We’ll always have ‘Casablanca’

We’ll always have ‘Casablanca’

Time goes by - film turns 70 this year with Jewish backstories


Aliens and robots come and go in Hollywood – and a jaded audience, judging by dwindling box-office returns, wishes they would mainly go.

But “Casablanca” is still as fresh and appealing as when it went into general release 70 years ago. Although set in a specific time and place, when stranded refugees from Nazism sought safety in the United States, it is timeless and universal. Most people agree that it is a classic, well-defined by Murray Burnett, who (with Joan Alison) wrote the play that was transformed into the film, as “true today, true yesterday, true tomorrow.”

Of course, the fine performances by the stars and feature players make the film mesmerizingly watchable, but without the Jewish writers, director, producer, music director, and the many refugee bit-players – as individual as characters from Dickens – it would not convey that truth.

This was borne out to me as I recently watched the film for the umpteenth time, spurred by reading Aljean Harmetz’s informative and entertaining 1992 book “Round Up the Usual Suspects,” which is subtitled “The Making of ‘Casablanca’: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II.” (The DVD, available at local libraries, includes a documentary with commentary by Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart’s widow, and an interview with Burnett.)

The film’s very genesis was Jewish. “My wife’s family lived in Belgium,” Burnett told Harmetz. “I had read headlines about Hitler, but they were meaningless until we got to Antwerp [in 1938] and my wife’s family asked us to go to Vienna – the Anschluss had just happened – to help other relatives get money out of Austria. At that time Jews could leave if they took no money, nothing. I went to the American consulate to get a visa, and he said, ‘Mr. Burnett, I don’t know why you’re going to Vienna and I don’t want to know, but I want to warn you that if you get into any trouble in Vienna this government cannot help you.'”

In Vienna, Burnett continued, he saw an enormous billboard bearing “a caricature of a Jew, and it said in huge letters, MURDERER, THIEF. And we’d sit in the relatives’ apartment and hear the marching feet outside.”

Burnett “went to Austria as an American,” Harmetz comments, but “came back to America as a Jew.” He told his collaborator, with whom he had already written one play, “No one can remain neutral, God damn it, Joan. No one can remain neutral.”

Not even the antihero of their play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” and the Warner Brothers’ movie that was made of it.

Warner Brothers, Harmetz notes, was “[p]sychologically … two steps ahead of the other studios when it came to facing the war…. Harry Warner had been an early and fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and an early opponent of Hitler…. Warner Bros. closed down its operations iin Germany in July 1934,” and “[a]s Hitler swallowed country after country – Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark – Warner Bros. was almost always the first studio to withdraw, choosing principle over profit.”

Harry Warner, who was born in Poland and had experienced pogroms firsthand, took the war personally. “In June 1940,” Harmetz relates, he “assembled his 3,411 employees and their wives, with stars and janitors alike sitting on folding chairs…. He read to them from a Nazi book, ‘Defilement of Race,’ that detailed the German plan to rid the world of Jews and Christians.”

“We must unite,” he said, “and quit listening to anybody discussing whether you or I am a Jew or a Catholic or a Protestant or of any other faith – and not allow anyone to say anything against anybody’s faith – or we will fall just the same as they did over there.”

His message was heeded. In 1942, Harmetz reports, Warner Brothers “proudly became the first studio – and one of the first companies in the country – to win the United States Treasury flag for the purchase of war bonds and stamps by its employees.”

On the other side of the aisle is this fascinating tidbit from “As Time Goes By,” a biography of Ingrid Bergman by Lawrence Leamer: According to Bergman’s ex-husband, Petter Lindstrom, the actress heard Goebbels talk at a Nazi rally in Hamburg and said he gave a “fantastic speech.” (But ex-husbands are not the most reliable narrators, and late in her life, while she was dying of cancer, Bergman bravely gave a stellar performance in the television miniseries “A Woman Called Golda,” about Israel’s first – and to date only – woman prime minister, Golda Meir.)

Paul Henreid, who played the dashing Resistance leader Victor Laszlo – who perhaps was not dashing enough for his wife, Bergman’s character Ilsa Lund – was a member of the Austrian aristocracy whose father had been knighted by Emperor Franz Joseph I. But the family money was lost when the future freedom fighter was a child, and he embarked on a career on the Austrian stage. According to his autobiography “Ladies’ Man” (written with Julius Fast), Henreid was just about to sign a contract with a top movie studio in Berlin when he was asked to sign a paper joining the National Socialist Actors’ Guild of Germany, effectively becoming a Nazi. “He tore up the contract and returned to Vienna,” Harmetz writes, “a bold gesture that left him naked [meaning penniless, as used by Henreid himself] in England after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938.” (Henreid was appearing in a play in London at the time, as Prince Albert, in fact.)

The featured players – as distinguished from the stars – had their own fascinating stories. Conrad Veidt, for example, who portrayed the reptilian Major Strasser, was not Jewish but is admired for heroically standing up to the Nazis. (There is even a Conrad Veidt Society and website.) John Soister and Pat Wilks Battle write in “Conrad Veidt On Screen,” “Before leaving for England, Connie married … the Jewish Lily Prager…. When they left Germany in April 1933 he had to fill out a form asking his reasons for leaving the country. Connie, a gentile, scrawled the word ‘Jude,’ Jew.” Veidt portrayed Jews sympathetically in his British films “The Wandering Jew” and “Jew Süss,” earning Goebbel’s vitriol.

Like Veidt, Hans Twardowski and Helmut Dantine were not Jewish but had fled Germany for reasons of their own. (Twardowski, who played a Nazi officer, was homosexual, and Dantine, who played the young Bulgarian husband, had been “the leader of the anti-Nazi youth movement in Vienna,” according to Harmetz, and had been interned briefly in a concentration camp.)

Harmetz wryly writes that “Hitler had made sure that Hollywood was full of German, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish, and French actors” fleeing Nazified Europe. She cites an astonishing and sobering figure that points up the harsh reality beneath the fantasy world of the film: “Of the 75 actors and actresses who had bit parts and larger roles in ‘Casablanca,’ almost all were immigrants of one kind or another. Of the 14 who were given screen credit, only Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Page had been born in America.” It is as if the set itself had been a little Casablanca, with a jumble of accents and histories and lost homelands and despair.

And yet, not only did the refugees lend their attesting presence to the film, they also contributed humor, as in the performance of the endearing “Cuddles” (S.Z. Sakall) as the cafe’s headwaiter and the couple happily practicing their English before they leave for America: “My dear, what watch?” “Ten watch.”

The director, Michael Curtiz, “was as much an immigrant Jew as the refugees he cast in his movie. He was a holiday Jew from an Orthodox family…. But Curtiz knew that his secular status didn’t matter to Hitler. He brought his mother to America in 1938, but he could only get his two brothers as far as Mexico, where they spent a year waiting for visas. His sister survived Auschwitz, but her husband, her daughter, and two of her sons did not.”

I could go on and on, but I’d rather that you read Harmetz’s rich book and view again the rich film she writes about. It is a film, I suspect, that will seem even richer as time goes by.

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