This week, oh best beloveds, marks an extraordinary anniversary — 75 years since Casablanca was unveiled on screen to become one of the favourite films of all time, if not the favourite.
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 received 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 the film, 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 – to find that gambling is going on in here!” and his “Round up the usual suspects!” to Bogart’s “We’ll always have Paris” and “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she had to walk into mine” — and, of course, the line he never actually said, “Play it again, Sam.”
I once 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 Café Americain, selling, of course, Cointreau, as requested by Victor Laszlo in the film, and an audience whose members knew every word of the 1942 dialogue.
Google “Rick’s Café Americain sign”, by the way, and you can purchase your very own version of the neon advertisement that hung outside the establishment in the film for a mere $639 plus shipping. A bargain.
What I did not realise, while absorbing the intricacies of Bogart and Bergman’s love story and wondering why Rains’ Captain Renault seemed to be all things to all men (and women), was how Jewish the film is.
The list of those involved begins with Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz, who famously spoke an English so mangled it was almost impossible to understand what he wanted of the actors, and 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.
Also there were Slovakian Peter Lorre, playing the fatally compromised Ugarte, who stole the letters of transit desired by the Nazis and the Resistance, plus improbable head waiter S Z Sakall, an adored cabaret artist in Germany; one-time French cinema star Marcel Dallo, who played the croupier, and Russian Leonid Kinskey, Bogart’s drinking partner, as the bartender Sascha.
All 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, while 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. The film wasn’t an immediate hit on its release, but today, on its 75th birthday, we can say with feeling to Casablanca: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”