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Posted by in February's Magazine

The name won’t mean much to most people but Madeleine Lebeau had a pivotal role in one of the most famous scenes in Hollywood’s most famous movie. Long voted the best film ever made: Casablanca (1941).

It was one of the films that made Americans feel comfortable about entering World War II and was a high point in cinema creativity. Noah Isenberg’s recent book We’ll Always Have Casablanca tells of the making of the film and the reasons for its longevity and greatness.


One of the major fables surrounding Casablanca was how much less of a movie it might have been had it been made with a different cast and that Ronald Reagan was once considered for the Humphrey Bogart part. ‘The casting of Casablanca has long been the source of intense speculation’, writes Isenberg. ‘It started when Warner Brothers issued a red herring of a stop press announcement >>> Ronald Reagan [is to] co-star in a yarn of war refugees in French Morocco>>> ‘Reagan was never a serious contender, and in retrospect such doctored publicity items, quite common at the time, seem to have been aimed more at making boldfaced names out of lesser-known contract players than at disseminating reliable information’.

Isenberg suggests that had Reagan got the role in this movie his career might have gone stratospheric and he may never have gone into politics and not become president of the United States and the course that led to the fall of (some) communism might even have been different.

The plot of the film centres on the discordance of the Nazi occupation of Casablanca in French Morocco where European refugees wait and wait at Rick’s “gin joint” to receive papers (legal or counterfeit) in order to get to America via Lisbon.

On its release, Casablanca was seen as perfect on many grounds – a sophisticated and witty script full of tension, a great score by Max Steiner and rip-roaring performances from Bogart, Bergman, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Paul Henried, Claude Raines, Conrad Veidt and a flood of many sterling performances in lesser parts. Perhaps more than anything the film highlighted the importance of expert casting and conceivably what made the film so extraordinary was that it was not only about refugees but that many of the parts were played by German-speaking immigrants who had come to America for sanctuary from Hitler’s Nazism.

At the time, many of the director Michael Curtiz’s family were trapped in Hungary. Of course the film was a glamourised Hollywood version (Paul Henreid plays a refugee from a concentration camp yet wears an immaculate linen suit) yet the film has many resonances today when pitiful refugees from Africa, Syria and Myanmar are constantly in the news.

Rick’s Café Americain is a microcosm of Casablanca itself. A melting pot where…“everyone comes to Rick’s”. In its most celebrated scene, which runs on a loop in Berlin’s famous Film Forum, the Nazi officers, fortified by drink, burst into a rousing chorus of Die Wacht am Rhein a German patriotic song and the French patrons take umbrage.

The band, the gypsy guitarist, and even the floozy, played by Madeleine Lebeau (who has been seen earlier on the arm of the hated German Lieutenant Strasser), all join in in solidarity and drown out the Germans with the French national anthem The Marseillaise. The sequence ends with Lebeau, tears streaming down her face, declaiming “vive  , vive la démocratie.”

The film was made at the height of World War II and seemed to say that no matter how dark and hopeless things may seem evil will never win. Though Madeleine Lebeau’s part was small it was expertly cast. Her character is vulnerable, easily swayed but strongly patriotic to a fault. In November 2015 in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris a two-minute YouTube video of Lebeau’s rousing scene the ‘duel of anthems’, was shared by thousands to show solidarity with the victims.

Today the casting couch has come in for deserved criticism much to the annoyance of the Casting Society of America. Movie casting has long had a seedy reputation where young hopefuls attend the director or producer’s office (or hotel suite!) and succumb to the horrors of having to offer sexual favours to be considered for a role.

Good casting can make or break a movie. When, in the late 1930s, the groundbreaking Technicolor masterpiece Gone With the Wind was being made part of its publicity hype was the search for the actress who would play Scarlett O’Hara, a role every female Hollywood star at the time would have killed for. The part finally went to Vivien Leigh.

Casablanca lives on. It’s always in the top ten movies of all time lists. There was a forgettable 1983 TV version with David Soul in the Bogart role. And according to Imdb ‘Back in the early to mid-2000s Madonna wanted to remake Casablanca with her playing Ilsa Lund and Ashton Kutcher as Rick Blaine. Madonna pitched the idea to every studio but was unanimously rejected with one executive telling her. ‘That film is deemed untouchable.”


Info: We’ll Always Have Casablanca by Noah Isenberg (published by Faber £25)

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