If there is a more iconic, more remembered, more quoted American film than “Casablanca,” I can’t imagine what it is. What is less frequently remarked upon is how very Jewish the film is, not surprising given that the director Michael Curtiz (born Manó Kertész Kaminer) was a Hungarian Jew and that the screenwriters were Philip and Julius Epstein and Howard Koch.
Undoubtedly film historian Noah Isenberg will remark on that fact when he gives a talk, “‘Casablanca’ at 70,” at the Center for Jewish History.
The Jewishness of the film is tightly entwined with the history of its making. Warner Brothers, the studio that made and released the film, was the most open of all the Hollywood majors about ethnicity. Its firm orientation towards the backstage musical, the crime film and the urban melodrama and comedy meant that its films were frequently set in milieus in which Jews were highly visible as everything from cab drivers to chorus girls. (Compare WB’s ’30s output to the rural-based films that were the standard fare at Fox or the dazzling high-art patina of Paramount.) The studios’ big stars were city types like Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and John Garfield, all of them Jews.
More important, the Warners themselves were the only studio moguls to enthusiastically embrace FDR and the New Deal and to espouse a vaguely progressive social message in their films. Long before TV crime show producer Dick Wolf was born, WB was ripping its stories from the headlines with films like “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and “Black Legion.” With the rising tide of Fascism in Europe, some kind of collision was inevitable. When the head of their Berlin film exchange was beaten to death by stormtroopers, the Warners retaliated with “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939).
“Casablanca,” then, has yiches (Jewish pedigree) to burn. It also has a cast that is composed largely of refugees from the Nazis: Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Marcel Dalio, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, Ludwig Stossel, Lotte Palfi Andor, Helmut Dantine, Ilka Grűning and Curt Bois. Of that group, at least five — Dalio, Lorre, Sakall, Stossel and Palfi Andor — were Jews. And several of the cast and crew were either blacklisted (Koch and Henreid) or were active opponents of the Congressional witch-hunt against Hollywood; the most prominent of them was Bogart. It is said that in the famous scene in which the singing of “Le Marseillaise” drowns “Die Wacht am Rhein,” most of the cast members’ tears were real.
Finally, though, I think it’s the film’s sly, bracingly cynical humor, alternating with the wholeheartedly earnest patriotic sloganeering like hot and cold showers, that makes “Casablanca” both an enduring joy, endlessly rewatchable, and very Jewish.
“‘Casablanca’ at 70,” a screening and discussion with Noah Isenberg, takes place Wednesday, Nov. 7 at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.) at 6 p.m. For information, call (212) 294-8301 or go to www.cjh.org.