Column for Jewish News November 30 2017
This week, o best beloveds. marks an extraordinary anniversary — 75 years since “Casablanca” was unveiled on screen to become one of, if not the, favourite films of all time.
I forget how old I was when I first saw Casablanca, lying on the carpet in front of the television on a Sunday afternoon, desperate not to go and do my homework and desperate to signal, in some as yet unworked out way, to Humphrey Bogart that he would be much better off ditching Ingrid Bergman for me. Oddly enough he never quite got the message, not least because he was a bit dead by that time.
But it didn’t matter to me. I was in love with Bogart and all the weird cast of Casablanca, and as the years went on I realised, that much like Hamlet, it was a screenplay full of quotes; from Claude Rains’ “I’m shocked, shocked!” and his “Round up the usual suspects!” to Bogart’s “We’ll always have Paris” — and, of course, the line he never actually said, “Play it again, Sam.”
Once I went to an amazing English Heritage-sponsored version of Casablanca at London’s Kenwood, complete with stilt-walkers and fire-eaters, a mock-up of Rick’s Cafe Americain, selling, of course, Cointreau — as requested by Victor Laszlo in the film — and an audience who knew every word of the 1942 dialogue.
Google “Rick’s Cafe Americain”, by the way, and you’ll be able to purchase your very own version of the neon sign for a mere $639 plus shipping. Which I think we’d all agree is a bargain.
What I did not realise, while carefully absorbing the intricacies of Bogart and Bergman’s love story — and wondering why Claude Rains’ Captain Renault seemed to be all things to all men (and women) — was how Jewish the film was.
From Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz, who famously spoke an English so mangled it was almost impossible to understand what he wanted of the actors, to twins Julius and Philip Epstein, who, with former Jewish lawyer Howard Koch, wrote the script and came up with so many of the iconic lines; from Slovakian Peter Lorre, who played the fatally compromised Ugarte, who stole the letters of transit desired by the Nazis and the Resistance, to improbable head waiter S Z Sakall, an adored cabaret artist in Germany; from the one-time star of French cinema, Marcel Dallo, who played the croupier in Rick’s casino, to Russian Leonid Kinskey, Bogart’s drinking partner, who played the bartender, Sascha —all of these and more were Jewish men and women for whom the refugee and immigrant experience was not just the stuff of Hollywood fiction, but all too real life.
Even Conrad Veidt, who played the evil Nazi Major Strasser, was an anti-Nazi who had fled a promising career in Germany because his wife was Jewish. And Paul Henreid, who played Victor Laszlo to Bergman’s Ilsa Lund, was the son of a man who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, and was profoundly anti-Nazi.
It’s hard to think of any parallel cinematic venture, either made in the middle of the Holocaust or indeed today, where hope truly triumphs and points to the possibility of a better life for survivors. It wasn’t admired immediately on its release, but today, on its 75th birthday, we can say with feeling to Casablanca: here’s looking at you, kid.