SPEAKER: So Murray Burnett's script has landed in Hollywood at Warner brothers on December 8, 1941. Let's change our perspective and think a little bit about what December 8, 1941, looks like from Washington, DC, and from FDR's office. America was a problem for FDR all the way up to December 7, 1941, in the sense that the dominant attitude of America was characterized, has been characterized as isolationism.
America was not interested in Europe, did not want to be part of Europe, did not like the way things turned out in World War I, was pretty much ignorant of Europe at the time. And the various steps by which FDR tried to change the minds of the American people and alert them to the dangers which he perceived, just as Murray Burnett had perceived, in fact, are steps that have been talked about by other historians.
But certainly, December 7, 1941, was one that changed Americans' minds. And it was a colossal heads-up for the population. On the other hand, let's think about this December 7, 1941, in another way. And that is, how are we going to respond to this? FDR had that problem.
And after consulting with Churchill and after the German declaration of war upon America on December 11, 1941, he had to get Americans convinced that we should attack Europe first, that we should carry out a victory over Hitler before a victory over the Japanese. Therefore, one needed a way, in fact, to convince people of the importance of Europe and of the necessity of considering the Nazi menace as the one that needed to be defeated first.
So we've got the perspective from Washington, the perspective from New York where Murray Burnett still was and where he signed a contract with Warner Brothers, giving them the rights to use his play, all the rights, on January 12, 1942. Let's take the perspective now to Warner Brothers, what Warner Brothers was really like as a studio at this time.
The characteristic of Warner Brothers that's most important for us in talking about how this connection worked to save the world from Hitler, indeed, was that Warner Brothers was a studio that was most socially and politically concerned and had been that way, really, since the 1930s. They were the ones who would make the movies that would take on political and social subjects.
The Warner brothers, Harry and Jack, in fact, were close to FDR. In fact, Jack Warner had been part of the National Recovery Administration, the NRA. And when that didn't work-- that was one of FDR's arrangements and institutional innovations that didn't really work out-- Jack Warner kept the NRA stationary with its famous blue eagle on his desk and would still use it right throughout the 1930s and so forth.
So there was a great affection for FDR as well, and there was also a great affection, of course, for America. Harry and Jack Warner had a Jewish heritage that meant much to them, just as their writers-- indeed, many of their writers-- were also of the same heritage, whether it was the Epstein brothers or Howard Koch, who would write a good part of the screenplay and would contribute to that as well, adding things to Murray Burnett's original script. Although Burnett's original script was judged by a court later on to have constituted about 80% of what you see in Casablanca.
In any case, their Jewish heritage and the fact that they had triumphed in America, they were the head of one of the largest industries in America, was something that was added into their general concern for the fate of FDR's administration and for American society as a whole. So they looked at Europe. And they paid attention to the fact that a regime that if it was anything, it was anti-Semitic.
In fact, it had taken over in Germany in 1933 and now had taken over in Austria and by, of course, the time that the film was made had, in fact, defeated the French and was-- also attacked the Soviet Union. So for all those reasons, Warner brothers was, indeed, just the right studio, in fact, for Murray Burnett to send his play to-- for that studio and that play to have the impact that they did on the fate of the war.
But if you're going to understand this phenomena of a Cornellian and a Hollywood studio getting together to have an impact on shaping the outcome of World War II, I think it's important also to understand what movies meant in the 1930s.
Unlike today, when we have so many sources of entertainment and of stories and of news coming from the internet to what shows up on our cell phone to the multiplication of channels and all the other ways that we can get that kind of story, it's important to remember that that wasn't the way America operated in the 1930s.
Movies were, in many ways, the center of American culture, certainly the center of American popular culture. 100 million tickets were sold every week in America at the time. And America's population was not much more than 100 million-- and, of course, that included infants who wouldn't have appreciated perhaps going to a movie at the time-- so that more than one ticket per person was sold every week. And that's important to keep in mind-- not only that, but the magazines were out there. There were fan clubs.
Hollywood was working on a star system, which focused people's attention on stars like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, who were well-known at the time, and the other stars that had come, many of them, from Europe, fleeing Hitler at the time to establish themselves in Hollywood-- people like Paul Henreid who plays, of course, Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, who was a well-known actor in Europe. So it's important to then understand the impact that a film and its themes and its atmosphere can have when one puts these pieces together to come out with a full understanding of the Casablanca connection.
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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 3 of 6 in The Casablanca Connection series.