is no easy task to describe the complex resettlement process—hence the creation of a more comprehensible one. And that process would present even more obstacles today, with perhaps even a greater impact on viewers. (The film’s opening scene, noting that most refugees “wait in Casablanca, and wait, and wait, and wait,” continues to describe the plight of most of the world’s refugees.)

A major element of the film that may have missed the mark was the way in which the US was idealized. We witnessed this in the opening lines of the film: “With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully or desperately toward the freedom of the Americas.” Humphrey Bogart embodies the all-American hero, a “patriot” as he’s referred to. Those who made the movie were entirely conscious that it would be seen as part of the war effort. The patriotism was very much at the forefront of the film.

What the film does not portray, however, is how refugees were received in America at that time. Anti-refugee and anti-Semitic rhetoric was widespread in the U.S. at the time Casablanca was made. It was after all, one of the reasons why the Warner brothers wanted to make the film. Fortune magazine in 1938 conducted a survey that asked whether or not Jewish refugees should be kept out of the country; 68% of those surveyed believed they should be. The American Institute of Public Opinion conducted a similar survey a year later, specifically focusing on Jewish children; 61% answered that they should not enter the country.4 That same year, the SS St. Louis carrying over 900 German refugees was turned away from the coasts of Florida.5 While it would have unlikely that a film putting a spotlight on racism and xenophobia would have been made during this era of Hollywood, were Casablanca made today it is difficult to think that these issues could be ignored.

The real success of Casablanca is deeper than its aesthetics.

These objections to the side, Casablanca is timeless because of the many things it got right. Of course, cinematically, the film will always be an icon. But many other films from the Golden Age of Hollywood achieved this look. The real success of Casablanca is deeper than its aesthetics. One cannot help but to feel completely captivated by the story’s characters. This is because the storytellers themselves lived this story.  “Nearly all of the some seventy-five actors and actresses cast in Casablanca were immigrants.”6 Even some of the Nazi characters were played by refugees. In perhaps one of the most moving scenes of the film, when the characters sing La Marseillaise in a beautifully resistant act towards the Nazis, the energy and emotions witnessed on their faces is breathtaking.

“‘If you think of Casablanca and think of those small roles being played by Hollywood actors faking the accents…the picture wouldn’t have had anything like the color and tone it had.’ Nor would it have had the same emotional force. The American-born actor Dan Seymour who played the doorman Abdul at Rick’s, noticed streams of tears flowing from the eyes of his fellow actors – most prominently, Madeleine Lebeau…during the singing of the “Marseillaise.” ‘I suddenly realized,’ he recalled many years later, ‘that they were all real refugees.” 7

Even though it might not have been known to most that the cast was primarily made of refugees, it was certainly felt and perhaps this is why Casablanca has had such a lasting legacy.

During the panel discussion at The New School, it was noted that if the film were made today, in an ironic twist of history, refugees would be fleeing to Germany. It is valid to question whether or not a Casablanca for today would have the same impact. A.O. Scott commented that Americans at the time were more isolated yet more receptive to stories sharing the plight of those far away. In our media-heightened society, we have to some extent become desensitized to tragic stories. If Hollywood were to make the film again, it would need to recognize its position in the present refugee crisis—one where Germany may be replacing the “freedom of the Americas.”

In his book, Isenberg writes: “Thanks not only to the fortuitous timing of its release, but also to the sly intermingling of history, politics, and fiction, Casablanca gave viewers the chance to reflect on the current state of the world.” 8 Americans need this reflection again. Rick is the reluctant hero of the film, which falls under the larger notion of Americans doing the right thing, even if they’re late to it. It’s not too late yet. While we’ll always have Casablanca, perhaps now we need something more.

REFERENCES:

1 Isenberg, Noah. We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

2 Curtiz, Michael, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. 1942. Casablanca. [S.l.]: Warner Bros.

3 Ibid

4 Tharoor, Ishaan. “What Americans thought of Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II.” The Washington Post, (Washington, D.C.), November 17, 2015.

5 Lanchin, Mike. “SS St Louis: The ship of Jewish refugees nobody wanted.” BBC, (London), May 13, 2014.

6 Isenberg, Noah. We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

7 Ibid

8 Ibid

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