'Casablanca' in Its Time-And Ours

By Singer, Barnett | Contemporary Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

'Casablanca' in Its Time-And Ours


Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review


WHY do our historians talk of occupation or semi-occupation, and its choices as if they or we will never experience it? In terms of resistance, even today we have few who will stand up to the nets, the strictures of political correctness and address the huge problems of illegal immigration and all the rest of today's unmentionables. The old saw about evil's best facilitator being good people doing nothing remains intact. We now have an atmosphere like the one that both preceded and followed France's fall in 1940--confusions, divisions, and much gobbledygook: Amnesty International's calling Guantanamo Bay the Gulag is a typical example. One doesn't need Sartre to tell us there always were choices and always will be. This is one reason why Casablanca remains relevant.

The film is also relevant because it shows that a good, a very good film can keep watchers interested in plot and move them, yet at the same time, paint an atmosphere that has stood up quite well over time; that is, if one doesn't demand the historical world. Sometimes I used to think that screen ambience was both too laid back and overly dire. But this was the way French Morocco was before Operation Torch (November 1942). Of course pre-Torch Casablanca was in a different league from occupied Paris or Amsterdam, and even less like the impossible atmosphere of, say, the Warsaw Ghetto, where the odd starving, hunted person to make it across the wall was hounded by blackmailers.

Yet even in Vichy Morocco, there were choices, and the movie shows that, especially at the close. One should remember too that authority could still accomplish good things, and that even a wounded France still had elites (which we are busy ridding ourselves of today): Rabat, Casa, Oran, Algiers, Tunis, Dakar were French cities, certainly more than ones Napoleon had gained for his European empire.

All right, Casablanca ... A great movie, because even on a fifth viewing, one can readily bask in its romantic plot, with Max Steiner's lush score riffing on the signature song, 'As Time Goes By', and bringing tears each time out. That's a movie ... The atmosphere painted? Arabs are rather relegated here, but this was partly due to wartime restrictions. The first suspect lacking papers is shot beneath a picture of Marshal Petain and in front of the Palais de Justice, and screenwriters on the Hollywood Left--a better Left than today's--immediately reveal their ideological cards here. Casablanca's main screenwriters were twins, Julius and Philip Epstein, both boxing champions in college, and always working together. They were then 'picked' up on the project by Howard Koch, with similar mindset, but different strengths. In turn, the Epsteins would re-write Koch, and was that enough for the high-ups, pre-eminently the producer, Hal Wallis, and the authoritarian director, Michael Curtiz? No, for the film's matchless love scenes, they then brought in Casey Robinson. Curtiz himself (over Wallis' strong objections) added his own touches, including a silent flashback to Bogie and Bergman happily driving in Paris before its fall. Too many cooks now spoil most cinematic broths, but then pure synergism could result, and this was famously the case in Casablanca. In the end no committee of suits gave final approval; rather one czar, Jack Warner, became the ultimate gate-keeper.

Behind the emphasis on refugees here, yet never overtly mentioned, is the gathering Holocaust, which truly would have been of interest to screenwriters like the Epsteins and Koch, not to mention Murray Burnett, who had visited Vienna in 1938, and come back to the States with a Jewish conscience, along with ingredients for a play on which the film would be loosely based. More readily apparent from the movie's beginning is that '30s Leftism noted above. The first British couple who get pockets picked are truly caricatured here as reactionary, capitalist buffoons! Then comes the picture's first faux pas, having Major Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt, who had left Germany in '33 and donated a large chunk of screen earnings to British War Relief, descend in uniform on Casablanca, flanked by other Nazi soldiers. …

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