On any list of Who’s Who in American Cinema will be the film Casablanca. It has not only been an iconic piece of cinematic history, but has also risen in its role as a historical document about America during the 1940’s. Analysis on the film is both wide and deep, and any library search will yield several well researched articles on one point or another. This essay will draw upon some of the contributions to this body of research, as well as elicit certain points I found through my own viewings and analysis of the film. I will first give a brief background of the film followed by a plot synopsis. Then I will discuss the historical setting as evidenced by certain elements in the film. I will then discuss several messages Casablanca was meant to deliver to its wartime American audience through examples directly from the film.
Casablanca was first presented as a play entitled, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The project never really came to fruition but came to the attention of Michael Curtiz, who became the film’s director. Hal Wallis became the producer. The studio funding the film contracted Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman for the lead roles. Bogart was the on American actor to star in the film, as the rest of the leads were played by Europeans, some of who had escaped the Nazis months or years earlier.
Casablanca was one of 500 films that premiered after 1942 and before 1945 that addressed the war. It was meant to strengthen support for the war and buoy up the allies. It’s premiere on November 26, 1942 was only eighteen days after the allies landed in northern Africa. The film was made with $950,000, and earned a respectable but not spectacular $3.7 million during its initial release. It was nominated for the 1943 Academy Awards and took away Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screen-play.
The film takes place in Morocco at the city Casablanca. It centers around protagonist Rick Blaine, a nightclub owner of his own Rick’s Saloon Americain. Hardened by life, he is a self-proclaimed Isolationist, catering to the rich and famous refugees escaping the Nazi onslaught in Europe. Many people in the Resistance would make their way to Portugal via Casablanca, the only safe route still available. Unfortunately, Vichy French and the Nazis had made it extremely difficult for anyone who arrived in Casablanca to leave, and thus there was a large body of foreigners who attended Rick’s nightclub on a daily basis. Rick comes into possession of exit papers much to the dismay of Louis Renault, the Vichy General who cares first for himself above anyone else, and General Strasser, the Nazi Commander stationed there. Both are aware that Victor Laszlo, leader of the Free French Resistance, has just arrived in Casablanca. They want nothing more than to put him in a concentration camp, and look for every opportunity to do so. He arrives with a beautiful woman named Ilsa, who, as it turns out, had a short but meaningful romance with Rick months earlier in Paris right before the German invasion. They were both in love with one another, but when they were to meet at the train station to leave together, she never showed. Rick struggles with his remaining feelings for her as well as his anger at her betrayal. As the story unfolds, Rick learns that Ilsa was previously married to Laszlo but thought him dead, and when he turned up ill in a box car outside of Paris a day before she was supposed to leave with Rick, she had to return. She eventually confesses her remaining love with Rick, and even concedes her remaining agency in any further actions she will take. Rick becomes the quintessential American hero as he maneuvers through a difficult love triangle, get Laszlo and Ilsa out of Casablanca, and remains safe himself. He even befriends the waffly Renault in the process.
Casablanca remains an exceptional historical work that tells us much about current trends going on during the early 1940’s. One of those trends was smoking. In the film, ten different people smoke cigarettes a total of 31 different times.
This was not uncommon for commoners; in 1943 290 billion cigarettes were manufactured, reaching an all time record. It would only be fitting for a nation going up in smoke to watch a film that was mimmicking it’s habits.
Rick, Victor, Ilsa, and Louise all drink heavily throughout the film, another infatuation of America. Between 1942 and 1943, production of alcohol had increased by 50 million gallons. Nightclubs were the place to be in the forties for Americans, and this is well documented in Casablanca. Most of the film takes place in Rick’s Saloon, where alcohol was easily accessible, smoking allowed, and music abound. If Americans weren’t watching films, they were out on the town. In New York City alone, there were 1200 nightclubs in 1942. If people couldn’t afford to dress up and go out, they read about nightlife in magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post.
Amongst these examples, the one that was most heart-wrenching was the separation most Americans felt with their loved ones. This happened to be the basis of the love story between Ilsa and Rick, who were torn apart in Paris by events out of their control. That there were not a few love longs popular during the period Casablanca premeired is undisputable, and hits like “I’ll Never Smile Again, Until I Smile at You” by Frank Sinatra was just one. Many of the tunes were meant to stir up old, happy memories, just as the song, “As Time Goes By” in the film said to do. If people could escape their pangs of emptiness at loved ones lost by remembering better days, then that’s what they did. Jack Nachbar documents the many other examples of this trend in a different article.
The film also reflects a modest liberalism on blacks in society, as advocated by the NAACP. Sam, the black pianist in the film, seems to be a friend and partner to Rick. He has traveled with him as well has co-owns the business with him. Sam’s role was created and written most likely due to efforst by groups such as the NAACP. The NAACP was active during the war years to promote blacks in society not as equals, but at least obtaining full citizenship in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Many black Americans were signing up for the war, since it was there they could find opportunities for advancement that didn’t exist elsewhere.
The ending of the film not only was reworked considerably from it’s initial script, but was made patriotic. At first, Rick was to shoot Strasser to allow Ilsa and Laszlo’s escape, after which he would be arrested and sent to prison. This ending ultimately let the Nazis win against the Americans, and was unacceptable to Curtiz.
He had it re-written to allow Rick to not only kill Strasser, but also allow Lasko and Ilsa to escape and remain out of prison. This was accomplished with the help of Renault, who finally settles on the side of the free French with the symbolic gesture of dropping the Vichy bottle of water in the rubbish bin. Rick and Renault walk off into the fog of Casablanca hand in hand, solidifying their friendship as well as representing their respective countries as allies. Curtiz ensured that viewers of the film would feel the patriotic triumph of America over the German villains.
Protagonist Rick Blaine was entirely an American symbol for audiences, first as the independent Saloon owner and then inevitable hero. His gradual involvement with helping the free French parallelled America’s own involvement in the war. Although harboring anti-fascist ideals all along, he refrained from explicitly involving himself in the underground resistance movements until it was absolutely necessary. But this faux neutrality was with notable exception. For one, Rick helped a Bulgarian family obtain their leave papers through a conspicuous Roulette win. Without him, the young wife may have had to resort to certain sexual favors to win the French inspector’s aid. At another instance, Rick gives the go ahead for the Saloon’s band to play the French tune “Marseillaise” to drown out the German patriotic tune “Die Wacht am Rhein”, which the Nazi soldiers had begun singing throughout the parlor.
Yet these instances would still fly under the radar, much as America’s supply freighters to England dodged their inclusion in the second World War for a time. But this wouldn’t be for long.
For Rick, the score became personal when it involved his past love interest Ilsa, who seemingly left him stranded in Paris on the day of the German invasion. When he finally understood why she had left him, and that she continued to love him still, he sprung into action to organize a perfect plan for their escape. This paraphrase could easily be a description of America’s involvement in the war with the Axis powers. At first, although against the Fascist regime in Berlin and Italy, America had refrained from involvement to protect it’s own interest (remember Rick’s favorite snub “I don’t stick my neck out for nobody”). Then it became personal with the bombing of Pearl Harbor December 7th, 1941. By that time France had been at war and conquered in six weeks, and England was holding her own against the constant bombardment of artillery from the Nazi Luftwaffe.
Throughout the front lines and especially in the minds of Americans themselves, the United States were coming to save the day. The film’s storyline only reiterated what Americans already believed; that they were the saviors of the free world, and it was up to them to step in and take charge. Ilsa made it clear that the situation at Casablanca was too complex for her, or for anyone but Rick to deal with when she said, “You must do the thinking for me, for all of us.” To Americans, that meant it was up to their democratic, free country to save the world.
French portrayal in the film also was suggestive. Victor Renault, the head of the Vichy army in Casablanca, was self proclaimed as “tossed where the wind takes me”. Vichy French became the micromanaged under the Third Reich after French army’s quick defeat. Vichy, a part of southern France, was allowed to remain somewhat self-governed due to their claimed loyalties to the Germans. To many of the allies, the right moment might allow the Vichy to rejoin the fight against Germany. Robert Willson rightly described Renault as symbolizing the hopeful French ready to take up arms again with England and America. He wrote that Laszlo may even have been speaking to followers of Charles de Gaulle as well as Rick when he said, “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”
True, but it also was encouragement for America’s own citizens that the french, as well as other allies, were more than ready and willing to fight alongside America. Renault didn’t side with Rick until the very end of the movie, and it was only after the American had blatantly inserted himself into the conflict. And although Laszlo was portrayed as the most noble of the characters, he was helpless without Rick, just as France was helpless without America.
One important message to viewers of Casablanca was that of self sacrifice for the greater good.
Until Pearl Harbor, the U.S. wanted nothing to do with what was taking place over seas. In 1937, 94% of the respondents in a gallup poll opposed getting involved in foreign problems.
Franklin Roosevelt even campaigned on the promise, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.”
This was in 1940. After America entered the war, it was important that its soldiers knew that fighting overseas was the right thing to do, even if it meant great sacrifice. This message was made clear through Laszlo and Rick’s interaction. At the end of the film, Rick says to Ilsa, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill o’ beans in this crazy world.” Ilsa replies, “God bless you, Rick.” Moments later, Laszlo and Ilsa are on a plane to Portugal to continue the resistance efforts safely. The final scene has become iconic, but to audiences in 1943 the message was that sacrifice was not only necessary, but undeniably good. The message was not unique to Casablanca. Advertisements portraying the sacrifice of families sending their sons off to war as positive were being circulated throughout many of the newspapers. One ad showed a wife and son reading a letter from their husband in the army. The tagline read, “It becomes the patriotic duty of every American without exception…to sacrifice without restraint…,” Thus, Casablanca’s message was just part of the propaganda campaign throughout the country that focused on sacrifice.
Casablanca continues to be an important classical work of cinema, as well as an informative, historical tool in evaluating the war years of the early nineteen-forties. It tells us today what it told viewers then; that America is the heroic savior of the world, and a trusted ally of its friends. It would be wrong of us to not utilize this film for a better understanding of America’s history, and thus we should heed the words of Rick Blaine when he said to his piano player, “Play it again, Sam.”