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Everybody Comes to Rick’s—Especially the Jews

Why a little part of Bastille Day and ‘La Marseillaise’ is also ours

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The waitress Yvonne sings along.(CasablancaYoutube)

Today is Bastille Day—happy Bastille Day!—and Bastille Day always makes me think of “La Marseillaise,” and “La Marseillaise” always makes me think of Casablanca, in which an impromptu mass singing of the gorgeous, inspiring French national anthem makes for one of the greatest scenes in movies. As hair-on-end-ing as it is by itself, though, what truly takes your breath away, even decades later, is knowing the subtext: That it was filmed during World War Two and released in 1942, when France was very much under occupation and the future of the war was still in doubt. One imagines audiences singing along; one wishes one could have been there to sing along with them.

But if the scene is an explicit show of solidarity with the occupied French (the film provides the careful, ahistorical Hollywood touch of having the Vichy officer ultimately turn out to be a good guy), then might it not also serve as an implicit show of solidarity with other peoples trampled underfoot by the Nazis? Perhaps with one people in particular? A closer look at who made Casablanca and who appears in the scene—both the actors and the characters—reveals this almost certainly to be the case, and retroactively has something to tell us about the values for which “La Marseillaise” and Bastille Day stood, and continue to stand.

First things first: The scene is an homage to a very similar one in the 1937 French film La Grande Illusion, in which French P.O.W.s during World War One burst into the tune upon hearing good news from the Western Front.


La grande illusion – marseillaise by RioBravo

La Grande Illusion‘s main theme is how that earlier war destroyed what was left of the great civilization of Europe, particularly of its aristocracy, and set the stage for the second, worse war that everyone already saw was to come. Only five years later, in Casablanca, “La Marseillaise” is repurposed: No longer an anomalous outburst of nationalism whose message is almost elegaic, it is now angry, defiant, stirring.

Casablanca’s director, Michael Curtiz, was a Hungarian Jew who came to America from Vienna in the mid-twenties. Its three credited screenwriters are Julius and Philip Epstein (they were twins) and Howard Koch, who would later be blacklisted. Cinema historians hold Casablanca up as the ultimate realization of the studio system, in which films were cobbled together without (with few exceptions) an overwhelming artistic vision. (Casablanca’s famed script, for example, was a Frankenstein’s monster, based on a play [co-written by a Jew, Murray Bennett] and then rewritten and rewritten again, with scenes added even after filming had begun.) The studio system was, of course, almost entirely invented by Jews, among them Casablanca’s executive producer, Jack L. Warner, who founded one of the main studios with three of his brothers (guess what it’s called?).

Jewish actors are prominent in Casablanca. The catalyst of the story is the petty thief who steals the two letters of transit and hides them in Sam’s piano at Rick’s; he is played by the great Peter Lorre, born László Löwenstein in Hungary. Carl, Rick’s trusted head waiter, was played by S.Z. Sakall, also a Hungarian Jew who got out of Europe before the storm. Curt Bois, a source of comic relief as a pickpocket, was a German Jew who left in 1934. The croupier in Rick’s casino—yes, you may be shocked, shocked!, to find that gambling is going on in here—is played by Marcel Dalio, born Israel Moshe Blauschild. Even the German guy who plays Strasser, the chief Nazi, was married to a Jew! I could likely go on, but let’s get to the story itself.

The film’s most prominent refugee from Nazism, Victor, is not Jewish. And neither, of course, is Rick; and neither is Ilsa. But I have always read most of the rest of the outcasts surrounding Rick who quietly stand up against the Nazis as being Jewish (the one exception being Sam, the piano player, who proves the rule because he is black). It’s not an implausible reading: While many Jews of Vichy France (to say nothing of Occupied France) were, of course, deported, the Casablanca of Casablanca is clearly a place where nobody is trying to ruffle anyone’s feathers or go out of the way to do anything other than look after themselves—at least until Strasser’s crackdown. Carl, with his benign expression and mitteleuropa accent, easily reads as Jewish (it helps that he is played by Sakall). Ditto the croupier and the pickpocket. Rick’s bartender is a Russian named Sascha, and one has to wonder about a Russian who has somehow found himself in a lenient Casablanca in 1942, and who, Yvonne, Rick’s former lover, for flirting with one of the Germans. Then there is Yvonne, who cries as she sings along to “La Marseillaise,” who was played by a French woman who, in real life, was married to Dalio, the Jewish actor who plays the croupier.

Most of all, though, I have always read the young Bulgarian couple, the Brandels, as Jewish (“Things are very bad there, the devil has the people by the throat”). One of the most moving scenes comes when Mrs. Brandel tells Rick that Captain Renault, the wily Vichy gendarme played by Claude Rains, has offered to help them leave if she will give herself up to him. I always read them as Jewish because they are clearly in a hurry to leave Casablanca, which makes you ask why, and because, well, she looks it; and sure enough, Annina Brandel is played by Joy Page, daughter of a Mexican-American father and a Jewish mother. It was Page’s first role.

So what does this all mean? And why does it matter? Even in 1789 and the years after, “La Marseillaise” was not just about the French. Liberty, equality, and fraternity turned out to be values that helped the Jews of Europe as well (it was Napoleon, who modeled himself as the revolution’s realization, who freed most of them from the ghettos) and spurred the Haskalah, the 19th century Jewish Enlightenment. When it was a dark time for the French, it was a darker time for the Jews; and the French singing their song of defiance are also the Jews singing their song of defiance. At its best, the French Revolution claimed to speak for all humanity, and most of all for its most downtrodden. It is appropriate for Jews to feel that it spoke, and speaks, for them, too. A good thing to remember today. Vive la France!


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Fun piece, Marc. I heard the great Robert Mckee lecture on Casablanca, and he said that Page was Warner’s daughter; I see via wikipedia that she was a stepdaughter. He also mentioned that the airport scenes were all shot at LAX, which is hilarious.

How about a piece on Children of Paradise by the end of the day?

Marc Tracy says:

@Roy God I don’t have that in me. But I *love* Children of Paradise.

Great read, but — Yvonne was a waitress? Wot’s your source on that?

Dommage. Maybe next week; didn’t they famously use members of the underground as extras to hide them?

My two other favorite Casablanca factoids are that Ingrid Bergman was almost six feet, so Bogart had to be shot standing on a crate when they were in close-up together. Also, apparently everyone–all the Warner contract players–couldn’t stand Paul Henreid.

Now I see wikipedia says that the airport scenes were shot at Van Nuys airport–the Valley!

Beth says:

Yvonne was not a waitress. She was Rick’s rejected lover.

Marc Tracy says:

I had thought she was both, no?

Earl Ganz says:

Also,

Marcel Dalio is in the shot you show of Grand Illusion.
He is also in To Have and Have Not as the bartender, I think.
He was one of France’s leading pre-war actors. Leonard Kinsky
is the bartender in Cassablanca. (Yvonne, I love you but Rick
is my boss.)

Earl

@Marc: No. Or at least, I’d never heard that — but it sounds cool, so I hope it’s true.

Speaking of Grand Illusion, the great Erich von Stroheim was Jewish as well.

jcarpenter says:

then there’s the Marx Bros. “A Night at Casablanca” . . . .

Harold says:

Everything in your first sentence expresses my feelings exactly. Thank you!

Rocky says:

An interesting take on “Casablanca”. It was a very sanitized movie in which any reference to Jews was left out. I guess Jewish Hollywood did not want to appear too Jewish, or even Jewish at all. It took a non-Jew, Charlie Chaplin, to deal the problems faced by Jews in the Third Reich in his movie “The Great Dictator”. In the wartime movie “Mrs. Miniver”, MGM had no problem having the church congregation in the movie singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”.

For a more realistic portrayal of the Jewish experience in wartime France, watch the French movie “La Rafle”. Two members of my extended family were impacted by the roundups, but fortunately, they both survived. Most Jews taken away by the French police did not.

rebbetex says:

I once read that Marcel Dalio, while an actor in France, was often cast as teh stereotypical Jew. When he got to Hollywood, he was cast as the stereotypical Frenchmen. In occupied France, I understand that the Nazis used his face on propaganda posters to show what the “typical Jew” looked like.

Does anyone know whether that this is indeed so, about Dalio being used on the posters.

Hollywood moguls for the most part were always afraid to make movies that showed what was happening to Jews at that time. Furthermore, they were reluctant to cast Jews as romantic leads, with relatively few, like Melvyn Douglas and Paulette Goddard, getting past that barrier.

Even today, few media people will openly support Israel.

M. Brukhes says:

I have always considered the character Carl to be Jewish, and as Marc Tracy points out, such a conclusion is perhaps inevitable given the actor playing him and the way he is played. The most Jewish moment in the whole movie, I think, is when the elderly German couple is attempting to speak “English” by translating German idioms literally, under Carl’s benevolently patronizing gaze. Carl is the Jewish audience member in that moment, chuckling at his or her parents’ errors–or his own!–upon coming to America.

Casablanca is the finest propaganda film ever made, I think: a perfect distillation of American values to justify American involvement in WWII to an American audience. It is not at all accidental that Jews were so pervasively involved in it.

By the way, for another take on ‘La Marseillaise’, have a listen to Serge Gainsbourg’s reggae reconceptualization of the anthem as “Aux armes, et cetera.” It created a scandal in France when it was released at the end of the 1970s–for all the right reasons!

sylvia asllani says:

Many thanks for a magnificent article and two beautiful excerpts from two classic films. Bravo Marc Tracy and Tablet Magazine.

Dr. Michael Zidonov says:

GREAT ARTICLE !!! Yvonne had been a Waitress at Rick’s, which is how her relationship with Rick happened in the first place… Leonid Kinsky had been an ardent admirer of Yvonne’s from the day she first went to work … Kinsky was in there pitching again just as soon a her relationship ended with Rick … Kinsky was a Polish Jew, but remember that Polyn was part of Russia until 1917 … Yvonnes former employment is in the early dialogue, as her character is introduced, if one pays attention … Conrad Veighdt, the despicable Strasser, was a seriously Anti-NAZI German, who left Germany for England when the National Socialists Parety first started up, and he reviled Bismarck as a vatican puppet, publically … which is why there was a Price on his Head all through the War … He did die, but of Natural Causes …

Evelinsche says:

I love Casablanca as much as anyone else, and I liked the article, but did anyone in Hollywood besides Jews audition for the small roles in this film? I’m with Rocky. I nominate Marcel Ophuls’ documentary The Sorrow and the Pity. His clueless non-Jewish interviewees all but convict themselves. And their children are still confiding the same old lies to me, assuming I’m Greek, Italian, Spanish, because I speak French! Has anyone read the Marseillaise lately? “May their impure blood overflow our furrows!” They used to mean the nobility, but now they mean me, type J positive. What do we get out of Casablanca these days? I wish it were so. It wasn’t. And plus ça change.

black jew says:

you know there are black jews, right? i don’t understand the comment about Sam in this respect since he is also an outcast at that time period in his own right.

This is a great theory.  Problem is, the scene is in the original stage play, which you use as your title: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” (Act 2, Scene 2, pags. 30-31)

So that means Alison and Burnett wrote it months before Los Bros. Epstein and Koch ever saw it.  Now, it might explain the appeal of the material to them, but it’s not like they wrote it themselves.

SK Trynosky Sr says:

What, nobody thought that Rick might be a Jewish gangster from New York? Arnold Rothstein crew? Expect to see him pop up someday in a “Boardwalk” Empire” episode. Hope he does. Come on, what kind of name is Blaine anyway? Bleich, Bialik, Blaustein.

Silk says:

“I could likely go on, but let’s get to the story itself.” Go on please… So the only person in Casablanca who wasn’t Jewish was Humphrey Bogart?

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Everybody Comes to Rick’s—Especially the Jews

Why a little part of Bastille Day and ‘La Marseillaise’ is also ours

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