Casablanca: The Bogart-Hemingway Nexus

--With a brief digression on the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League

by Sam Bluefarb
(December 2011)

“We’ll always have Casablanca. . .” In 2004, an American woman, Kathy Kriger, a former diplomat, posted to Morocco, opened up the first “Rick’s Café Casablanca.” [pacé: Rick Blaine]


In his post-modernist analysis of Casablanca, Umberto Eco speaks of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) as a “Hemingwayan Hero [who] helped the Ethiopians and the Spaniards [fight] against fascism) [and who] does not drink.”[1] Does not drink? Rick does indeed drink, but he follows his self-imposed rule never to drink with his customers. A few lines later, Eco qualifies the earlier comment by conceding that, yes, Rick will turn to drink and “be made a drunkard” because of his disillusionment in love. Thus he will be “redeemed.” Which, Eco suggests, presents a “nice problem.” Indeed it does! But the only element of this post-modernist analysis that goes directly to the Hemingway-Bogart nexus is that Rick (Bogart) is a “Hemingwayan hero.”

Jeffrey Meyers in the Virginia Quarterly Review[2] further notes that Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemingway had more in common than the single persona of the anti-fascist fighter--Hemingway in art and life; Bogart, on film and in politics (a liberal Democrat). The essay also forms the introduction to Meyers’ biography of Bogart.[3] (Not surprisingly, he has also produced a fine biography of Hemingway.[4])

When I ran across Meyers’ essay, I felt more than a bit deflated and asked myself: how could I tackle the same set of congruent circumstances since Meyers had already noticed them? But if they were the result of sheer coincidence, then surely, so many could not have been due to chance. More than likely, it had to do with the events that touched the lives of these two men. Meyers has given us an itemized catalogue:

  • Both were born in 1899.
  • Both came from modestly wealthy, upper-class families.
  • Both loved fishing and the sea. (Bogart was fond of quoting Hemingway: “The sea is the last free place on earth.”)
  • Each had a boat with a Spanish name—Pilar for Hemingway; Santana for Bogart,
  • Both disliked poseurs and “phonies.”
  • Both of their fathers were doctors who taught their sons to fish and hunt.
  • Both had over-protective, smothering mothers who gave them sissified names.
  • Both were heavy drinkers, but neither of them got drunk.
  • Bogart played Hemingway’s loner hero, Harry Morgan, in the film To Have and to Have Not (1944), based on Hemingway’s novel of that name (1937).
  • Both portrayed tough guys—Bogart on stage and screen; Hemingway in fiction.
  • Both served in the First World War—Hemingway in an ambulance unit in Italy; Bogart in the U.S. Navy aboard the troopship USS Leviathan. And both were volunteers in that war, as they were in the Second World War, of which more later.

And both were married four times.

Meyers goes on to sum up this list of particulars,

"Bogart and Hemingway never met,[5] but their personal lives and creative works were strikingly similar. As an actor, Bogart was the greatest exponent of the romantic Hemingway hero, who dominate[d] American literature from the 1920s until the 1960s. Both acted out in real life the persona—Bogie and Papa—they had established in their work. Expert at inventing a fascinating public image, they knew the satisfactions of celebrity and the perils of fame. Both succumbed to the temptations of drink and women and had uneasy relations with the critics and the press. . . .”[6]

Beyond the bare bones of coincidence—or are they so coincidental?—there are many circumstances that make up the mise-en-scène of Casablanca and go to form the character of Rick Blaine--running guns in Ethiopia against the Italian Fascists; joining the Loyalist side against the Franco Nationalists; Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of the Second World War; France invaded and Paris declared an Open City; the flight of refugees to Marseilles, thence to French Morocco and Casablanca. Further, these events bring out qualities in Rick reminiscent of the quintessential Hemingway hero—as for example: He is a man of few words but is quick to act in a crisis; his cynical exterior hides a non-ideological patriot; he possesses a fierce independence and he is much admired by other men--the waiters and bartenders of his Café Americain; the Prefect of Police, Captain Louis Renault, who nurtures a grudging respect for him; and Victor Laszlo, the Czech resistance leader who will eventually see Rick as a comrade-in-arms in his fight against the Nazis who occupy his homeland, Czechoslovakia. Without the historic context of the war and the desperate efforts of refugees to reach America, Casablanca could not have been made. Or made in quite the same way.

What gives Casablanca its verisimilitude is that the characters playing the part of refugees, were themselves refugees. Among them were: Paul Henreid,  S. Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, Peter Lorre—though in his case, his role (as Ugarte) is not that of a refugee, but a black marketer peddling letters of transit--and Conrad Veidt, who was not Jewish but was married to a Jewish woman. Veidt almost paid with his life when he refused to make films for the Nazi propaganda machine. He eventually found refuge in England. Ironically, he plays the part of Major Heinrich Strasser, the villainous head of the Gestapo in Casablanca.

In Michael Walsh’s page-turner of a novel As Time Goes By (1998), Walsh picks up the thread of the story after Casablanca ends, back to that distant time, before Casablanca, before gun-running in Ethiopia, before the civil war in Spain, when Rick had fled a murky New York past of bootlegging and gangland warfare. In a playful exchange between Renault and Blaine, Renault touches on that past, but there is an underlying seriousness to the levity:

RENAULT: “I have often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.”

RICK [still matching Renault’s light-hearted gambit]: “It was a combination of all three.”[7]

Indeed, it was a “combination of all three,” as the novel bears out:

1) “Killed a man?”

Back in New York, Robert Meredith, a high-profile politician, is about to kill his wife, Lois. But Rick, in defending her—unsuccessfully—beats Meredith to the draw and kills him. In the old days, before she had become Mrs. Meredith, Lois had been Rick’s girlfriend;

2) “abscond with the church funds?”

He does indeed “abscond” with lots of dough from his ill-gotten gangland gains.

3) “run off with a senator’s wife?”

In a later time, Rick will meet “Lois,” who will become reborn as Ilsa Lund of Casablanca, and even though the love survives, the relationship does not. [8]

*          *          * 

In the 1930’s, bright but impressionable young people often affected the tough speech and demeanor of the Hemingway hero, at a time when Papa’s literary reputation was at its height. But the mannerisms were inauthentic since the young role-players hadn’t suffered the trauma Hemingway experienced on the Italian front in 1918 when an Austrian trench mortar landed a few feet away and shrapnel tore into his leg. Hemingway survived, but a soldier standing close by wasn’t so lucky. What killed the soldier and may have spared Hemingway, was that the soldier took the full force of the blast, since he was standing between Hem and the point of impact. Philip Young and other critics have suggested that the experience planted the seeds of Hemingway’s so-called “shell-shocked” style (today, PTSD, Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder). Casablanca was off in the future, but Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and other practitioners of the detective story, had already incorporated the “hardboiled” style into their stories. 

*          *          *

As the iconic American tough guy, Bogart acted—and in life sometimes approximated--the part that Hemingway wrote and lived. His on-screen character was not much different from his off-screen personality that defied established authority, rebelled against conventional formality, and maintained a moral code much like that of the Hemingway hero. According to his friend Nathaniel Benchley: “[Bogart] achieved class through his integrity and his devotion to what he thought was right. . . . He believed in being direct, simple, and honest, all on his own terms, and this ruffled some people and endeared him to others.”[9]

At times, it was hard to tell where the actor ended and the off-screen personality began. Like some of his film characters, Bogart had an unapologetic honesty in his relations with producers and directors. He stood up to them and wasn’t cowed by them. In one telling incident, he clashed with Jack Warner, studio boss, over a script he didn’t like (Bad Men of Missouri) and was promptly suspended:

“After returning the script to the studio, Bogart was ordered to appear on the set the next day. He refused, instead remaining blithely and stubbornly at sea aboard his boat.”[10]

Jack Warner finally blinked, but only after Dennis Morgan had accepted the part that Bogart had rejected:

“In his memoirs, Warner, who recalled most other stars with little fondness, said of Bogart, ‘I really liked this ornery genius because he had a heart under the crust.’”[11]

Like the characters on screen and in the novels, both Hemingway and Bogart were strong, if flawed, men. In their politics, Hemingway and Bogart were left-of-center, though for Hemingway it formed only a transitory phase. While Bogart’s encounter with the House Committee on Un-American Activities soured him on the Committee’s abuse of the First Amendment, he had even less respect for the Hollywood communists. (More later) That attitude carried over into Bogart’s role as the cynical Rick Blaine who had grown disillusioned with the “fight” and become bitter because he believed that Ilsa had broken up with him for someone else--“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”[12]--when in reality she had learned that her husband, Victor Laszlo, whom she thought dead, was still alive.

*          *          *

On and off screen Bogart and Hemingway frequented bars and “gin joints;” but Rick’s interest in them went beyond pleasure and leisure: He is the owner and manager of Rick’s Café Americain, Casablanca’s popular meeting place for black market purveyors and sellers of those precious letters of transit, and desperate refugees clamoring to obtain them. Ilsa will later go to Rick to plead with him to provide her with those letters; for she and her husband have heard from Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet), owner of the Green Parrot café and boss of Casablanca’s underworld, that Rick has those letters in his possession. She pleads with him that the letters are not for herself but for her husband, Victor Laszlo, the leader of the Czech resistance. The letter will enable him to leave Casablanca and go off alone to America, to continue his important work. Their Paris tryst of a lifetime ago—or so it seems--has turned out to be a brief, but intense, affair instead of the long-lasting idyllic love that Rick believed it was going to be. So that when Ilsa comes back into his life, he is bewildered and bitter—but still in love with her.  Still, the bitterness remains, and finally explodes into that memorable, but anguished outburst: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”[13]

Cynical and disillusioned though he is, Rick eventually redeems himself by passing on to Laszlo those letters of transit. Grateful, Laszlo salutes Rick with those redemptive words: “[W]elcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”[14] But most of those Americans (like Rick) who were on “our side” and volunteered to go fight on the Loyalist side in Spain, were communists or fellow travelers. Those who were not, were mistaken in the belief they were fighting to defend western style democracy, so powerful was the effect of “Popular Front” (communist) propaganda on naïve idealists who blindly swallowed the party line. Scrutinized through the rear-view mirror of history, they would come to be called “premature anti-fascists”—premature, because they believed that Spain was going to be the proving ground for the larger war to come. They were right in that, but in little else.

*          *          *

According to Harlan Lebo, “Bogart. . .personified the character that generations of Americans came to adore: the no-nonsense loner who lived by his own rules. . . a hero with. . . a personal moral code. . . .”[15]--as the Hemingway hero would come to be celebrated for.  The hardboiled, laconic, and occasionally ironic speeches of that hero and those of Rick Blaine are uncannily alike, as they appear in some of the exchanges in Casablanca and in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929). One can never be sure, but it’s almost a sure bet that the twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, and later Howard Koch, who were writing those first halting drafts of the script, even as the film was being shot, had read Hemingway. How could they not, since his name was in the air at the time--in newspapers, in reviews in magazines, and in the feature stories that appeared in them--Papa’s exploits down to Spain as an early aficionado of the corrida de toros, fishing off the coasts of Cuba and Key West, and big-game hunting in Africa. Even if the brothers Epstein had never read a line of Hemingway’s work, the playful, yet evasive tone of the following short exchange between Captain Louis Renault and Rick, suggests otherwise:

RENAULT [to RICK]: “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?”

RICK: “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.”

RENAULT:  “What waters? We’re in the desert”

RICK: “I was misinformed.” [16]

Compare that passage with the following from A Farewell to Arms. After a stormy, all-night row across Lake Maggiore to Brissago in Switzerland, Henry and Catherine Barkley go ashore, where a Swiss soldier confronts them:  

SOLDIER: “Why do you come [to Switzerland]?”

HENRY: “For the winter sport. We are tourists and we want to do the winter sport.”

SOLDIER: “This is no place for winter sport.”

HENRY: [Quickly correcting his self-inflicted gaffe] “We know it. We want to go where they have the winter sport.”[17]

Henry was not so far off message: The “winter sport” Hemingway did indeed engage in, in the 1920’s, was the skiing he did in company with his then-friend John Dos Passos. But it was not in Switzerland that he, Hemingway, chose to ski, but on the slopes of the winter skiing resort of Schruns, in the Voralberg of western Austria--close enough geographically and topographically to the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

Note the exchange between Frederick Henry and the Swiss soldier, and the exchange between Rick and Renault. In both, there is a playful irony; Between Rick and Renault, the irony is shared, whereas in Henry’s talk with the soldier, the irony is lost on the soldier. Further Henry’s humor is gallows humor, since as a deserter, he knows he could be arrested and sent back to Italy, tried and summarily executed—though Swiss neutrality might have saved him.

*          *          *

On war and winning and losing.

In Michael Walsh’s post-Casablanca novel As Time Goes By, Rick’s character has undergone a change; the old cynicism—“I stick my neck out for nobody.”[18] is gone and he is ready to join Laszlo in an operation that will rock Europe—the assassination, in June, 1942, of Reinhard Heydrich, aka hangman Heydrich, Protector of Bohemia-Moravia. It will exact from the Czech village of Lidice, a savage retribution—all males over 16, executed; the women sent off to concentration camps to die there, the children shipped off to Germany if they were “suitable," i.e., blond and blue-eyed, to be raised as good Germans. The village itself was destroyed and plowed under. In the early stages of the operation, planned in London, the following exchange takes place between Rick and Major Sir Harold Miles, a British intelligence officer:

MAJOIR MILES: “I’m not sure how much experience you personally have with such a struggle, Mr. Blaine.”

RICK: “Enough to know I like to win.”[19]

In A Farewell to Arms, different words; same sentiment:

AMBULANCE DRIVER: [To Frederick Henry] “There is nothing worse than war. “

HENRY: “Defeat is worse.”[20]

Hemingway, in a letter to Ivan Kashkin, March, 1939:

"We know war is bad. Yet sometimes it is necessary to fight. But still war is bad and any man who says it is not is a liar. . . . [But] The only thing about a war once it has started, is to win it—and that was what we did not do [in Spain].”[21]

But for every “pro-war” comment Hemingway made, either as a personal observation, or put into the mouths of his characters, his anti-war comments outnumber his pro-war—or, more precisely, pro-winning--once the war has started. At best, his views (feelings?) are ambivalent. But we are speaking of the complex human being who had seen war close up—1918, 1936-39, 1944--not the iconographic hero of his narratives.

Bogart, the man? Like Hem, he served in World War I, as a US Naval seaman aboard the troopship Leviathan, and like Hemingway, he volunteered. He also volunteered his services after Pearl Harbor, but age proved an impediment to full combat duty—he was 43—but “[H]e. . .joined Flotilla 21 of the [United States] Coast Guard Auxiliary off shore near Balboa”[22] and volunteered not just himself but his yacht, Santana, even as Hemingway sailed out on his sub-searching missions off the coast of Cuba aboard the Pilar! Hemingway’s mission was perhaps more challenging—and dangerous—than Bogart’s, something over which neither ultimately had control; but both missions were carried out subject to the parameters of a command whose aims could not be perfectly tailor-fitted to individual preferences: Beating the Axis had priority--though Hemingway’s patrolling the Caribbean for German U-boats—which had been roaming the Florida straits in wolf-packs and  sinking merchant ships--had a mischievous side to it: As much time was spent fishing and drinking aboard the Pilar  as sub-hunting. The old fishing boat was armed with everything from mounted 50-caliber machine guns, to Tommy Guns, BARs, and side-arms—supplemented by rations of booze. That adventure was prompted more as a bid to escape boredom than out of any patriotic fervor; It ended when Hem went over to report the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944.

As to Bogart’s views on war. Unlike Hemingway, he did not talk much about it; but his actions—volunteering to serve in both wars--speak for themselves.

Other than Franco’s savage reprisals against Loyalists—the imprisonments, the executions—Franco ultimately turned out to be more of an authoritarian strongman than a totalitarian dictator in the mode of a Hitler or a Stalin. We can see that now in the rearview-mirror of 75 years. But had the Loyalists been victorious, Spain might have ended up as just another “People’s Democracy,” within Russia’s sphere of influence. But this is speculation, and we can never know.

*          *          *

Paul Henreid has the dubious honor—not his fault—of unwittingly exposing some of Casablanca’s flaws, which Michael Walsh in the Afterword to his novel, refers to as “loose ends and unanswered questions.”[23] When Victor Laszlo is about to fly off to Lisbon, thence to America, one might ask: To do what? To do his “work” from the remote—and safe—distance of the New World, not to return until Hitler is defeated? To raise funds for the resistance, much as Hemingway did in America on behalf of the Loyalists in Spain--medical equipment, ambulances, etc.? Or is there some other nebulous purpose? But the headquarters of the Czech resistance was headquartered in London, as Walsh points out in the Afterword to the novel,[24] so why didn’t he join his comrades in London? Walsh remedies that lapse when he has Laszlo and Ilsa indeed go off to London, and where Ilsa will--implausibly--join him in his “work.” This time the flaw--Ilsa in the unlikely role of resistance fighter--is Walsh’s.

Another question-begging episode may be seen in Victor Laszlo’s incarceration in a concentration camp; but instead of disposing of such a figure so threatening to their enterprise, the Germans get careless--an inattentive guard? sloppy security?—and Laszlo escapes.

Later, Strasser attempts to bribe him with those letters of transit. If he will only reveal the names of his associates who lead the resistance in all the occupied capitals of Europe, he will be free to leave Casablanca and go to America.

LASZLO: “If I didn’t give them to you in a concentration camp where you had more “persuasive methods” [torture] at your disposal, I certainly won’t give them to you now.”[25]

But Laszlo is not only a Czech nationalist; he is likely a man of the left: Witness those mutually congratulatory lines between him and Rick Blaine when they first meet.

LASZLO: “One hears a great deal about Rick in Casablanca.”

RICK:  “And about Victor Laszlo everywhere.” [26]

What does Laszlo mean when he says that “One hears a great deal about Rick in Casablanca?” Is it only Rick’s reputation as a great café owner and businessman? Of course; but there is something more that Laszlo alludes to, something unspoken—Rick’s other reputation as a fighter in Ethiopia and Spain.

At the time, the bulk of that support for those causes—Ethiopia, Spain--came from the left. A man of perspicacity and intelligence, Laszlo was quite aware that Rick was likely on the left, and that the Popular Front government of Loyalist Spain, which he had volunteered to fight for, was almost entirely dominated by the Left, most notably the communists.[27]

Early on, Rick congratulates Laszlo on his “work” in the resistance.

LASZLO [in response]: “Thank you. I try.”

RICK: “We all try. You succeed.”[28]

But what kind of “success” is it if his country is still occupied and he himself is on the run? And what kind of “underground resistance” is it that has Laszlo trooping around Casablanca quite openly seeking letters of transit like any other average refugee?

(A matter of happy coincidence: Casablanca was taken by the Allies on November 10, 1942. To coincide with the landing and the surrender of the Vichy puppet government, the film was rushed to release three weeks later…and the two events boosted morale on the home front. Until then, the war was not going well.) 

*          *          *

In those last moments at the airport, when Rick and Ilsa are about to part, perhaps forever, Laszlo thanks Rick for his help in obtaining those letters of transit. To ease any doubts that embers still burn, Rick assures Laszlo that the affair ended “long ago”:

RICK: “She [Ilsa] did her best to convince me that she was still in love with me [for the sake of obtaining those letters of transit], but that was all over long ago. For your sake, she pretended it wasn’t. and I let her pretend.”[29][--as Rick is now pretending.]

LASZLO: “Thanks. I appreciate it. And welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”[30]

Not to parse “our side” too finely, this would seemingly apply to the side of the Allies, including the Soviet Union, and the broader anti-fascist coalition; but if we dig down deeper, “our side” is not only the side of those who came to the anti-fascist war late in the game, but the “premature” anti-fascists in Spain, the left, who were fighting Franco’s proxies, the Germans and the Italians. Which highlights the role the Hollywood (Stalinist) left played in the years between a resurgent and aggressive Germany and the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

*          *          *

Which segues into how the pact affected Hollywood.

In the Hollywood of the 1930’s, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League dedicated itself to alerting the American public to the dangers of domestic and foreign antisemitism embodied in its modern form in the Nazi movement in Nazi Germany; and in America, in the German-American Bund, the America First Party of Gerald L. K. Smith, the Klan, and other antisemitic groups. There was also a one-man movement, represented by the “radio priest,” Father Charles Coughlin, who eventually proved to be an embarrassment to the Catholic Church, which subsequently cut short his radio career. A resurgent Germany became the League’s prime concern abroad. That concern, obviously, did not just involve the League but the larger Jewish community. (The horrors of the Holocaust were yet to unfold.) Through propaganda, rallies, and political activities, the League would alert the general public to the dangers of Nazism. But these were surface measures that camouflaged its more duplicitous purposes; Behind the façade of its noble principles, the League was a communist front organization whose other task, beyond the obvious one, was its slavish following of the Communist Party line, both at home and abroad--Soviet foreign policy. That two-track agenda was virtually unknown to many innocent members who joined the League. Decades ago, the late Sidney Hook treated this phenomenon in his classical study, Heresy, Yes. Conspiracy, No (1953):

“The problem of membership in Communist front organizations which often concealed their purposes. . .[is that] many innocent people [were] ensnared by these organizations.”[31]

Hook pointed out that the leadership of a front organization had an ancillary agenda—to form a policy that would support the Soviet Union in all of its frequent foreign policy changes. For several years, up until the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939, the League maintained its anti-Nazi bona fides. But on the signing of the pact, the Communist line switched from its anti-Nazi crusade to a flaccid “pro-democracy” line. 

The following extract from the FBI files of February 2, 1941, tore the veil from the goings-on behind the anti-Nazi facade—except that these facts were ignored for many years. However, when the subterfuges were finally exposed, they were ascribed by communists and their sympathizers to “hysteria,” “reactionary, anti-liberal, forces,” even “fascistic.”

Majority of officers and many prominent members have been identified with communistic activity. In Dec. [sic] 1939, shortly after the Russian-German agreement, Hollywood anti-Nazi League changed name to Hollywood League for Democratic Action, a clear reflection of the change in Communist Party line.[32]

David Caute’s take on the subject has more literary finesse than the robotic teletyped FBI style, but is no less true.

The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, whose chairman was the ever-active Donald Ogden Stewart, revealed the extent to which it was at Russia’s beck and call by politically changing its name to the Hollywood League for Democratic Action after Stalin agreed to share the spoils of Eastern Europe with Hitler [popularly known as the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, 1939]. The League served mainly as a kind of rotary club whose four thousand members, many of them earning one or two thousand dollars a week, were able to contribute as much to [Communist] Party funds as the whole American working class. They were naïve enthusiasts without political experience.[33] 

They were indeed naive. But not a few, like writer Dorothy Parker, playwright Lillian Hellman, and John Howard Lawson, of the “Hollywood Ten,”[34] were less so.

*          *          *

The romantic and the real in Casablanca often get unintentionally mixed up. Even as the romantic still lingers on in fond memory, the distance of decades cannot completely hide a stiff, humorless Victor Laszlo, all dressed up in a custom-fitted suit and a rakish Panama hat, about to board the Lisbon plane with a hardly eager wife. Henreid himself felt uncomfortable in the part and laughed at the idea that a resistance leader would be so got-up in such an attention-getting outfit! To work underground, you needed to keep a low profile.

If Victor Laszlo had been a more plausible character, he should have gone off to London, as indeed he does in the Walsh novel, and not  to America. There is a moment in that final scene when Ilsa and Rick are about to part, perhaps forever, which resonates with the tragedy of their self-sacrificial love. But there is a sense of stuffy self-righteousness in Victor Laszlo. Roger Ebert cuttingly says of him:

What kind of a serious resistance fighter would drag a woman around with him, putting her and his work in unnecessary danger, unless his ego required her adoration? A true hero would have insisted on leaving alone, both for the good of his work and the happiness of the woman he loves. Laszlo is so blind he does not even understand what exists between Rick and Ilse.[35]

The actor Henreid might well have agreed with Roger Ebert’s view of Victor Laszlo, the character, since he had laughed at him, himself.

The stiff and humorless Laszlo, married more to his career than to his wife, plays the even more unlikable character as when he and llsa are about to board the Lisbon plane. In that highly charged and poignant moment, Laszlo turns to Ilsa and asks, “Are you ready, Ilsa?”---i.e., ready to leave Casablanca, even as the audience knows this will be the last time she will set eyes on Rick. “Yes, I’m ready,” she answers. There is something about the scene that is more akin to the arrival of guards at the cell of the condemned about to be led out to execution.

Thus, when Ilsa walks away with Victor, she is wrapped in a cloak of misery as dark as that foggy night. One might sigh with relief at this ending rather than a happy-ever-after fade-out, which was considered but thankfully abandoned. For it is the quasi-tragic ending that rings truer and makes Casablanca the unique exception to most of the pedestrian productions of those years.

*          *          *

“We’ll always have Paris,” Rick comforts Ilsa as they are about to part, but there is another apostrophe to Paris, which of course could not have credibly fitted into the script, but they echo those same sentiments, and fittingly, they are from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964):

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”[36]

For all of its flaws, inconsistencies, and “loose ends”–perhaps because of them—Casablanca remains a most endearing statement about an impossible love set against the tragedy of the Second World War. 

------------------------------------

[In grateful appreciation to Marti Verso-Smallidge of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and The Ernest Hemingway Collection for her assistance.]

[1] Umbert Eco, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage, in Howard Koch, Casablanca: Script and Legend,  (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1995),  260.

[2] Jeffrey Meyers, “Bogart and Hemingway, Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer, 1996, 446-449.

[3]Jeffrey Meyers, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood (New York: Fromm International, 1997).

[4] Meyers, Hemingway: A Biography, (New York: Harper and Row, 1985; Da Capo Paperback Edition, 1999).

[5] Apparently there is a contradiction here. There is a single reference on the internet as to the possibility that Bogart and Hemingway did indeed meet—one item out of many checked. Of all 30 issues of the Hemingway Review, the flagship of Hemingway studies where one would expect to find such a bit of news, there is only a single mention of the film To Have and to Have Not (1944). The source of the alleged meeting is a website advertising “Casablanca [sic] Key West,” a fashionable watering place for upscale tourists: “During his stay Bogie frequently dined in what is now known as the [hotel’s] courtyard restaurant with Hemingway.” [italics added] http://www.keywestcasablanca.com.about/. NB. Whoever wrote what seems to be a promotional blurb, may in good conscience have believed that Hem and Bogie met at the Casablanca (formerly the Walton House) and hoisted a few brews together; but other than the promotional blurb, there is little evidence that such a meeting took place.

[6] Bogart: A Life in Hollywood, 1.

[7] Howard Koch, Casablanca: Script and Legend (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1995), 58.

[8] “Lois” lives on in the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, on which Casablanca was based, though with major changes. It was produced and staged in London in 1991, some fifty years after the couple--unsuccessfully--attempted to publish and produce it. The play was sold to Warner Brothers for $20,000 when the couple failed to find a producer.

[9]  http://www.humphreybogart.com/index.php/biography

[10] Harlan Lebo, Casablanca: Behind the Scenes (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 55.

[11]  Casablanca: Behind the Scenes, 55.

[12] Casablanca: Script and Legend, 187.

[13] Casablanca: Script and Legend, 109.

[14] Casablanca: Script and Legend, 223.

[15] Casablanca: Behind the Scenes, 56-57.

[16] Casablanca: Script and Legend, 58.

[17] Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1929, 1957). 280.

[18] Casablanca: Script and Legend, 60.

[19] Michael Walsh, As Time Goes By (New York: Warner Books, 1998).  125-126.

[20] A Farewell to Arms, 50. “

[21] Ernest Hemingway,  Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters: 1917-1961,  ed. Carlos Baker (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981) 480.

[22] Jeffrey Meyers, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood (New York: Fromm International, 1999), 132.

[23] As Time Goes By, 394.

[24] As Time Goes By, 397.

[25] Casablanca: Script and Legend, 131.

[26] Casablanca: Script and Legend, 98-99.

[27] There was one party, however, the POUM (Parti Obrer D’Uniificacio Marxista, or Workers Party of Marxist Unifiction) made up of far left communists (Trotzkyists) and a left peasants party that found itself at odds with the Popular Front because of its independent far left position. When the membership of the Barcelona-based POUM began to dramatically increase, the Stalinists saw it as a threat to their control and launched an attack on the POUM, Stalin’s secret police in Spain executed its leader Andreas Nin and others who were caught in the net  George Orwell, though critically wounded in the larger war against the Franco forces, managed to escape before he, too, would face a Stalinist firing squad.

[28] Casablanca: Script and Legend,  99-100.

[29] Casablanca: Script and Legend,, 222.

[30] Casablanca: Script and Legend, 223.

[31] Sidney Hook, Heresy, Yes. Conspiracy, No!  (New York: The John Day Company, 1953).  31.

[32] http://www.scribd.com/doc/35302058/FBI-Hollywood-Anti-Nazi-League

[33] David Caute, The Fellow Travelers: Intellectual Friends of Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 142.

[34] He and the other Hollywood Ten  were sentenced to a year and a day in jail in 1950 for contempt of Congress when they refused to answer questions as to whether they were members of the Communist Party. Many were indeed blacklisted from work in the Hollywood studios, and some exemplified the human toll taken by divorce, the break-up of life-long friendships, and slow suicide by alcoholism. Barred from writing, directing or producing, they were later clandestinely “rehired” to write scripts under pseudonymous credits, Dalton Trumbo, one of that number and one of the eponymous figures of that time.

But the narrative is not all that black-and-white. Many were blind to the atrocities of the “first workers state,”--Soviet Russia--even as seven million independent farmers perished in Stalin’s man-made famine. Thousands of courageous Russian dissidents were not just sent to jail for a year and a day, but sent off to slave labor camps in Siberia, to perish of overwork and malnutrition; Stalin’s purges accounted for the execution of thousands of evil Trotskyites and Right Deviationists who metastasized into millions of dead in what Robert Conquest called the “Great Terror.” Not one of the Hollywood Ten ever raised a voice in protest at those barbarities. If they were guilty of contempt of Congress, their more egregious guilt lay in their remaining silent in the face of communist totalitarianism and espionage, even after the revelations of the long-buried Venona papers were published. Some, like Dalton Trumbo, were even rehabilitated by a forgiving Hollywood and went on to make more films. Not so those Russian dissidents.

[35] Roger Ebert, “Casablanca at Fifty,” in: Casablanca: Script and Legend, 250-251.

[36] Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (New York: Simon and Schuster, A Touchstone Book, 1996), 211.

 

Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.



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