One of America’s most iconic movies featured actors who played their roles out of personal experience.
The film takes place during World War II which was confined to Europe for its first two years, then went global after the December 7th Japanese bombing of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Almost a year later, Hollywood released a black and white film about refugees struggling to leave Nazi-dominated Europe. During the opening sequence, a model of the world spins, morphing into a map of Europe with a backdrop of fleeing refuges making their way to Casablanca, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. A narrator begins the story:
“With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, or auto, or foot, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca – and wait – and wait – and wait.”
Most of those refugees sought solace, and exit visas, at Rick’s Café’ Americain, run by expat Richard Blaine. His background largely unknown, Rick appears to be a hard-nosed businessman who pledges his loyalty to no one and nothing. The Nazi-controlled French government, known as Vichy, regularly rounds up and eradicates any threats to its authority, and Rick strives to steer clear of politics. His patrons include desperate refugees, Vichy and Germans officials, and members of the French resistance.
Playing the leading roles are Humphrey Bogart as Rick, and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa, who had known and fallen in love with Rick in Paris just as the Germans invaded in June of 1940. Having pledged not to delve into each other’s backgrounds, Ilsa kept her marriage to a Czech resistance leader, who is presumed dead, a secret. By the time of the movie’s action, Ilsa shows up in Casablanca as a refugee with her very much alive husband, Victor Lazlo. She must choose between the two men, between fleeing to America with Rick, who has her heart, or Lazlo, who has her marital pledge.
One of the lesser known facts about this compelling movie is nearly all of the 75 actors and actresses were war refugees. Fourteen of the players received film credit, and only three of those were US citizens. According to one writer, as the film was being made, “Their own living experience of Nazi tyranny and of the fight for freedom that was still going on and was still uncertain, made those scenes overwhelming in their effects on the souls of those refugees.”
One of those actresses, just 19 years old, appeared in one the movie’s most emotionally stirring scenes. In real life, just hours before the Germans had seized control of Paris in June 1940, Madeleine LeBeau fled the city. With her was her Jewish husband, Marcel Dalio, whose face the Nazis had used on its anti-semitic propaganda posters. Most of his family went on to die in Nazi concentration camps. Like thousands of other refugees, they made their way to Lisbon, and from Lisbon, with forged visas, and experiencing countless delays and frustrations, they managed to arrive in Hollywood two years later. They both won roles in Casablanca, LeBeau as a woman in love with Rick who, after he spurns her, starts hanging on a German officer’s arm.
In a scene in which the Germans at Rick’s begin singing of their Fatherland, LeBeau’s character, Yvonne, realizes who she really is, and she begins leading the other patrons in a rousing, defiant, rendition of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. As they drown out the competing Nazis, tears stream down her trembling cheeks, as she cries out “Vive la France!” and “Vive la démocratie!”
All the actors who sang Les Marseillaise were singing and weeping with souls full of defiance for tyranny and resolution on behalf of the cause of freedom.
One of the American-born actors, noticed many of his fellow players shedding real tears during that scene, and recalled, “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees.”
These actors knew the brutality of Nazi power. Helmut Dantine, who played the young man Rick helps at the roulette table, was an anti-Nazi youth leader in Vienna in 1938. He was arrested and placed in a concentration camp for three months. Austrian Ludwig Stössel, who portrayed an older man leaving for America with his wife, was jailed several times when Germany annexed Austria.
The Russian-born actor Leonid Kinskey, who played the bartender who was smitten by Yvonne’s charms, recalled thirty years after the film was made, “I think it was the most moving patriotic scene ever played in any picture.” And Madeleine LeBeau as Yvonne is the soul of the scene.
Writer Christopher Flannery has noted how “Casablanca” gained meaning over the years, way past the WWII era, that it became the way in which generations remembered what was at stake in that war and all the complexities involved in it: the failures, the compromises, the choices, the heroism, the cause. “Because of the art of the film, millions of moviegoers in coming generations experienced these scenes with the same depth of feeling as those who had experienced tyranny and the fight for freedom in person. Good art helps us respond commensurately to the world as it really is, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die. In the real world as it always is, the cause of freedom is there, waiting to be joined.”