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Ten Great Lessons From “Casablanca”

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The foremost cinematic love story of all time, perhaps the greatest motion picture of all time, Warner Brothers’ “Casablanca” (1942), is now available in 4K Ultra-High Definition, as enthralling, immediate and gripping as ever:

Eight decades have not diminished Casablanca’s ability to evoke head-shaking laughter, cheek-soaking tears, heart-pounding passion and unabashed patriotic pride in our nation, once again an arsenal of democracy, bringing light and hope to a brutal, blood-soaked world.

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From the many powerful lessons of Casablanca, here are an even ten:

Spoiler alerts apply, if you need ‘em.

1) "The Cliches Are Having A Ball" - Umberto Eco

Few American films feature so few Americans as “Casablanca.” Of the credited actors only Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Dooley Wilson (Sam) and Joy Page (Annina) were native-born US citizens.

Instead “Casablanca” brims with authentic Europeans portraying the very refugees they, in fact, were. Seasoned players, major and minor figures of stage and screen in their home countries, put heart and soul into their performances: witness their unforgettable rendition of “La Marseillaise,” trumpeting freedom, liberty and democracy, dim rays of sunshine in the dark days of 1942, when “Casablanca” was filmed.

Champions of liberty and democracy classically eschew stereotypes, but in “Casablanca” these well-worn national cliches---charming Frenchman, “mad” Russian, martial German, effete Englishman, and, finally, rugged can-do American---create the semblance of reality. One stereotype offends but a full palette suspends disbelief.

Of course, as Americans we know Rick best.

So when, in the course of less than two hours, this embittered isolationist turns impassioned freedom fighter, discarding a lover’s torch to uphold his dearest values, how we identify!

And we cry, both for Rick’s lost love and his moral triumph.

2) Size Matters, But Not On The Screen

Not since “King Kong” (1933) and its mechanical star has a lead player grown and shrunk to match set and ensemble as much as Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.”

A giant on screen, Humphrey Bogart was actually a slight man. When astride petit Peter Lorre (Ugarte) or dapper Claude Rains (Captain Renault) his actual size is only slightly augmented: lifts, padding and hairpiece.

But confronting Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser) and Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), both six foot-three, nose to nose in their face-off at Rick’s Café (in reality the two actors were friends, see below), Bogart’s shoes were fitted with massive blocks lest he be dwarfed onscreen by these towering men.

And for the central relationship of “Casablanca,” Rick’s romance with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), tallest leading lady in all Hollywood, direction and set design work magic:

When Bogart and Bergman are together usually one or both are seated. Upright together, Bogart stands on a step or a sloping road or they both are leaning. At the classic airport scene Bogart dons lifts and his trademark fedora.

But the greatest sleight of size in “Casablanca” is a prop: the roaring plane that will carry “Mr. and Mrs. Victor Laszlo” to safety in Lisbon and thence to the freedom of the New World.

As wartime regulations prohibited nighttime filming at Van Nuys airport---setting for Major Strasser’s arrival in Casablanca’s opening reel---the “airport” from which the Laszlos depart is a mere sound stage. The “airplane” is a miniature wooden mockup, masked by imaginary desert fog; the “ground crew,” some of Hollywood’s veteran little people in coveralls.

3) Unsung Heroes of “Casablanca” I: Conrad Veidt

Conrad Veidt (Major Heinrich Strasser) was an international star of the silent screen, first in Germany, then in Hollywood. Trained in Weimar’s Berlin theatre he survived, as few silent film actors did, the transition to sound in 1929. Still Veidt’s English was not yet adequate for film and he returned to Germany to continue his career.

But with the Machtergreifung of 1933 all motion picture actors were obliged to complete a disclosure of “race” as a condition of employment in the German film industry. A fervent anti-Nazi, though not Jewish himself, Veidt’s wife was, and Veidt bravely identified as Jewish, effectively stalling his career in German film.

A major star, Veidt could easily have blown with Captain Renault’s “prevailing wind,” divorced his Jewish wife as Nazi law provided, and as many did, remained in Germany and flourished in the Nazified German film industry.

But such was not his character.

Now a marked man, Veidt fled with his wife to England, narrowly escaping an assassination squad. In revenge Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels ordered that Veidt never appear in German film again.

It proved an empty gesture. For Veidt continued a storied career, appearing in a total of more than one hundred feature films.

In Weimar Germany Veidt had portrayed Cesare, the murderous somnambulist, in the expressionist classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). Later he shone as the titular star of “The Man Who Laughs” (1928). His face, bearing a permanent grimace, would inspire Batman’s “Joker.”

Upon arrival in England, Veidt sought and obtained British citizenship. As war broke out, he testified on behalf of his friend, fellow immigrant and soon-to-be “Casablanca” co-star, Paul Henreid, lest Henreid be deemed an “enemy alien” due to his Austrian birth and then, post-Anschluss, his ostensible German citizenship.

The very apex of Veidt’s career was his powerful performance as the fiendish grand vizier and sorcerer, Jaffar, in the lavish Technicolor spectacular, “Thief of Baghdad (1940), begun in England but completed in Hollywood with the onset of war. Veidt’s Jaffar inspired the character of the same name in Disney’s popular “Aladdin” (1992).

You can enjoy this delightful and underappreciated fantasy, complete at

Before leaving England for his second run in Hollywood Veidt donated his life savings to the Children’s War Relief, one of many donations to the Allied war effort he made freely throughout his brief lifetime.

For tragically, Veidt never lived to witness the success of his role in “Casablanca.” Like Bing Crosby he died on the golf course, pronounced by his physician, who had accompanied him that day: April 3, 1943.

Of his role as Major Strasser, Veidt recalled:

“I know this man well. He is a man who turned fanatic and betrayed his friends, his homeland, and himself in his lust to be somebody and get something for nothing.”

4) Unsung Heroes of ”Casablanca” II: Michael Curtiz

In the pantheon of storied directors---Welles, Wyler, Bergman, Fellini, Fleming, Truffaut, Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder, Spielberg—the forgotten man is always Michael Curtiz, unsung director of “Casablanca” and a raft of classic and varied motion pictures:

“Captain Blood” (1935)

“Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936)

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938)

“Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938)

“Four Daughters” (1939)

“The Sea Hawk” (1940)

“The Sea Wolf” (1941)

“Mildred Pierce” (1945)

“White Christmas” (1954)

Hungarian immigrant, plucked from Berlin by Jack Warner in the silent era, Curtiz (ne Kertesz) never learned English beyond the rudimentary. Born in Hungary, Curtiz spoke Magyar, a Uralic language, more similar to Finnish and Korean than any other European language, making a transition to English even more daunting.

Especially so for this visual thinker, whose sound films are no less image-centered than his silents. When supported by a crackling script, a Michael Curtiz movie never feels dated.

While Curtiz’s brilliance and professionalism were not questioned in Hollywood, he was widely disliked.

Where Alfred Hitchcock famously called actors “cattle,” Curtiz treated them as such, displaying open contempt for cast and crew. Brutal and dominating on the set, he bullied even Bette Davis unto tears.

His impotent rages are legendary:

“Next time I send a dumb son of a bitch to get a Coke I go myself!”

When he demanded a “pu-uddle” in the midst of rain-soaked street scene, an obedient grip brought a poodle for the fuming director, whose fractured English had sent the grip on a fool’s errand.

Curtiz’ famous command: “Bring on the empty horses!”---meaning riderless horses—provoked helpless laughter on the set. The line later became famous as the title of David Niven’s autobiography.

And when Curtiz finally won the Best Director Oscar for “Casablanca,” he recalled his many near-misses:

“Always a bridesmaid, never a mother. Now I win, I have no speech.”

But as they say in Brooklyn, what goes around comes around: actors took their revenge:

Bogart and Henreid walked off the set of Casablanca to protest Curtiz’ behavior.

Prankster Peter Lorre famously miked Mike Curtiz’ trailer: cast and crew tuned in to Curtiz’ afternoon dalliance with a hopeful ingénue.

5) “Play It Again, Ella”

Hal B. Wallis, storied producer of “Casablanca,” considered some thirty black actors for the role of Sam: Rick’s friend, confidant, protector and profit-sharing pianist, singer and bandleader.

Imagine, if you will, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne or Hazel Scott in that singular role, as all were seriously considered.

A casualty of the McCarthy era, Hazel Scott may be the least well-known of these accomplished jazz artists.

Brilliant pianist and singer, with a storied career in Hollywood through the 1940s, Scott went on to host an early television variety show on the fledgling DuMont network in the early 1950s.

Boldly and perhaps, innocently, Scott elected to appear voluntarily before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Never a Communist, not even a “fellow traveler,” nonetheless within a week her TV show was cancelled. She left for the Continent, as did so many ill-treated black jazz artists.

Here she performs alongside Lena Horne in “I Dood It,” a Red—no political implications---Skelton comedy from 1943:

Ultimately, as we all know, Wallace shied from the potential plot and socio-political pitfalls of casting a woman in the role of Sam.

Dooley Wilson, a professional drummer who mimed his piano- playing for “Casablanca,” won the part---now iconic---along with his rendition of “Casablanca’s” love theme, “As Time Goes By.”

Savor it here, complete:

6) The Power of Paradox

With no basis in historical fact, the fabled and fabulous “Letters of Transit signed by General Weygand” (not DeGaulle, as many mishear; DeGaulle was persona non grata in Vichy) are the “MacGuffin” of “Casablanca,” providing free passage to the holder out of Vichy Morocco to the safe haven of Lisbon.

“MacGuffin” is Alfred Hitchcock’s term for any device upon which a plot can turn: a “Maltese Falcon” statuette, microfilm (“North by Northwest”), even ruby slippers (“Wizard of Oz”).

As every “Casablanca” fan knows, stranded Czech freedom fighter, Laszlo, and his paramour- secretly his wife - Ilsa, desperately need those Letters lest the couple languish and die in Casablanca.

Bitter and angry over his abandonment by Ilsa, Rick will not surrender the Letters to his romantic rival, Laszlo, or even sell them, at any price.

Rick tells Laszlo why: “Ask your wife…I said, ask your wife.”

Laszlo is noble but, as “the leader of a great movement,” he is neither naïve nor weak. He has survived torture in a concentration camp and, near-impossibly, escaped. He understands human nature and the art of paradox or, as it is popularly known, “reverse psychology.”

Laszlo tells Rick:

“The first evening I came here in this café I knew there was something between you and Ilsa. Since no one is to blame I ask no explanation. I ask only one thing. You won’t give me the Letters of Transit. All right. But I want my wife to be safe. I ask you as a favor to use the Letters to take her away from Casablanca.”

Rick has one question:

“You love her that much?”

Laszlo answers:

“Apparently you think of me only as a leader of a cause. Well, I am also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.”

Instantly gendarmes crash the door. (Curtiz never lets a love avowal linger in cinematic air.) Laszlo is under arrest.

The scene leaves Rick paradoxed.

Like a wise therapist, Laszlo has turned the tables. Where he cannot convince, he can persuade, by changing the stakes.

Rick loves Ilsa so much that life is a living death without her. (“Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”)

And Ilsa has agreed to return to Rick and never leave again if he will but grant the Letters to Laszlo.

But now Laszlo has paradoxed Rick!

Ilsa may love Rick more than Laszlo. But Laszlo has proven he loves Ilsa more than Rick does. For his love is unselfish:

Laszlo would surrender Ilsa to Rick to save her, even as he remains behind to face death in Casablanca.

Plainly, greater love hath no man.

Rick cannot but rise to the challenge Laszlo has set for him.

Laszlo’s paradox makes the right choice Rick’s only choice.

At movie’s end he will make it.

7) East of Casablanca: “China” (1943)

Success invites imitation. Mirroring the themes, if not the lasting fame of “Casablanca,” is Paramount Pictures’ “China,” starring Alan Ladd as David Llewellyn Jones, a tough-minded war profiteer indifferently selling oil to the Imperial Japanese Army in pre-Pearl Harbor wartime China.

Like Rick Blaine, Jones is “carefully neutral,” financially astute and romantically detached. But Jones’ indifference to love is shattered when his heart is stolen by China-born American schoolteacher, Carolyn Grant, played by beautiful Loretta Young, and her endearing Chinese schoolgirls.

And that same heart hardens against the merciless invaders, as Jones bravely halts the most hideous wartime atrocity ever depicted in classical Hollywood film and dispatches the perpetrators in a burst of machine gunfire. The scene beggars description; once viewed it can never, regrettably, be forgotten.

Of interest now only to cineastes, “China” remains noteworthy for its brilliantly realistic tracking shots of air, sea and land battles and fearful bombing raids.

And, most importantly, its oddly familiar portrayal of David Llewellyn Jones: his jaunty fedora, worn leather jacket, crumpled khakis, facial stubble, wise-ass attitude, ready fists and blazing guns.

If this all sounds uncanny it should: Ladd’s Jones was the inspiration for George Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” and his daredevil exploits, battling tyrants and their minions, wherever they arise.

Indeed, Jones’ radicalization in the face of atrocity is echoed in “Star Wars” (1977), when Luke Skywalker surveys wordlessly the skeletal remains of his murdered aunt and uncle, their devastated home and farm, and joins the Rebel Alliance.

8) "Everybody Comes To Rick’s" - Original title of “Casablanca”

It’s a question no one thinks to ask:

“Why does everyone love Rick Blaine?”

He’s not handsome, tall or rich. He drinks and smokes too much. He runs a crooked casino. He rarely smiles since his romantic debacle in Paris and never lets anyone get close.

But Rick embodies nine key virtues, which, I have been taught, when sustained and compounded, yield love.

For Rick is:

  • Trustworthy: Even unctious Ugarte trusts Rick: “Just because you despise me you are the only one I trust.”
  • Principled: “I don’t buy or sell human beings.”
  • Courageous: Ran guns to Ethiopia and fought in Spain on the Loyalist side.
  • Competent: Escaped occupied Paris for a strange land and built the storied “Café Americain.”
  • Loyal: “Abdul, Carl and Sacha. They stay with the place or I don’t sell.”
  • Kind: Gifts a small fortune to Annina and her husband to preserve the sanctity of their marriage and lead them to safety and freedom in America.
  • Understanding: Rick “gets” Captain Renault: “Just like any other man, only more so.”
  • Forgiving: To everyone but Ilsa, until he learns she has never betrayed him and still loves him.
  • Unselfish: To everyone but Ilsa and Laszlo, until he learns they were man and wife when he knew Ilsa in Paris.

So at the close of “Casablanca” Rick has embodied all nine virtues, presented Ilsa and Laszlo the precious Letters of Transit, and received their blessing.

“Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.” - Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo, in “Casablanca”

In a final act of moral courage, Rick guns down Major Strasser to secure the Laszlos’ getaway.

And incredibly, but understandably, blindsided Captain Renault deflects his gendarmes with the legendary command:

“Round up the usual suspects.” - Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault, in “Casablanca”

And Louis walks his beloved Rick across the rain-soaked tarmac to begin their “beautiful friendship” as soldiers of the Free French Army.

And we believe that Louis loves Rick enough to do it, even to die for him, for Rick has replaced Renault’s and Rick’s aimless and corrupt lives for lives of meaning. And Louis cannot but follow him into war, as soldiers follow great generals.

You can view that brilliant climax here, in all its timeless power:

9) “Don’t Worry About Logic. I Go So Fast No One Notices”---Michael Curtiz, Director, “Casablanca”

In the breathtaking whirlwind of “Casablanca,” the brilliant script, the beautiful cinematography, the great characterizations and performances, rousing orchestrations and period jazz, the love, the heartbreak, the passion, we have nary a moment to think that, though everything seems very real, much of “Casablanca” makes no logical sense.

For example:

Q: Why do people not duck, cover or flee when bullets fly?

A: Interrupts the story.

Q: Why doesn’t Rick grab Ugarte’s flailing pistol, as any seasoned soldier would?

A: Distracts from the drama.

Q: Why are freedom fighters immaculately tailored and coiffed?

A: Audiences want their stars to twinkle.

Q: Why does Major Strasser rush to the airport alone, without his troops?

A: So he and Rick can go mano a mano.

Q: Why is there rain and fog in the desert?

A: This is film noir.

Q: Why does no one but Ugarte perspire in Casablanca?

A: Sweat is unattractive.

Q: Why does Rick publicly pass a small fortune to Annina’s husband at the roulette wheel and not discreetly in his office?

A: It’s a movie!

Amazing such an imperfect thing can yet be perfect.

But again that is true of all humanity.

10) Oedipus Rick’s

“You’re neither right nor wrong because other people agree with you. You’re right because your facts are right and your reasoning is right---that’s the only thing that makes you right.---Warren E. Buffett

The scientific and public reputation of Sigmund Freud has, of late, in the words of Eliza Doolittle, been “trod in the mud.”

Freud’s ideas are exotic and untestable, born of musing, reflection and intuition, are bound to his culture and his time and cannot, perforce, include the scientific findings of the intervening century or address current issues surrounding sexuality and gender.

But if you are searching for the operating system quietly humming inside “Casablanca,” what makes it so dear to the hearts of millions, despite the obvious sentimentality and passing decades, you need look no further than Freud’s theories of the Oedipus Complex and the unconscious mind.

In classical psychoanalytic theory the Oedipus Complex refers to the love and desire of a child for the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant jealousy and rivalry with the parent of the same sex. The Oedipus Complex is resolved when the child tempers that love, identifies with the parent of the same sex, and moves on to more appropriate love objects and life plans.

The Oedipus Complex is named, of course, for the character of Greek legend who slew his father and married his mother.

Oedipal themes abound in literature (“Hamlet”) and film (“Back to the Future,” “Star Wars”) but never so plainly as in “Casablanca.”

Follow me closely, listen with your heart and not your head:

Rick fell madly in love with Ilsa in Paris, City of Love. Told in flashback, it is a whirlwind romance with an adoring beauty, the stuff of dreams.

 

Ilsa is, as Captain Renault tells Rick, “very beautiful [who knew?], but you were never interested in any woman.”

Rick replies that Ilsa is not just “any woman.” She is an ideal woman, the essence of womanhood: she is maternal.

Thus the choice of Ingrid Bergman to portray Ilsa is casting genius. For unique among Hollywood beauties Bergman was never a “glamour girl.” She never posed for “cheesecake.” Her hair is natural. She wears little makeup. Her eyebrows are full.

She exudes not sexuality but boundless love. Even at maximal stress Bergman’s Ilsa is and remains warm-hearted, kind, loving, caring, understanding and forgiving. She is all that. And, finally, she is, incredibly, in Rick’s unconscious and in ours, his mother.

And like any mother, she has “betrayed” her son with his father, if only to bear him.

Indeed Victor Laszlo is Rick’s spiritual father. For Rick, like Laszlo, is a born freedom fighter. It is in his blood. Like Laszlo Rick hates and fights injustice and tyranny. Unsurprisingly, Laszlo is the only man in the film who holds Rick’s complete respect: “We all try. You succeed.”

So when Rick turns over the Letters and bids farewell to “Mr. and Mrs. Victor Laszlo” on their flight to safety and freedom he has so brilliantly engineered, Rick has at last resolved his Oedipus Complex. Even more, he has saved the lives of his parents and begun, albeit belatedly, his quest for purpose and manhood. He has abandoned his selfishness: running a crooked casino and seducing and coldly abandoning young women.

And, in his gunfight with Major Strasser, who proudly envisioned conquest and domination “from Russia to the Sahara,” even unto London and Rick’s home in New York, Rick hath slain the tyrant who, like his childish self, desired Rick’s mother and would murder his father.

Endings don’t get better than that.