Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

You must remember this...

Casablanca is 75 years old. It's treasured as an epic romance, but says David Robson, it's a very Jewish film as well.

    A kiss is just a kiss...
    A kiss is just a kiss...

    It was peculiarly apt that on November 26th 1942 the New York Times carried an advertisement announcing the release that day of the movie Casablanca and a story headlined “Slain Polish Jews Put At One Million”, sub-headed “One third of number in whole country said to have been put to death by Nazis”. It was not on the front page. It appeared as a single column hidden on page 16 of the paper. The mainstream US press still displayed a marked reticence about printing news of such atrocities. 

         The slogan on the Casablanca promo was: “A surprising story–a super-surprising cast!” That was true in more ways than one. The stars – Bogart, Bergman et al – were indeed luminous but the ensemble, largely unsung and unidentified at the time, was more interesting still. Those playing the parts of the inhabitants of Rick’s bar, drinking, dealing, ducking and diving, some fleeing, hiding, dodging the Vichy French authorities and German forces in that north African town were mostly Jewish refugees from central and Eastern Europe. They were acting out scenes that mirrored their own lives.

         Madeleine LeBeau, the longest-surviving cast member, died in 2016 age 92. She played Bogart’s rejected girlfriend who consorted with German soldiers but later, in the film’s most heroic moment, sings the Marseillaise in face of the Nazis. LeBeau was not Jewish but her husband Marcel Dalio (born Israel Moshe Blauschild), who played Rick’s croupier, had been used in Nazi posters as an example of what Jews looked like. They fled Paris in 1940, days before Hitler’s troops arrived.

          Carl, the cuddly head waiter, is played by S.Z. Sackall who left his native Hungary in 1940. His three sisters died in concentration camps. Talking to his bar customers the Leuchtags, a refugee German couple about to leave for the US and making a hopeless attempt to speak English, Carl says: “Hm. You will get along beautiful in America,” an ironic  comment that applied to himself and many others in the cast, who had fled to Hollywood and still had accents that equipped only to play foreigners, sometimes even Nazi soldiers.

          The best-known Jewish actor in the film whose soft, insinuating middle-European voice was familiar to millions from The Maltese Falcon (released the previous year) was Peter Lorre, born Laszlo Lowenstein, who had arrived in Hollywood via London in 1934.      

           Warner Brothers, the studio that made Casablanca had been trying to produce films critical of the Nazis since 1934 but they were stymied for five years by Joseph Breen, the chief censor, who refused to give them the go-ahead, warning Hollywood producers “there is a strong pro-German and anti-Semitic feeling in this country ... and while those who are likely to approve of an anti-Hitler picture may think well of such an enterprise, they should keep in mind that millions of Americans might think otherwise.”  There may have been truth in that but Breen was himself a rabid anti-semite. When he was first involved with the film business he wrote a letter about Hollywood to a Jesuit priest: “Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the earth.”

              Hollywood studios were indeed a Jewish business though many of those already established as grandees now played down their Jewishness. Most of them didn’t share the pragmatic, belligerent attitude of the Warners. Irving Thalberg, the “boy genius” head of production at Metro-Golden-Mayer, returned from a trip to Germany in 1934 and said “Hitler and Hitlerism will pass.” By 1933 Harry Warner  had already expressed his determination “to expose Hitler and Nazism for what they truly were.” 

           The Warners’ (Wonsal) parents had experienced pogroms in rural Poland. The Brothers began their route into the industry by putting on film shows on a secondhand primitive Edison Kinetoscope projector. That was in Youngstown, Ohio where they lived, a steelworkers’ community, a tough place to set out from. The Warners were rough. They felt like outsiders in Hollywood and that was their strength. They did things others thought could not or should not be done. They took the gamble of making “talkies” when other studios would not. The Jazz Singer transformed their fortunes. “When people say you can’t do that,” Jack Warner told an interviewer, “we know we must be on the right track.” 

          Warner Brothers’ Confessions of a Nazi Spy, released in 1939, starring Edward G Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg) as a hero FBI man, was the first explicitly anti-Nazi film from a major studio.

          In his new book We’ll Always Have Casablanca (published in the US by Norton), Noah Isenberg recounts how unpleasant experience was turned into something gloriously unforgettable. In 1940 Murray Burnett, a young New York school teacher and aspiring playwright, went to Belgium where his wife’s family lived. The family asked the couple to go to Vienna to help other relatives get their money out of Austria. There they saw the impact of the Nuremberg Laws and learnt about the refugee trail via Marseilles to Morocco. In the south of France they visited a smokey cafe where they saw a black pianist/singer they particularly enjoyed. Burnett went home, got together with his collaborator Joan Alison and wrote Everybody Comes To Rick’s, a play nobody wanted to stage but which became the basis of one of the world’s favourite movies.

              It was bought for Warner Brothers by the producer Hal B Wallis (born Aaron Blum Wolowicz), directed by Michael Curtiz (a Hungarian-born Jew), the screenplay was written by three Jewish scriptwriters with a music score by a Jewish composer. Nothing unusual about any of that.

              Casablanca remains so treasured less because of its politics than its romance and its many great lines incomparably delivered. None of the film’s stars was Jewish, which is why Bogart doesn’t say “here’s looking at you, yid” or “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine, already.”  But maybe after all these years we should recognise just how Jewish it was. 

Features

Dustin Hoffman at 80

David Robson

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Dustin Hoffman at 80
Comment

Leonard Cohen: A perfect way to say goodbye

David Robson

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Leonard Cohen: A perfect way to say goodbye