What's Casablanca About?

What's Casablanca About?

Blog post by Dean
Saturday, May 13, 2017

I just devoured the latest book about my favorite movie: We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, by Noah Isenberg. It has some excellent behind-the-scenes gossip (Paul Henreid couldn’t stand Claude Rains), but as much as I like a juicy tidbit, this book is about more than that.

The heart of it is Chapter 4, "Such Much?" The title is taken from the scene in which Carl, the maître d at Rick's, shares cognac with an elderly couple, refugees on their way to America. They are practicing their English:

Husband: Liebchen, uh, sweetness heart, what watch?

Wife: Ten watch.

Husband: Such much?

The actors did not need to practice their accents; both were veterans of the Austrian theater. In fact, nearly all 75 actors in the movie were immigrants—refugees from Hitler’s Europe—from 30 countries. Of the 14 who got screen credit, only three were born in the U.S.

Many in the cast had been big stars in their own countries, but could only get sporadic work in bit parts in American movies. They found themselves underemployed just like the characters they were playing: Carl the waiter (S.Z. Sakall) is addressed at one point as “Herr Professor”, suggesting that in his fictional former life he taught college. Marcel Dalio who played the roulette croupier (an uncredited part, though he has some of the best lines in the movie!), starred in France in two of the most admired films ever made: Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game.

Conrad Veidt’s story, the man who played Major Strasser, is my favorite. If you think of him only as the quintessential European heavy, you have got to see him play the eerie, sylph-like somnambulist in the 1919 German expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Veidt often played Nazis in American movies but he declined to be a real one. The National Socialists were eager to enlist him in making propaganda films and required him to fill out a form declaring his race and religion. In capital letters Veidt wrote JUDE, though he was Protestant, and then he and his wife made plans to get out. In Hollywood he was active in the European Film Fund, which helped German émigrés with living expenses. Veidt said he was never sorry to play a Nazi; he was eager to show Americans the kind of people at the apex of the Axis.

Americans who watched Casablanca in 1942 saw romance, while European refugees saw their experience… a luxurious version of it, anyway. (How the Lunds kept their white wardrobe pressed while dodging Nazis across North Africa is a mystery this book does not solve.) The day they filmed the scene at the sidewalk café where Ilsa and Rick discuss the imminent arrival of the Germans, one of the extras broke down crying. She had been in Paris the day the Nazis marched in.

In all the decades I've been watching Casablanca, I hadn’t given it much thought beyond its lush romantic triangle and its snappy repartee. It’s a different movie for me since I read Isenberg’s book.

Vive la France!