JOHN WEISS: Hi. I'm John Weiss. I've been teaching history at Cornell for 30 years. And the topic of this particular room is the Casablanca connection-- how Cornell and Hollywood joined to save the world from Hitler. Most people consider Casablanca America's favorite film. It's certainly the most romantic film ever made. That was claimed for it. I think people are right.
It was also a film that had a role in America's perception of itself and in America's participation in World War II. I think that's a correct observation too, and I'd like to tell you about that. And I'd like to add something about the connection between that particular role for Casablanca and Cornell University. Because Cornell did play a role in Casablanca, and it starts with a student who enrolled at Cornell in 1927.
He was from New York City, and his name was Murray Burnett. He was a history major. He probably learned about the way people were looking at events in Europe at the time, people who were colleagues of his teachers or his teachers themselves. And Americans in that period were, in a sense, rethinking what had happened in World War I.
They were thinking that perhaps it wasn't a battle between good and evil that was very clear with the Central Powers, the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the center of evil and Americans and French and British being the good side. He probably heard then something a little bit different in his history lectures.
But Murray Burnett wasn't only someone who studied history at Cornell, of course. He was also in a fraternity, and he was also somebody who enjoyed all the cultural life that he found at Cornell. In 1931, a song came out, "As Time Goes By." And Murray Burnett fell in love with that song, and he played it again and again on a Victrola, which you didn't have to wind up. It was a Victrola.
Therefore, it was automatically running. You had the power there. And he played it again and again and again until his fraternity brothers finally threatened to throw him out of the fraternity if he didn't stop playing it. If you know Casablanca, you know how Murray Burnett finally got his revenge against his fraternity brothers who didn't like his taste in music.
So after he graduated from Cornell, Burnett went back to New York City. And he became a substitute teacher at Central Commercial High School in New York. And in the depression in America in the 1930s, it wasn't too bad a job, considered a pretty secure job, and also a job that gave him the time to work on his avocation that was pretty serious, which was playwriting.
And then in 1938, he came into a little money. His uncle left him some money. And so he thought about what to do with it. And he decided he wanted to go to Europe, and he and his wife, Frances, made plans to go to Europe to see it as tourists.
But Frances said also that she had, in fact, some relatives in Antwerp, so they went to Antwerp. And in Antwerp, they began to hear about what was happening in Germany and in Austria and in Europe in general, and it didn't sound very good.
And in fact, Frances' parents in Antwerp then said to them, we have a job for you. We have something you need to do for us. We know you're here. You can go wherever you want to. You can tour wherever you want to. We want you to go to Vienna, Austria.
The Nazis have just taken over in Austria. They have just made Austria part of Germany. And we need you to go there to help some close relatives that we've got there. They had to not only get out, but they want to be able to live when they get out. And therefore, they want to get some money out. And that's pretty tricky. Would you please go there and help them?
And so Burnett was beginning to learn about some nasty things that were happening in Europe, but he wasn't sure exactly how he would do all this. He tells a story when he, in fact, went to Vienna, checked in with the American consul, and the American consul said, OK, I'll tell you what you need to do here, right? You're going to check out some relatives, some fellow Jews that you're trying to help here in Austria. I suggest that you wear an American flag on your lapel all the time.
And Burnett said, what? Well, OK. I'll do that. And then he decided he would take a taxi to his hotel. It was kind of hard to find a hotel. He found that there weren't very many hotels, in fact, that would take Jews, whether they were American Jews or Viennese Jews or other Jews.
And a taxi driver did not want to give him a ride. And finally, in fact, his wife and some other friends who were there pleaded with the taxi driver. And the way Murray Burnett tells it, the way he told it when he returned to Cornell, was that we were there with this taxi and a lot of luggage. We had to get to the hotel.
And I don't speak German, but I really speak very good obsequious. And so, in fact, we really made sure we were obsequious enough to get our luggage into the taxi and get to that hotel. And then Burnett talked to the relatives, contacted them, and did the best he could to make arrangements whereby they could get their money out. It's kind of complicated, and he sort of half-succeeded in doing that, in getting the money out.
Meanwhile, of course, he was getting a real earful, an eyeful of what it meant to have a country being taken over by the Nazis with the help, of course, of local Nazi sympathizers. He said that you could sit there in a room, in a tea room or in the front of your hotel-- wherever you were, you heard marching, marching, marching in the streets all the time, the formations. So Nazis and Nazi sympathizers love to march, and they would go all over the place.
They also saw the disabilities that Jews, in fact, were under. Jews could not wear anything on their lapel. Other people could wear flags. They could wear the swastika, the Nazi flag, indeed, if they were sympathizers with that and their citizenship, or they could wear a French flag if they were French visitors. But Jews could wear nothing. In other words, they were really identified. And later on, of course, Jews had to wear the well-known yellow star. But this was in the early days of the takeover.
So Murray Burnett cut his visit fairly short. He planned to stay two weeks in Vienna trying to help his parents, but in fact-- that is, his relatives-- but in fact, he cut his stay short and only stayed for three days.
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Casablanca, released in 1942 by Warner Brothers, has for generations been listed as America's favorite movie, and certainly ranks as one of the most romantic movies of all time, few viewers know much about its role in breaking Americans out of their isolationist indifference to the Nazi threat. Even fewer realize that the film had its origins in the imagination and experience of a Cornellian, Murray Burnett.
This study room examines in detail how
Casablanca became a powerful argument for commitment to the anti-Nazi cause, concluding with a tribute to other ways that Cornellians helped to win the Second World War.
This video 1 of 6 in The Casablanca Connection series.