Should Casablanca be considered one of the greatest propaganda films as much as one as of the greatest romances?
This is the question that will be offered, along with award-winning Lillypilly Wines and canapés, to those attending a screening of the film as part of the Leeton Art Deco Festival on Friday 1 April from 7pm at The Roxy Theatre.
A critical success on its release, Casablanca continues to entertain audiences and appear in lists devoted to the greatest films and deservedly so. The Warner Brothers Studio talent of the day includes Humphrey Bogart in his first romantic lead and five-time Academy Award winner Michael Curtiz directing a film that captures the hallmarks of Hollywood studio film-making.
Casablanca is known to film buffs for its midget actors in the airport set and Bogart's improvised lines, including the oft-misquoted "Play it!" The film should also be known as propaganda and it has been argued that it played a role in US President Roosevelt's decision to end America's relationship with the Vichy government of Nazi-occupied France in 1943.
The original script had been written as a play by Murray Burnett in 1938 after he saw Nazis discriminating against a black piano player in Vienna. Warner Brothers producer Hal Wallis had been convinced to pay a record $20,000 in January 1942 for the unproduced play titled Everybody Comes to Rick's and the film had been rushed into production after Allied forces (but not yet the US) had occupied North Africa in November 1942.
Scriptwriter Howard Koch identified Casablanca as part of a trend of films with social themes in his memoir:
"Since Warners was leading this trend, it was natural that many of its writers were politically conscious. To one degree or another they were involved in the struggle against fascism, in whatever form it appeared, and in working for a more democratic society, economically and racially. Today the label applied to us would be left-wing, but all labels are suspect; the word we used at the time to define our political activities and organisations was progressive, regardless of differing party affiliations or lack of them."
The progressive politics of scriptwriter Koch would see him 'blacklisted' as a result of criticism by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. His role in the development of Casablanca saw the setting shifted from Lisbon.
If you ignore the romantic developments, Casablanca's plot sees Rick, whose “American” cafe is effectively an embassy for those fleeing occupation, become politicised against the Nazis. Near the beginning of the film Rick ignores the arrest of those actively resisting the Nazis in his bar, yet by the end he actively assists a Resistance leader modeled on Charles de Gaulle to reach the United States.
Academic Richard Klein has written that US President Roosevelt screened the recently released Casablanca for guests on the eve of 1943. Ten days later he became the first US President to travel by air while in office when he flew to Casablanca for a historic meeting with Winston Churchill. In August of 1943, the US shifted support from the Vichy-led government of Nazi-occupied France to the French National Committee of Liberation chaired by Charles de Gaulle.
Whether Casablanca influenced Roosevelt in his negotiations is an unresolved question but this can be seen as a key theme in the politics of the film. With the perspective offered to contemporary viewers by subsequent decades, it's interesting to see the US joining the fight against Nazism in 1943 as the start of a campaign that continues to this day as the US media continues to produce propaganda focusing on bringing freedom to oppressed people throughout the world.