JOHN WEISS: So let's turn now to the general argument the film, which was also the argument Murray Burnett's play. And you can understand now why it was that argument. And the argument was, America, let's wake up. Let's forget about the isolationism that had characterized the attitudes of so many of us in the 1920s and 1930s. And let's recognize the nature of the threat to us and to democracy and freedom. And not only Jewish people, but people of all types throughout the world, in fact.
Let's do more than wake up. Let's get committed. Let's abandon the pose of cynicism and skepticism that so many people had seen in Americans when they commented about Europe or politics in general, if they commented about Europe at all in the 1930s. This, then, had to be integrated into the argument. And it was done in very important ways.
There was, of course, an interplay sometimes between some of the script writers on Casablanca. In fact, Howard Koch was a writer who wanted to have a series of anti-Nazi speeches put in. The Epstein brothers, Julius and Phillip, said no. Leave some of the preachiness out, Howard. We know how you feel. We know your views are politically more on the left than ours. Howard, at the same time would say, yeah well, you know, I can appreciate, in fact, how this film has to move.
It has to be watchable. It has to be entertaining. So you guys with your jokes and your ability, your magical ability to put together snappy dialogue, let's work together. And in that tension between Koch's political concerns of commitment and the Epstein sort of ability to make a snappy dialogue and some of the most memorable lines, in fact, the product was then Casablanca, and a successful film people knew they were making.
You could see that argument develop in many ways in the film. Certainly a character like Rick Blaine, mysterious things in his past, things you don't know about, a generally disillusioned attitude toward life. Yet he's reminded, in fact, twice in the film he's reminded of his past.
LOUIS: Because, my dear Ricky, I suspect that under that cynical shell, you're at heart a sentimentalist. Oh, laugh if you will. But I happen to be familiar with your record. Let me point out just two items. In 1935, you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain on the loyalist side.
RICK: I got well paid for it on both occasions.
LOUIS: The winning side would have paid you much better.
JOHN WEISS: His past included running guns to Ethiopia. Ethiopia having been the victim of the Italian fascist attack, and had been conquered by Italian fascists in 1936. And especially the Spanish Civil War, where in fact, he's reminded by Louis indeed that he had fought on the Republican side, on the side of democracy against the fascist in the Spanish Civil War. And then he said, you were paid well for it. Indeed, it is said he was paid well for both those enterprises.
Well, gun runners to Ethiopia might have been paid, but I don't know of any case where people actually served as mercenaries in the Spanish Civil War. Spanish Civil War represented then the most anti-fascist actions that Americans could take in the 1930s. And indeed, it was known at the time that's what it represented. Later on, that kind of participation would be taken as a symbol of being a premature anti-fascist. In fact, of somebody who was perhaps a bit too sympathetic to the communist elements who also fought in the Spanish Civil War against fascism.
But one had to bring in to the film the idea, indeed, of the need to abandon one's indifference to politics, or cynical attitude toward politics, and recognize that within your own soul, within your deepest political feelings, in fact, there was a sympathy for the Democratic side, a hostility to the Nazi side with all its anti-Semitism, and it's also a general aggressiveness and love of violence. And also not only that, but a willingness to act and make that commitment.
After talking about Rick's previous commitment, his deeply felt idealism really, and hostility to fascism and everything that it represented, indeed, we also have a model of that kind of commitment, that serious, deep, sacrificing commitment in the character are Victor Laszlo, the hero of the Czech resistance in the film, and of course, as we learn, the husband of Ilsa Lund, of Ingrid Bergman, indeed. And Paul Henreid, in fact, who played Victor Laszlo, plays Victor Laszlo, in the film, in fact, was someone who was a major actor in Europe, but also a major committed anti-Nazi.
And so it all fitted together very well to put Victor Laszlo in the film as an example of someone who was going to carry on as best they could, whatever it cost him, really, the fight against Hitler.
VICTOR: If I didn't give them to you in a concentration camp, where you had more persuasive methods at your disposal, I certainly won't give them to you now. And what if you track down these men and killed them? What if you murdered all of us? From every corner of Europe, hundreds, thousands would rise to take our places. Even Nazi's can't kill that fast.
JOHN WEISS: This was very important, and it was also a way to balance that off with the initial apparent cynicism of Rick, and also the cynicism of Louis Renault, the police captain. Indeed, it was all another symbol all this sort of cynicism that went along with being associated with Vichy France and working for that regime. So if this is going to be a film that argues for commitment, and it has a model of commitment in Victor Laszlo, Victor Laszlo is a Czech.
But it's important for the film and for the political impact of the film to take people's loyalties and put them on the side of the French, and to show the implications of the loyalty for the Vichy regime, perhaps even for dealing with the Vichy regime, which was certainly a cynical regime. And Louis Renault represents that cynicism in the beginning of the film, very well. In Renault's case, perhaps then, we have a kind of conversion to the cause of the Free French at the end of the film. But one needs really to make an appeal, because people at that time saw the French as essentially defeated, and cynical in their defeat.
There needed to be a way to get people's loyalty to the other side. What more effective way could there be than, in fact, to hear perhaps the most stirring political song ever written by any country, "The Marseilles." And so as you see in the film, in fact, Victor Laszlo, the Czech resistance hero in the nightclub, ask Rick to have the band play the French national anthem, "The Marseilles," to drown out the singing of the German soldiers, who are there. And that's what happens.
VICTOR: Play "Les Marseilles." Play it.
JOHN WEISS: In fact, at Cornell, we have a Casablanca night every year when the course on World War II is taught. And when we screen the film, at this point we stop the film, we turn the lights, we hand out copies of "The Marseilles," and everyone accompanies the singer who sings "The Marseilles" in the film, indeed. And it's a point of asserting, in fact, the loyalty that we all feel to the idea of democracy and patriotism, as well. So it's one of more enjoyable moments of that Casablanca night, but it's also a way to try to re-experience the power of "The Marseilles" as it was used in the film, and as those who put together the script indeed wanted to use its power to change our attitude about Vichy, and our attitude about commitment, in general.
One sees, of course, later on evidence of the feelings of Howard Koch and Julius and Phillip Epstein and the others who worked on the script, as well as Murray Burnett, torn, in fact, the Vichy Regime, when Louis, the police captain, begins to show his change in attitude indeed by dropping a bottle of Vichy water in the wastebasket.
LOUIS: Well, Rick, you're not only a sentimentalist, but you've become a patriot.
RICK: [INAUDIBLE] seemed like a good time to start.
LOUIS: I think perhaps you're right.
JOHN WEISS: And the folks in Washington who kept a close eye on what was happening in film production, indeed a very close eye, people in the Office of War Information, in fact, knew the importance of making this kind of film with these kinds of stars from this particular studio, they knew this. And so they were not very happy about this. They, in fact, made some attempt to leave out this very clear declaration of a disenchantment with Vichy during the summer of 1942, on the part of the screen writers in Hollywood. Because the American position at that time was one of some ambiguity.
Indeed, we still recognized Vichy. Later on, we would make an arrangement that would leave Vichy, in fact, in control of North Africa. Or at least that was the proposal. Indeed, leave them in control of North Africa as we invaded that territory and placed our troops on Vichy territory. And in fact, when Americans did land with the British in November of 1942 on North African soil, very close to Casablanca, they were briefly, but nevertheless seriously, opposed by French Vichy forces. There was fighting that took place at that time.
So the Vichy issue was an important one to deal with at the same time that one wanted to emphasize the change in commitments, the possibility that one, indeed, can be committed to the side of the fight against Hitler, to the side of democracy, and at the same time, to be ready to sacrifice for that. Because a very essential theme that is brought forth it, that was in the original play very clearly, was that of sacrifice. One is ready to make that kind of sacrifice. Rick is ready to sacrifice his re-found love for Ilsa, indeed, by sending her off to support Victor Laszlo, who needs her.
And I think some of you can probably quote the lines in which Rick tries to make that very clear to Ilsa at the end of the film.
RICK: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have. We lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
ILSA: And I said I would never leave you.
RICK: And you never will. I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm not good at being noble. But it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday, you'll understand that. Here's looking at you, kid.
JOHN WEISS: And in November of 1942, all of America had a chance to see what that kind of commitment really meant, and what that kind of sacrifice and orientation toward sacrifice and decision for sacrifice could result in when the British and the Americans landed in North Africa, on the Northwest coast of Africa, very close to Casablanca. Casablanca was scheduled to be released in January of 1943. But in fact, the Warner Brothers decided that they had a way then to not only publicize the film, but also make that point as soon as they could by releasing Casablanca. And it was released, at least in a single theater, indeed, in November of 1942, immediately after American troops landed near Casablanca and we're actually in the city at that time.
The message that Murray Burnett, the Cornellian, and the Hollywood writers wanted to put forth about commitment, about going beyond yourself, is of course summed up best perhaps in the final scene at the airport, when suddenly Ilsa realizes that Rick has arranged things so that she must go off with Victor Laszlo and help his work in the anti-Nazi resistance. She turns to him and she says-- I'm going to read now something that people can quote by heart, all over the world-- Ilsa says, I said I would never leave you.
And Rick says, and you never will. Of course, you never will because we've always got Paris. You will never leave my heart and my memories. I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. He's alluding to the fact he has decided to go off and do his very best to continue the fight against Hitler. He's not sure at the time whether he will be arrested immediately, that Louis will sort of carry out his duties, or whether in fact Louis will turn and join him in going off to fight for the Free French. He's not sure at the time, but those of us, of course, who've seen Casablanca, know it's going to turn out that way. In any case, he says, I've got a job to do.
And then he does perhaps the most famous lines. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble. Of course, we know that he is not good at being noble. That's the way he sees it, in fact, but he realizes that there is something noble inside him. That it was something noble that took him to Spain. It was something noble that took him to help the Ethiopians. I'm no good at being noble. But it doesn't take much to see, doesn't take much to see if you awakened, if you're an American who is awakened, it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
This world is crazy, and this world is bigger than us. And this world has got some crazy important things that are going to affect us. And we better do something to try to affect them. And he says, someday, you'll understand that. In fact, he says to all Americans and to everyone else who has been concerned about the menace of Nazism, he says, someday, you'll understand that. And then of course, he gives his habitual toast to her and to the relationship. Now here's looking at you, kid. But in many ways, he's really saying, now here is looking at you, Americans. Think about the sacrifices to come. Think about the need for some kind of commitment to public service and public action.
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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 5 of 6 in The Casablanca Connection series.