SPEAKER: He left Austria, and he went down to southern France, because that's where he had intended to go all along. I'm a lover of southern France anyway and Provence and the Riviera. And I always say you know, as the French say, when God retires, he'll go down to Provence.
In any case, Murray Burnett went down there. He was really happy to get out of Austria and to get down to this area. And he went to a place on the coast called Cap-Ferrat. And he walked into a nightclub. And this was an atmosphere he had never seen before.
There was an African-American playing the piano there, playing American songs and American jazz songs. There were people there who were really having a kind of forced gaiety informed the way they were going to enjoy this nightclub. They were doing it as if it might be the last night they could enjoy themselves.
And he began to get that sense of the atmosphere from people he talked to and from just looking around and observing the nightclub. And of course, it was that kind of nightclub. In fact, it was a nightclub where there were people who were on what was later called, and will be called in Casablanca, The Refugee Trail.
And indeed, these were people who had left central Europe or been driven out or exiled from central Europe. And their only interest was to get off the continent of Europe as a whole and get out of the whole hemisphere and go to America, if they possibly could. In any case, they were trying to get out of Germany.
And also, they weren't sure at all well what happened to them in France because of the uncertainty of their status as refugees, but at the same time as German or Austrian citizens, which meant then, they would be German citizens. That meant that they could be treated in fact, as the enemy if a war broke out, as everyone thought would indeed break out very soon. This is another thing that Murray Burnett picked up. Hey, folks, there's something happening in Europe, and it could lead to war. And we'd better pay attention to it.
So in fact, Burnett was listening to them and learning about their concerns and the route that they took to get out. They would in fact, leave southern France. Then, they couldn't go to Spain across to get to Lisbon, which was one of the best places to leave. Portugal was a country. It would be a country that would in fact, have a kind of neutral situation in the war, but a situation in which you could leave from Lisbon to go to America or go to Britain or somewhere else.
Lisbon was important. But you couldn't get there across Spain. Why not? The Spanish were fighting a civil war at the time.
And in fact, the regime that finally won, Franco's regime, was allied with Hitler-- he was getting help from Hitler. So that wasn't a good idea to go across Spain. Where you wanted to go then was down to North Africa to French territories down there and move across as best you could.
And one of the best destinations in fact, to get to was Casablanca. That was where people wanted to go. So Burnett said, all right, I'll remember that. That was an interesting detail of my experience from Europe. But I think I'll go straight home, thank you, and get out of all this.
And so he went back to the United States. We don't know exactly what he did publicly as far as warning people about what was happening in Europe. But he talks about even in France he would turn to people and say, this is really bad in central Europe. Do you people realize what's happening? Do you realize how bad this is?
And he often describes himself as a pariah. People started avoiding him because he became obsessed with the danger, the fascist danger. And certainly, even when he was in France and also when he was in the United States when he got back.
He got back. He went back to his teaching. And he began to work on a play.
When he was in that nightclub at Cap-Ferrat in southern France, he said to his wife immediately, wow, what a great setting for a play. Remember, this is somebody who had all this in mind that he was going to be in fact, a playwright of some sort. So he was always looking for good settings for plays.
So he began to work on the play for a while. And in fact, he was able to get somebody who was interested in the play. Some producers on Broadway really were interested in the play. He began to work on it also with a close friend, Joan Allison, who was someone that he very much admired. He thought that she was in fact, a sophisticated woman and an intelligent woman with great charm and someone in fact that would be the model for some of the people in his plays as well.
And certainly, some people have said, and Burnett, I'm not sure he ever admitted it that in fact, John Allison was partly the model for the characters that would later be Ilsa Lund. Certainly, the character of Lois in the play that he did write is a little bit different from my idea of what Joan Allison was like.
In any case, they worked on a play together. They decided they would call it Everybody Comes to Ricks. And it would be set in a nightclub. It would be set in a nightclub however, that couldn't be in France after 1940, because France had been defeated in a war and had been occupied by the Germans, all but the southeastern corner of France, which was then a kind of collaborationist regime that was set up that had a certain kind of independence. We'll come to that later in this talk.
In any case, he and Joan worked together on this play and were very excited by the fact that someone was really interested in producing it. Then they began to get into a little bit of difficulty, because the producers said, well, this is a good play, it has real potential, we like it. But you know, with your name as the playwright-- who knows Murray Burnett?
We'd like to have somebody else's name on that. We'd like to get Ben Hecht, or one of the better-known playwrights to work on this with you and add their name to it. Well, Burnett didn't like that. And in fact, he was reluctant to go along with this suggestion.
But in fact, the people who were producing it found that they couldn't get any major playwrights to work on it. And Burnett says that later on he found out that they thought-- I can't do much to this. This is a play that's pretty complete. It's pretty good. So I don't really have much to add.
Well, this is pretty frustrating. Oh, but how do I get this play produced? What do I do with it ? All right, they finally decided, all right, I don't know about producing this on Broadway.
And so they decided that they would send it out to Hollywood. Everybody Comes to Ricks would go to Hollywood. They had a good agent. They knew how to work with agents. So they sent it out to Hollywood and the script arrived and was read on Monday morning, December 8, 1941.
One might wonder what the location of Casablanca had to do with all this. And in fact, Casablanca was well-known as the end point of a refugee trail, someone who was escaping central Europe, getting used to their status as a refugee, finding out how people really got out of all of Europe-- how they got to a safe haven where they thought they could live, especially in America.
And the way one could do it was to go to France and go across the Mediterranean to French territory and find your way to some departure point for America. And the most popular departure point, and the one that really worked out practically was a city in French Morocco called Casablanca.
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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 2 of 6 in The Casablanca Connection series.