The real-life refugees of ‘Casablanca’ make it so much more than a love story : NPR
It’s been 80 years since the Hollywood classic Casablanca opened nationwide. Set in Rick’s Cafe, a nightclub in the Moroccan city during World War II, the story centers around a love triangle.
Humphrey Bogart played Rick, the cynical American bar owner who repeatedly claims to be neutral in the war. Ingrid Bergman plays his old flame Ilsa Lund, who is now married to Victor Laszlo, a dashing resistance leader played by Paul Henreid.
But Casablanca it is more than just a love story. It is a film about, and stocked with, the waves of refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe during the war. And many of the actors who played those roles were, in fact, refugees.
“When people speak here, the accents are real,” he says Leslie Epsteinthe son and grandson of screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein. “That gives it a kind of authenticity. In a sense, they’re playing themselves.”
Helmut Dantine was such an actor. Dantine was born in Austria and, as a teenager, became the leader of the anti-Nazi youth movement in Vienna. When the Nazis annexed Austria in March 1938, they promptly arrested 19-year-old Dantine.
His family used their political connections to negotiate his release, and immediately sent him to the United States. He landed in Los Angeles, enrolled at UCLA, and began his acting career.
“He was drop dead gorgeous,” says his widow Niki Dantine. “He would walk into the room and the ladies would straighten the seams in their stockings.”
Phil Casablanca, Dantine plays Jan Brandel, a young refugee who fled Europe with his wife. In one scene, Jan is playing roulette, hoping to win enough money to buy their exit visas. But he is losing. Seeing his predicament, Rick ups the ante to help Jan win, essentially giving them the cash to secure the couple’s passage to America.
In other wartime films, Dantine would be cast as the villain, playing Nazi officers opposite Errol Flynn in Pursuit of the North (1943) and He fled into the wilderness (1945).
“It must be incredibly difficult for him emotionally,” Niki Dantine told Radio Diaries. “After being the leader of the anti-Nazi youth movement, to then be playing the Nazi in the film.”
There were several other actors born in Europe Casablanca which was g[amelHollywoodwarali[arabmin-Nazi
- Conrad Veidt jilgħab l-uffiċjal Nazista Maġġur Strasser. Veidt kien attur Ġermaniż li martu kienet Lhudija. Bħal Dantine, ħarab min-Nazi biss biex sab is-suċċess li jpinġihom fuq l-iskrin.
- Peter Lorre jinterpreta lil Ugarte, klijent f’Rick’s Cafe li jisraq mingħand kurrieri Ġermaniżi fil-bidu tal-film. Lorre beda l-karriera tiegħu bħala attur tal-palk fi Vjenna u Berlin, u sar magħruf internazzjonalment bil-prestazzjoni tiegħu fil-film ta’ Fritz Lang. M (1931) u fl-Amerika għar-rwol tiegħu fi Il-Falkun Malti (1941).
- SZ Sakall jilgħab Carl il-wejter. Qabel il-gwerra, Sakall kien attur tal-cabaret Ungeriż. Membri tal-familja tiegħu mietu fil-kampijiet tal-mewt u hu ħarab lejn Hollywood, fejn kien magħruf bħala “cuddles” u spiss mitfugħa f’rwoli komiki.
- Marcel Dalio jilgħab Emil, il-croupier. Fi Franza, Dalio kien stilla, magħruf għar-rwoli tiegħu fi Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) u Ir-Regoli tal-Logħba (1939). Dalio kien Lhudi u ħarab minn Pariġi fl-1940 ma’ martu Madeleine Lebeau — li tinterpreta Yvonne f’ Casablanca.
Ġbir Donaldson/Getty Images
Illum, ħafna telespettaturi jaraw lil dawn ir-refuġjati fuq l-iskrin bħala Lhud, iżda qatt ma huma identifikati bħala tali. Minn Il-Kantuna tal-Jazz (1927) sa Ftehim tal-Ġentleman (1947), it-terminu “Lhudi” rari deher fl-iskripts ta’ Hollywood. Eċċezzjoni waħda kienet Sur Skeffington (1944), miktuba mill-istess kittieba bħal Casablanca: l-Aħwa Epstein.
“Il-moguls ta’ Hollywood, il-bordijiet f’Washington, ħadd minn dawn in-nies ma ried li l-pubbliku Amerikan jaħseb fit-Tieni Gwerra Dinjija bħala gwerra għal-Lhud,” qalet Leslie Epstein lil Radio Diaries. Imma anke jekk irattab l-ispeċifiċitajiet, Casablanca xorta wassal messaġġ politiku qawwi lill-udjenzi.
“Casablanca it’s a propaganda film,” says Noah Isenberg, author of We’ll Always Have Casablanca. “It is a propaganda film because the American public was not completely convinced of the moral imperative of fighting this war; and the message is, this is a fight worth fighting.”
The character arc of Rick Blaine, played by Bogart, is a clear metaphor for the United States and foreign policy. Rick begins the film as an isolationist, telling Ilsa: “I’m not fighting for anything else, except myself. I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
But as the story progresses, cracks appear in that facade. In the scene with Dantine, for example, Rick’s help to the young refugees is a sign that he is not as cold-hearted as he leads people to believe.
Later in the famous singing scene of La Marseillaise, Rick gives the band permission to play the resistance song. As the refugees in the bar belt belt out their anthem, the film cuts to a close-up of the young French actress Madeleine Lebeau, with tears streaming down her face.
Lebeau had fled Paris with her husband, Marcel Dalio, just two years earlier. “They’re not glycerin tears shed by an actress,” Epstein says. “The tears in her eyes are real.”
During World War II, Hollywood provided safe harbor and employment for European emigrants. After the war, some of the actors refugee inside Casablanca have had success playing character roles. But for many, work dried up as Hollywood turned its attention back to life in America. Some will be targeted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Others returned to post-war Europe.
Casablanca it is often considered one of the greatest love stories ever told on screen, but its political message was particularly in tune with the times. Niki Dantine believes she has left a mark.
“I think a movie like Casablanca it gave Americans an opportunity to see how he lived and how your life depended in wartime.”
This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries, and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman. You can find more stories on the Radio Diaries Podcast.