In Focus: Casablanca's Marseillaise Scene

This is the first of a very occasional series of posts about some truly wonderful, classic and not-so-classic movies available through the DC Public Library. I hope to share with you some historical information about the films that may have informed what was being transmitted to us the viewers through the lens, with thoughts as to why I personally find these scenes, and these movies, memorable.

Cover image of the DVD for the 1942 film Casablanca2012 marks the seventieth anniversary of the release of the 1942 classic, Casablanca. There has been so much written and spoken about this movie, I'm not even going to try and include references to the many theses, documentaries, articles, interviews and books I'm sure are out there. Everyone always remembers that really romantic good-bye at the end, followed by Rick and Captain Renault walking off into the fog together. But the scene I always remember is the singing of the Marseillaise at Rick's Café Americain.

Sure, what continues to make the movie resonate with fans is the A-list cast, suspenseful and romantic plot, and classic Hollywood stylistics. But what makes this scene particularly poignant are the stories behind the actors involved in the scene.

Most of these actors were immigrants in real life, fleeing the fascist and Nazi forces that had come to dominate Europe, making it increasingly difficult--and for some illegal--to find work. Whether they had emigrated early once they figured out which way the wind was blowing, like director Michael Curtiz, who at the time of filming was still in the process of trying to secure passage for family still in Hungary, or were more recent arrivals such as Madeleine LeBeau, the 19-year-old French refugee who plays Rick's rejected lover Yvonne, most of the cast involved in this scene was either directly or indirectly impacted by World War II.

Other cast members who were immigrants from the war in Europe included S.Z. Sakall, who played Carl the waiter (a Hungarian actor and veteran of Hungarian and British films before leaving Europe for Hollywood); Leonid Kinsky, who played Sascha the bartender (and was a refugee from the Soviet Revolution who began appearing in Hollywood films in the 1930s); and Helmut Dantine, who played Jan Brandel, half of the Bulgarian couple Rick is asked to help smuggle out of the country (an anti-fascist/anti-Nazist activist and actor in his native Austria -- and a Nazi refugee).More famous actors in the cast who immigrated to Hollywood as a result of the situation in Europe, though not necessarily as refugees, included Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre and Curt Bois.

Image of the Marseillaise scene in the 1942 film CasablancaCasablanca is one of those classic Hollywood films that truly had a lot more going on behind the scenes than in front of the camera, from its subtle transmission of political ideology as part of the U.S. government’s war effort, to its more mainstream use of what would eventually be recognized as noir motifs. What gets me about the Marseillaise scene is the emotional connection I feel to the actors, whose personal stories peek through their performances.

I get truly emotional watching this scene because I know, that for a lot of those actors, those tears while singing that anthem of resistance are genuine.

You can check out Casablanca on DVD or to browse books about the movie available in our collection.

-- Ana Elisa de Campos Salles