Drama · War

The Beautiful Refugees of Casablanca

The beautiful people of Rick’s Cafe. Image: The Source

Look at the people in the above photo.

These are actors portraying refugees in a fashionable nightclub in French Morocco during WWII. This photo was taken in Soundstage 7-8 at Warner Bros. Studio in California.

Look at how these actors are dressed. These are refugees of Means; they are not poor. If they were poor, they would be mired in war, not sipping cocktails in Rick’s Café Américain.

Even so, these folks are stuck in the Moroccan desert, pawning jewellery and making sordid deals with local officials for a seat on The Plane to Lisbon (i.e. The Plane to Freedom). When this plane flies overhead, activity ceases while people gaze at it longingly:

Watching the plane to Lisbon. Image: The World

The film Casablanca (1942) – written in a hurry, filmed in a hurry, released in a hurry – explores the lives of people trapped in exile and under threat of occupation. “Waiting, waiting, waiting,” says one character. “I’ll never get out of here. I’ll die in Casablanca.”

If you’ve seen the film, you’ve probably felt its overwhelming sense of desperation due, in part, to the European actors who had themselves fled Nazi-occupied Europe.

One extra, who was in Paris when the Germans arrived, wept while filming this scene.1 Image: CNN

One of the things that makes Casablanca a legendary film is the casting. Scriptwriter Julius Epstein noted, “Warners always had a very good casting department. In fact, one of the major reasons for Casablanca‘s success was its casting.”²

However, filming during wartime became tricky due to the shortage of labour. “By March 1942,” writes author Harlan Lebo, “some fifteen hundred film employees had entered military service – 5 percent of the total Hollywood workforce.”³

At the same time, “Los Angeles and its studio fortresses were increasingly flooded with newly-arrived German-speaking émigrés,” writes author Noah Isenberg. “By the 1940s, more than fifteen hundred film professionals from Germany and Austria alone had landed on the West Coast…”4

There were 75 actors in Casablanca, nearly all of them immigrants.5 Because some of these actors lived through the events portrayed in the film, there were emotional moments during production.

For example, while shooting the scene where La Marseillaise is sung in Rick’s Café, character actor Dan Seymour noticed half the actors were in tears: “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees,” he said later.6

These actors knew the brutality of Nazi power. Helmut Dantine, who plays the young man guided by Rick at the roulette table, was an anti-Nazi youth leader in Vienna in 1938. He was arrested and placed in a concentration camp for three months.7 Austrian Ludwig Stössel (the older man leaving for America with his wife) was jailed several times when Germany annexed Austria.8

Others knew how difficult it was to get a proper visa. Marcel Dalio and his wife, Madeleine Lebeau, left Paris hours before the German invasion. They fled to Lisbon, where they had to wait for two months to get visas for Chile. According to author Aljean Harmetz, “They didn’t know that their visas were forgeries until their Portuguese steamer docked in Mexico, stranding two hundred passengers with fraudulent visas.”9

Much has been written about the experiences of Europeans Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre, but today we’re focusing on the lesser-known players in Casablanca. The gallery below features just a few of the actors who fled to America, and lost loved ones who stayed behind.

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Some actors, like Lotte Palfi Andor, had thriving careers in Europe in the 1930s. But they would be unable to find much work in Hollywood – or re-ignite their careers when they returned to Europe after the war.

If you haven’t yet seen Casablanca, we hope you will set aside an evening for this legendary film. There are many real-life exiles in Rick’s Café Américain.

Sources:

¹Isenberg, Noah. (2017). We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, p. 146.
²Lebo, Harlan. (1992). Casablanca: Behind the Scenes. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 83.
³Ibid, p. 91.
4Isenberg, We’ll Always Have Casablanca, p. 125-126.
5Ibid, p. 127.
6Harmetz, Aljean. (2002). The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. New York: Hyperion, p. 213.
7Ibid, p. 211.
8Ibid, p. 214.
9Ibid, p. 213-214.

Casablanca: starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch. Warner Bros., B&W, 1942, 102 mins.

This is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Once Upon a Screen and Paula’s Cinema Club.

 

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54 thoughts on “The Beautiful Refugees of Casablanca

  1. You can really see it on their faces when they sing “La Marseillaise” – how much that meant to them. Several years ago, I saw CASABLANCA theatrically and that scene got one of the biggest rounds of applause.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Terrific blog! I didn’t know that a lot of them were actual survivors of the Nazi regime. But I can’t say I’m surprised that most of them teared up during the playing of the French national anthem — that scene does practically the same thing to me!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That scene does me in every time. The first time I saw them singing La Marseillaise, I was a mess. It’s so moving.

      Yes, it’s incredible to think that only three actors in this film were born in the United States: Humphrey Bogart, Joy Page and Dooley Wilson. Remarkable, hey?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this movie. It never fails to move me, and I must have seen it at least 25 times. I’m always a little bit surprised when everyone says “oh it was just an accident, it is a wonder that it happened.” Yes everything was chaotic, but this was a Dream Team who knew how to write, how to act, how to light, how to use sound, knew great set design. Wallis knew how to put everything together. Michael Curtiz knew how to make it happen with style. I don’t think, really, that it was an “accident.” Thanks. Great write-up. These people are absolutely fascinating and I enjoyed reading about them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is an excellent point. This film may not have followed the “normal” route through the studio, but these were Grade-A professionals on top of their game. Like you said, Curtis, Wallis & Co. knew how to make it happen. Every time I see this film, I think it’s magic.

      Like

    1. Well said. The first time I saw “Casablanca”, it felt authentic but I couldn’t say why. It wasn’t until I started researching it years ago that I discovered all the remarkable stories behind the film. It totally deserves to be a legend, doesn’t it?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You couldn’t ask for a more diverse, attractive, well oiled and familiar cast.

        “Cuddles” steals every scene he’s in. Until the Croupier, Sasha or someone else steals another!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha! You’re right. “Cuddles” does steal every scene, until someone else does! I love, LOVE that scene where he bumps into the “Vultures” pickpocket in Rick’s Café and then frantically checks his pockets for his wallet.

        Like

  4. Excellent post! It’s also ironic that many of the actors who played the Nazi officers were actually very anti-Nazi. Also ironic that both Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart were quite wary of the film (according to Geraldine Fitzgerald) and yet it’s one of the most touching films about WWII ever made. I think they were seeing it more as a shmatzie romance than a powerful film about resistance and fighting tyranny.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    http://thedreambook.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right – Conrad Veidt’s determination to stand against the Nazi regime (even donating funds to the Brits!) is a remarkable story.

      I didn’t realize Bogart also had a bit of a dim view of the film at the time. You would never know it from watching his performance…the hallmark of an acting legend.

      Like

  5. There’s a reason why this film is one of the most beloved classics of all time. It’s in large part thanks to the authenticity of those beautiful refugees, as you point out. So many stirring performances. Thanks SO MUCH for joining our blogathon! You’re always a welcome contributor, Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kellee! Like Julius Epstein said, Warner Bros. had a brilliant casting department, and it really shows in Casablanca. That scene where they sing La Marseillaise makes me teary-eyed every time, and it’s because of those actors.

      Like

  6. A very enlightening post. As many times as I’ve seen CASABLANCA, it never occurred to me that many members of the cast were “refugees” from their native countries, too. And I agree that the cast makes all the difference in this classic!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a great idea for a post! I had heard a tiny bit about this casting, but had not heard the whole story before, so thank you. The contributions and stories of these actors deserve to be better known. As others have said, they are part of the fabric that makes the film so special.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Given that I love Bogart and Ingrid how is it I still haven’t watched Casablanca?
    This festive season may be the perfect time to sample its delights, with a fresh insight thanks to your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is such a sadly beautiful topic, a lovely insight to people who suffered due to the war, and ended up playing out a similar experience in this movie. ‘Casablanca’ is one of my all time favourite movies!! Thank you for this post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They had to re-shoot the scene where Bogart & Bergman are at the café a few times because one extra was in tears. She and her husband were in Paris on that day. I can’t imagine living through those experiences then re-enacting them in the film. No wonder the Marseillaise scene is so emotional!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I agree that the casting made Casablanca memorable – and you did a wonderful job showcasing the actors who were real refugees. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering they’ve lived through – always hoping for a bettr tomorrow.
    Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point, Le. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live as a refugee. I am very lucky to be a Canadian and not have to flee from place to place, fearing for my life. Casablanca always reminds me of that.

      Like

  11. A book titled THE CASABLANCA MAN (The cinema of Michael Curtiz) by James C. Robinson reveals how much and how fast things changed on the fly from the time Warners purchased screen rights at the end of 1941.

    Examples: the Epstein brothers weren’t the originally assigned writers, and Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were the publicly announced intended lead actors (after which Hal Wallis wanted Hedy Lamarr as the female lead until MGM refused to loan her out).

    To quote from the book: “Curtiz’s marked preference for Europeans is clear and in some instances documented. Corinna Mura…..was the uncredited café singer. The two most prominent unknowns were Joy Page as Annina Brandel and Madeleine LeBeau as Rick’s ex-girlfriend Yvonne.” (LeBeau is mistakenly identified in the above clip as the café singer.)

    Thank you for this excellent post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right – things changed quickly on the Casablanca set. The books I referenced talked about that as well. It’s a fascinating story in itself, isn’t it? I wonder if a movie about that has ever been made… Do you know if that’s the case?

      Liked by 1 person

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