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:
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 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.
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.
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.