The Refugees at Rick’s: Casablanca Turns 75

By Robin Jacobson. 

Seventy-five years ago this fall, the beloved Hollywood classic, Casablanca, first lit up American movie screens. Casablanca has enthralled generations of viewers with its stellar performances (by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains), iconic lines (“Round up the usual suspects,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris”), glamorous Moroccan setting at Rick’s Café Américain, and suspenseful love triangle (will Ilsa stay with soulmate Rick or leave Casablanca with husband Victor?).

Beneath the romance and intrigue, Casablanca is a story about frightened refugees. Sadly, that story feels especially relevant in 2017, as countless Syrians and others search for safe havens. Refugees are the focus of a new, fascinating film history, We’ll Always Have Casablanca, by Noah Isenberg, director of screen studies and professor of culture and media at the New School. Moreover, the book is a treasure trove of Casablanca lore, perfect for film fans.

The Inspiration for Casablanca

As Isenberg recounts, Casablanca was rooted in the perils faced by Jews in Nazi-occupied countries. In the summer of 1938, a young American Jewish couple, Murray and Frances Burnett, visited relatives in Belgium. Murray, a high school teacher, was also an aspiring playwright. The couple’s pleasure trip transformed into a risky mission when their relatives asked them to smuggle family money and precious items out of Austria, which had been annexed by the Nazis earlier that year.

Protected only by an American flag in Murray’s lapel, the Burnetts went to Vienna and collected the valuables. Flagrantly violating Nazi prohibitions against removing Jewish property, the couple departed Austria with Murray wearing diamond rings on every finger and Frances wrapped in a fur coat in August. After safely reaching the South of France, the Burnetts celebrated their derring-do at a nightclub near Nice. The patrons, a mix of refugees and military officers, spoke in a babble of foreign languages while an African American piano player from Chicago crooned jazz tunes. Taking in the exotic scene, Murray turned to Frances and exclaimed, “What a setting for a play!”

Two years later, Murray Burnett and co-author Joan Alison wrote Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The play was about a cynical American who owns a nightclub in Casablanca populated by refugees fleeing the Nazis. Unable to find a producer for the play, the writers’ agent sent it to Hollywood. With perfect timing, the play arrived at Warner Brothers on December 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. Recognizing the play’s potential as a war picture, the studio bought it, retitling it Casablanca.

The Émigré Movie Team

Although inspired by the plight of European Jews, Casablanca did not address Jewish persecution directly. Says Isenberg, “[O]n the Hollywood screen in 1942 . . . refugees would have to be stripped of any obvious ethnic or religious affiliations.” Nonetheless, the film was infused with the real life experiences of director Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian Jew who had relatives stranded in Europe, and the large émigré cast, including Jews and others who had personally experienced Nazi horrors.
During the famous scene in which freedom fighter Victor Lazlo leads the café patrons in a rousing rendition of the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, to drown out the German song of the Nazi officers, one American bit actor noticed tears streaming down the faces of the other actors. He recalled later, “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees.” They brought a raw emotion and urgency to Casablanca that still feels like a call to action 75 years later.