Play It Again, In Casablanca

TALIM MOROCCO HOLLYWOOD condensedAs we (we, as in Dar America and Villa des Arts) did with Patton, the "Morocco In Hollywood" series continued with a showing of Casablanca, the classic 1942 film that counts among many people's top-rated films of all time.  How to present Casablanca to Casawis?

One way is to tell them that the film should have been called "Tangier…"  No, I didn't actually say that, but did tell them about the real-life "Dean's Bar" and the wartime reality of Tangier as a haven for refugees from war torn Europe.

So after enjoying the film for the nth time (I never tire of it), we settled down to a discussion of the context of Casablanca.  For many in the audience, Moroccan Casawis (inhabitants of Casablanca) in the majority, it was their first time seeing the film; for others, the first time seeing it in the original English with French subtitles.

Our little trivia contest didn't disappoint.  Q: Which cast member was the subject of a Gestapo assasination plot?  A: Conrad Veidt, eminent actor and exile from Nazi Germany, who, ironically, plays German villain Major Heinrich Strasser in the film.

People are still astounded that Casablanca was shot entirely in a Hollywood studio, and that today's "re-creation" of Rick's Café Américain in Casa is as fictitious – and as seductively beautiful – as the original.  The film has given its namesake city its brand – just Google "Casablanca" and the film trumps the city by far – and "Rick's Cafés" are found in places as widespread as Capetown South Africa and Starkville Missisippi.

Casawis are vaguely aware of this, and sometimes have to ward off wondrous comments from foreign acquaintances who imagine them rubbing elbows with the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.  No, they answer, we just live in a sprawling crazy metropolis of 4 (or is it 13?) million people suffocating from automobile and other pollution.  But they are happy with the reflected romanticism from this 71 year old film.

TALIM Loftus Villa des Arts JPEG

Gerald Loftus at Villa des Arts, Casablanca. Photo by Vanessa Paloma

Another major disconnect in film vs. reality was in the context between the United States and France between 1940 and 1944.  For four long years, official US policy was to maintain relations with the Vichy government of Maréchal Pétain or, after those relations were severed by the American landings in North Africa, with Vichy successors in place in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.  Until late 1944, well after the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris, US policy could be summed up as "ABDG" – Anybody But de Gaulle."  And anything to keep the French fleet from falling into the hands of Germany.

But this wouldn't have been apparent to the huge (upwards of 90 million tickets per week) American movie-going public of 1942-43.  Premiering only three weeks after the November 8, 1942 Operation Torch landings, Casablanca is unabashedly anti-Vichy, to the point where Pétain's portrait smiles down on a Free French agent being gunned down by Vichy police in the street, and where – in case you didn't get it – a bottle of "Vichy water" is unceremoniously thrown into the trash bin at the end of the film.

Very rousing, and you'd have to be a hard-hearted stoic not to get a lump in your throat at the jousting "Watch On the Rhine" sung by Nazis vs. "La Marseillaise" belted out by the Rick's crowd – the latter winning out in volume and passion.  But as Richard Raskin, writing in Film History, noted:

At the time Casablanca was playing in movie theatres across the U.S., men like Victor Laszlo were hunted down by the police of Darlan and Giraud, the French High Commissioners kept in power by Roosevelt.

"Casablanca and United States Foreign Policy," Dr. Richard Raskin, Aarhus University Denmark, Film History, Volume 4, 1990.

Despite OWI's (the US propaganda arm, Office of War Information) enthusiasm for the film ("presents an excellent picture of the spirit of the underground movement…"), the Free French found a less welcoming stance on the ground in North Africa, where OWI – perhaps worried about that bottle of Vichy water – didn't want Casablanca to be screened.

70-plus years later, we can sweep away the details of history, perhaps, and lull ourselves into thinking that Rick and Capitaine Renault do go off to battle Nazis together, that "beginning of a beautiful friendship."

General de Gaulle – who liked the film too, and ordered a copy for his Free French HQ in London – would have to wait until October 1944 to finally achieve US recognition.  But don't let that get in the way of your enjoying what still may be the perfect film of all time.

Gerald Loftus

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