Here’s Looking at Us, Kids

75 years after its theatrical premiere, 'Casablanca' still speaks to us, in a world more fractured and fractious than it was in 1942.

Here’s Looking at Us, Kids

Refugees in frantic, desperate motion. Bellicose leaders bristling with weapons and eager for confrontation. A world driven by conflicts and war. The emerging spectre of Nazis and extremism. We’re talking about the world of 2017, of course. Or are we? The chaos of the world of three generations ago — 1942, to be precise — tragically and capably stands in for our own.

If it weren’t such an obvious period piece from the era of World War II, the Warner Bros. movie Casablanca would be speaking its eloquent volumes about fractured, fractious life in the 21st century. As it is, the film, which marks its 75th anniversary this month, maintains its grip on the popular imagination largely because of the simple strength of its story, a tale of modern good and evil — irresistible force and immovable object — that resonates in our world today.

The Michael Curtiz film premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City on Nov. 26, 1942, a date intended to coincide with the capture of the Moroccan port city by Allied forces after the invasion of North Africa. Its general release, on Jan. 23, 1943, dovetailed with the Casablanca Conference, at which President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill hashed out plans for the next phase of the Allied efforts to win the war.

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The story (and its players) we know backwards and forwards: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a bitter, cynical expatriate American saloonkeeper, obtains from a shadowy courier (Peter Lorre) two letters of transit that permit their bearers to exit from Nazi-occupied areas. He hides the letters in his café. The French Resistance hopes to get the letters to Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a celebrated figure of the Resistance, who needs them to continue his work outside Casablanca.

But Rick’s possible willingness to give Laszlo a way out of the beleaguered city is complicated by the situational loyalties of Major Henri Renault (Claude Rains) and the presence of Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), Laszlo’s wife and a woman from Rick’s romantic past — one who devastated him emotionally in Paris, standing him up at the train station just before the Nazis invaded the city.

Rick must decide whether or not to renounce his own heartbreak and rage, in service to a higher cause than himself... if he believes in one.

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In the 2013 book My Lunches With Orson, filmmaker Henry Jaglom recounts his conversations with the famed and reliably acerbic director Orson Welles at Wolfgang Puck’s Ma Maison, in West Hollywood in the early 1980’s. Jaglom and Welles held court there, discussing film, movie personalities, and the work of others. Welles died in 1985, so the book is an accidental collection of valedictories, parting shots and bon mots at and for a number of actors and films — including Casablanca.

“I admired Casablanca very much,” Welles admitted to Jaglom. “I thought it was a very well put-together piece of schwarmerei, with just the right measure of every ingredient and all that crap, and of course, tremendous luck, because they were making it up as they went along.”

“The war flattened everybody’s taste in a very curious way,” Welles said. “The best thing they could do in the movies was some delirious piece of fabrication like Casablanca. That was the great work of art, during the whole period of the war. Nothing else.”

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In some ways, parallels between the world of 1942 and today’s couldn’t be more obvious. Casablanca was where refugees huddled, a demarcation point for those who sought to flee from war-torn north Africa and head to less volatile places in the world.

Fast forward to now: the now-stateless Rohingya Muslim refugees are just as desperate to escape their continuing persecution by the Myanmar government, whose army has been accused of widespread human rights violations, including arson, rape and wrongful executions. Or consider the less recent but no less moving plight of more than five million-plus refugees from Syria, looking for a way out of the madness of the civil war that's been engulfing their country since 2011.

President* Trump does rhetorical battle with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in an escalating war of words, with nuclear weapons, and millions of lives, in the balance. Europe decides its future as a populist or nationalist identity. Britain grapples with the cultural and economic implications of Brexit ... and too much of the world wrestles with the rise of a new nationalism whose deep cultural emotional strains were also a part of Nazism — the part that ultimately made its military dimension possible, not so long ago.

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In our world of entanglements of politics and ethnicity, culture and economics, unlikely alliances emerge and vanish; distinguishing friend from foe is often a matter of looking at who the friends’ foes’ friends are. Casablanca takes advantage of the relative narrative clarity of its era, at the same time revealing how murky that clarity could be. There’s no question, the acknowledged villains of the piece are the Nazis. But much of what makes Casablanca work as a story is its study of the relationships behind the customaries of good and evil.

Rick Blaine capably navigates the city’s netherworld years after the higher calling of running guns against the Spanish dictator Franco. He manages the Café Americain the best he can, stoically tolerating the Nazis as customers; negotiating with unscrupulous suppliers like Signor Ferrari (the always-memorable Sydney Greenstreet); running a crooked roulette wheel that pays out occasionally to young couples desperate to flee the city; or hiding letters of transit that could have a pivotal effect on the outcome of the war.

Even in a time of black and white moral choices, shades of gray weren’t so much possible as inevitable.

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But Casablanca also wears its deepest loyalties unambiguiously — one indelible scene in particular. At Rick’s café, a clutch of Nazis gathers, loudly, drunkenly singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Other patrons are quietly outraged. Not Victor Laszlo, who strides up to the orchestra sitting idle, in deference to the occupiers. “Do you know La Marseilles? Play it!” The orchestra, with the high sign from Rick, begins to perform the French national anthem — in brash counterpoint to the Nazis’ singing.

Then, the competition turns into something truly organic, not just to the scene but to the era: the two clashing musical entities battle, but the Nazi singers begin to fade, outnumbered, outpowered by the throng in the café, actors recently escaped from the Nazi horror, people whose voices elevate as one in an anthem of liberation at a corresponding real-time moment in world history — and creating one of the most unabashedly, emotionally uplifting scenes in movie history.

The story found great favor with Hollywood and the public in its originating era. Casablanca went on to be nominated for eight Oscars. It would win three, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Philip and Julius J. Epstein and Howard Koch), and one for Curtiz as Best Director. In 1989, the film entered the Library of Congress National Film Registry, recognized as one of the nation’s indispensable cinematic documents.

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Warner Bros. has been well aware of the gem in its possession. For two nights earlier in November, the studio, with its Turner Classic Movies unit, and Fathom Events sponsored a theatrical run of the restored print of Casablanca in select theaters across the U.S.

Casablanca is something we’re less accustomed to today: a film about the very world of war it inhabited in near-real time, a wartime movie made and released well before the height of the very conflict it observed. There’s no relative comfort of distance and time here. Directed by Curtiz, a European émigré to Hollywood in 1926, Casablanca was created during some of WWII’s more pivotal early moments, and refugees were cast in minor roles throughout the film. Despite the film’s invented storyline, this sense of in-the-moment gives it an almost documentary weight in the culture, and an immediacy that’s still striking and insightful.

The character Bogart portrayed could be seen as a surrogate for the United States, a country content to be self-sufficient, a largely isolationist nation until the end of 1941, when events at Pearl Harbor forced the American hand. When Rick famously says, “I stick my neck out for nobody,” it’s a sad pledge of allegiance to himself. FFWD: Today, when Trump bellows the virtues of “America first,” it’s just a different way of saying the same thing.

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Casablanca posited a world informed by inescapable moral absolutes, a luxury of perception and experience we don’t enjoy today. But 75 years ago, the film summoned the best that is within us, under the worst of circumstances. That calling is as important today as was then.

In its collection of showy, gripping set pieces, some of the best of them animated by music, Casablanca creates a teeming microcosm of global chaos all too recognizable today.

But the sum is greater than the parts: Casablanca is less a call to arms than it is a call to principles. Now as then, it tells us, we have to decide, as a society and a civilization, just how far down the road of incentivizing cultural intolerance we are prepared to go.

Our voices have to get above the xenophobic chorus of the moment. Like Rick Blaine, we have to take a stand.

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Michael Eric Ross

Michael Eric Ross writes from Los Angeles on pop culture, politics, film and other subjects. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, Medium, PopMatters, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, msnbc.com, Salon, and other publications. 

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