November 23, 2017


The Real Refugees of Casablanca : When it came to gathering refugees, the waiting room of the U.S. consulate was probably the closest thing to Rick's Café Américain. (Meredith Hindley, November 2017, Longreads)

On Thanksgiving Day, 1942, an audience stuffed full of holiday cooking settled into the plush seats at the Hollywood Theatre on New York's Fifty-First Street to watch the premiere of Casablanca, a new film from Warner Brothers. During the summer, the studio had finished shooting the movie, which featured noir favorite Humphrey Bogart and up-and-coming Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, and made plans to release it in early 1943. With few Americans knowing Casablanca was a city in French Morocco -- let alone how to find it on a map -- the studio banked on audiences' love of wartime intrigue, along with the star power of Bogart and castmates Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, to sell the film.

But on November 8, reports began to trickle in that the Americans and British had launched Operation TORCH with the goal of seizing Algeria and French Morocco from Vichy France. The assault was a new phase in the war against Nazi Germany, one designed to help the Soviets, who fought a bloody battle against the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Over the next few days, headlines and radio reports buzzed about the fighting in and around Casablanca, as the U.S. Navy battled the French fleet and 33,000 American soldiers stormed Moroccan beaches under the command of Major General George S. Patton, Jr.

Warner Brothers could hardly believe its luck -- it had a movie in the can about a city that had just become the site of a major Allied victory. The studio couldn't buy that kind of publicity. Rather than premiering the film in 1943, Warner Brothers hastily arranged a screening in New York on November 26, 1942, two weeks after the French surrendered Casablanca to the Americans.

As the lights went down, viewers were thrust into cinematic Casablanca, an exotic city teeming with refugees, collaborators, and resistance fighters. They meet Rick Blaine, a jaded barman and sometimes gun runner; Ilsa Lund, an idealistic young woman torn between duty and love; and Victor Laszlo, a magnetic resistance leader anxious to evade the Nazis. Seeking a way to leave Casablanca, Victor and Ilsa find their way to Rick's Café Américain and inquire about purchasing two letters of transit, which would allow them to depart for Lisbon and then possibly, for America. Captain Louis Renault, a Vichy officer, also seeks the letters, which have been pilfered from the bodies of two dead German couriers. The Nazis soon arrive on the scene to threaten Victor with imprisonment in a concentration camp. But Ilsa's past relationship with Rick, however, may seal Victor's fate.

If audience members didn't become verklempt watching Victor lead the patrons of Rick's Café Américain in a stirring rendition of "La Marseillaise," they received another opportunity when the lights came up. Before the premiere, members of the Free French had marched down Fifth Avenue, and at the end of the movie, they assembled on stage and belted out the revolutionary anthem in front of a flag emblazoned with the Cross of Lorraine. "The occasion took the tone of a patriotic rally rather than the premiere of a timely motion picture," noted the Hollywood Reporter. Sentiments about Vichy France ran deep -- even in New York.

The Free French who raised their voices that day embraced the movie as a condemnation of the bastard regime that collaborated with the Nazis, but it's the plight of the refugees who find themselves in Casablanca and the choices they face that drives the movie's plot. Despite being the product of Hollywood backlot magic, the film contains elements of truth about how these refugees came to be stranded in a North African colonial city thousands of miles from their homes.

Posted by at November 23, 2017 4:44 PM