Casablanca: A Lament and a Riposte on Its Seventieth Birthday

Steven Light

That Casablanca finished first several years ago in a poll of critics designed to select the greatest screenplays in the history of cinema is not altogether surprising. I wouldn’t place it this high. I might give a nod to Lubitsch’s Ninotchka or Naruse’s Floating Weeds or Ozu’s Late Spring. Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle has a film length voice-over narration which is invincible, but the film itself is a failure, which is to say that the screenplay fails. Nonetheless, Casablanca always charms me.

But there is a moment in the film which always rankles me. And despite the fact that white supremacy and anti-Black racism were at that time more profoundly rooted socio-historical, socio-psychological, and socio-linguistic structures than they are today, I’ve never been able to explain how this moment could have been placed in the film or even more why this moment was not expunged at some point prior to the film’s release. No matter how many times I might try to think it was a question of a “convention of the time”—and I don’t think it would have necessarily been a convention amongst those who wrote the screenplay—an explanation eludes me. Certainly the easy explanations don’t satisfy me or to whatever degree they do, they become exonerations and I don’t think there should be any exoneration here at all. Could I say that from one point of view or from one significant affective and one significant affective-ideational place within me this moment could vitiate my good will for the film? That it doesn’t really do so bothers me even though I understand the inescapable polyvalent simultaneity of human experience and of human thoughts and emotions.

Ilsa Lund has entered Rick’s club with her husband, Victor Laszlo. She sees Sam—whom she had known well in Paris—at the piano and wants him to come join her. She asks a waiter: “Could you ask the boy at the piano to come over here?” Doubtless, the point is obvious and perhaps so obvious that it will considered tedious. But the tedium will appear as such only to those caught in the vortex of cynical reason’s proliferations or in the vortex of that reactionary and delusional notionality held and trumpeted by right-wing opinion wherein all references to continuing or past socio-linguistic instantiations of domination, racism, and denigrations of African humanity are considered to be anachronistic and/or divisive. But the obviousness of the point in question is rendered neither null nor illegitimate just because there are a million other instances in past—and in present—cultural productions and in cinematic history where there are indignities and infelicities in relation to people of African ancestry, to people of color, etc. Still, no matter what prolepses, no matter what anticipations to objections in advance I might or have employed, I can immediately hear the inevitable retort to my displeasure at the existence in the film of the nominative, “boy”. According to this retort the nominative’s use was simply a function of the fact that the film dates from l942 (the film was proposed to Warner Brothers on December 8, l941). This inevitable retort is impatient—and pre-fabricated—because for it there is no matter to raise, no discussion to be had. Convention and past but not present history rule—and explain all.

But who in the United States in l942 used the word “boy” with reference to an African-American man? Millions certainly. More. It was conventional usage—and thereby the willed usage of domination—in the South and amongst millions of others in non-southern states and across class and ethnic lines too. Yet, it was not a universal convention and it was not a conventional usage amongst a significant portion of the country’s population, indeed in significant portions of the country and population it was understood as a pejorative, even a pejorative of the first order, and was condemned.

It must immediately be considered that the usage makes no sense at all given the character who utters it. Ilsa is someone with left-wing views (not liberal, but rather left-wing). These views would have as an important component a condemnation of ethnic and racial domination and prejudice (which is not to say that all leftists at the time, European or American—or at any time, past or present—were or have been immune from racism and prejudice or lapses in this regard). Her husband, Victor Laszlo, is, given his status as an anti-Nazi resistance leader, almost certainly a communist, if that is one were to extrapolate the most probable scenario from the film’s objective significations. And the man she is in love with is (or was) almost certainly a communist, given that he had been an American volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the majority of whose members were of communist affiliation), the American brigade within the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist army of Franco. Moreover, one could easily speculate that Sam himself was a Spanish Civil War volunteer and combatant, given that there were a significant number of African Americans who went to fight in Spain (or as in the case of several women, volunteered to serve as nurses there), and that it was in Spain that Rick and Sam formed their friendship (or maybe they even volunteered together and had already been friends in New York). Of course one could vis-a-vis the origin of the friendship of Sam and Rick also imagine that in l938, when the International Brigades were disbanded by the Spanish Republic (the Republic desperately hoping that this move could win them—impossible and naive hope—aid from western countries), Rick made his way to Paris and there met an expatriate American jazz musician, Sam, and that they became friends. I prefer to think they became friends in Spain—or even already in New York.

One wonders though how Rick, who would only have been arriving in Paris in late l938 or early l939, could have so quickly opened up a successful night-club and become so well-established—he drives an expensive convertible—in such a short amount of time and given that it is unlikely he was accumulating wealth at Jarama and elsewhere while in Spain . It is important to note that while Sam worked in Rick’s club in Paris and works in his club in Casablanca, they are not strictly employer and employee. They drink together, they socialize together, they travel together, they go fishing together, they commiserate together, etc.—which is precisely what friends, indeed, fellow combatants do. Quite simply then, racist pejoratives such as “boy” would not have been in usage and would not have been tolerated in the value-structure of the community and culture and dyadic and triadic friendship that Rick and Sam and Ilsa inhabited and had constituted for themselves in Paris—and no matter the weight of racism and white supremacy upon the generalized American and international culture of the l930s and l940s and even upon those opposed to racism and domination. An additional prolepsis: certainly when Ilsa asks the waiter in Rick’s cafe if he could call the “boy” over she would be speaking in French “in reality”. And in French the word for waiter is “garçon” (boy). But to argue that therefore “in reality” she was saying “garçon” and not “boy” and that “boy” was just a mistranslation of “waiter” becomes an exercise in evasion on several levels. If we want to imagine that the “script” was written as an imagined “English” version of the “reality” of the polyglot reality of Rick’s cafe where the predominant French would have also been surrounded by German, English, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Norwegian, Amharic, Berber, etc. etc. then “waiter” not “boy” would have certainly been chosen if “garçon” were to have been the nominative chosen by Ilsa although certainly she would not have chosen “garcon” for the very good reason that Sam was obviously not a waiter but precisely Ilsa’s friend—and a pianist and singer. “Si vous plaît, pouvez-vous demander le pianiste de me joindre?” “Sir, could you ask the piano player if he might join me here?” But in fact and in reality the script is heard by an audience in the context of all the significations that the word “boy” would have held at the time—and still holds. If we want to imagine that the script is a “translation” then the “original” word in French used by Ilsa would have to have been a French racist pejorative that could appropriately be translated as “boy” in English. But it is extremely doubtful that Ilsa would have been using such a French (or Swedish! or Czech!) term. In short and definitively the scriptwriters chose “boy” in its American context and signification and this cannot be explained away.

Consequently, since the term “boy” is a significant—certainly a very likely—non-sequitur in terms of the socio-logic and cultural and existential logics of the characters and of the film’s signifying itineraries, how did it get into the script and how did it remain in the script? It is true that there might well have been some in the population of writers and producers of the film for whom the term in question would have been considered conventional and for whom it might well have even been a term in play in their own everyday or intermittent usage. I would add that there certainly must have been those with automatic or ingrained racist prejudices and notions—whether of a weak or even of a strong kind—amongst the population of those who made the film. Warner Brothers was a studio that made—relative to other studios at the time—a share of mildly “socially conscious” films, but I would not at all assume that a Jack Warner or others in the studio’s hierarchy would have been immune from prejudice, racism, and the socio-linguistic realities that would have accompanied these dispositions and sensibilities. But nonetheless even among this possible group there could well have been the understanding that one’s own usage ought not to go into a film-script. And there would have been many others for whom this usage even in private, personal circumstances would have been considered improper or even abhorrent. And again, even if this term would have been appropriate at the level of verisimilitude in relation to the really-existing-conventions of the time, nonetheless it was not at all appropriate for the specific characters and characterological essences in this specific film.

Did no one amongst the cast object? If they did it obviously had no effect, although, given the fragmented nature—the temporal and spatial divisions of labor—of film production, and given that Dooley Wilson is not in the scene, only Ingrid Bergman and the actor portraying the waiter, perhaps the term wasn’t heard by many during the production process. But it would have been heard by all those present during the viewing of rushes. Would Dooley Wilson have objected if he knew? Could he have, given the tenuous and precarious status and existence of African American actors in the Hollywood of the time—and given that this was without question a preeminent and substantial role in a mainstream film for an African American actor, singer, and pianist? He certainly could have had he known prior to the film’s release. But he cannot be condemned if he did not. He might have been risking everything if he had. But it is possible or even likely that he never saw the whole script and didn’t even know of the usage till the film appeared. And at that point he would have undoubtedly rolled his eyes for the millionth time in his life in recognition of the absolute abjection of the American social order and socio-culture. And Bergman herself, would she have understood what she was saying? Would the director Michael Curtiz, an emigre from Budapest? I say yes and not simply because they had both already been in the States long enough to have learned. Anti-Black and anti-African racism and their socio-culture and significations were global—from the start. And the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch who were the credited co-authors of the script? Shouldn’t their circumstance, belonging as they did to an ethnic minority which also suffered domination, indignity, and prejudice in the American and global context—and which minority at the time was in Europe suffering a cataclysm—have provided a greater probability that they would and could have known better? Obviously they didn’t know better. But I for my part don’t want to simply shrug my shoulders at this….

Slavoj Žižek has written about the inevitable question that arises—and which he turns into one more of the paradoxological figures of which he is fond, but of which he is too often, notwithstanding his capabilities, not the master—as to whether upon Ilsa’s second nocturnal visit to Rick’s apartment upstairs from the club, they became intimate. It seems to me incontestable, although I understand that this circumvents and puts the brakes to the Žižekian paradoxology and its signifying resonances. But it is one of the least interesting aspects of the film. There are rather other threads to pull. Wouldn’t Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo, upon reaching the U.S., have been rendered useless vis-a-vis resistance work, unless he were to be parachuted into Yugoslavia or Greece or France or Italy, etc. to serve as an OSS link to the partisan resistance in these countries? Or would he have been able to work in the U.S. as a provider to the OSS of information to help coordination efforts between the OSS and the various resistance and partisan struggles? But it is fanciful—and absurd—to think that there ever could have been a Victor Laszlo character with knowledge of the “resistance leaders” in a host of cities which Colonel Strasser imputes to him. Resistance networks were even on local no less national levels invariably compartmentalized. And wouldn’t Vichy have simply arrested him on the spot? Yes, the Vichy authorities in Casablanca would certainly have arrested him on the spot.

There are of course other infelicities in the plot and in the dialogue beyond the major one which has given rise to this essay. In a Paris sequence (the Germans now but a day away from the city), Rick, Ilsa, and Sam drink champagne and Sam says: “This takes the sting out of being occupied!”. I can’t conceive that on such a terrible occasion this particular character, whether he were in fact a Spanish Civil War veteran—and scarcely two years removed from combat—or an expatriate jazz singer and pianist (or both) would say something so insouciant or even ridiculous at such a moment, and all the more since champagne would have been a commonplace in the period immediately preceding this catastrophic end to the nine month “drôle de guerre” which would have constituted at least half, if not more than half, of the possible duration of Rick’s and Sam’s Parisian club, indeed their refuge and sojourn in Paris. I think it unfortunate that the screenwriters gave this line to Sam and I don’t think this choice is necessarily free of possible, of possibly unfortunate significations. Moreover, when Victor Laszlo and Rick engage in a dialog about Rick’s previous vehement political engagements, the screenwriters have Rick say, cynically, that he was well-paid to go fight in Spain. He never would have said this even in his present cynical and despairing state for the simple reason that both he and Laszlo would have known very well that International Brigadists were paid almost nothing at all if even they were paid in the first place. Still further: when Rick goes to see Signor Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) to complete his deal regarding the sale of his club to Ferrari, Rick says he cares no more about Ugarte’s arrest and execution than does Ferrari. It is false. The film had already depicted his grief about this in the scene in his upstairs apartment the evening after Ilsa first appears in the club. “One in, one out” he mutters in despair referring to the arrival of Ilsa and the death of Ugarte (Peter Lorre). And he brings his fist down on the table in anguish. I don’t think he would have completely disavowed or dissimulated this feeling in front of Ferrari, even if it were simply a question of a false insouciance thought to be necessary in speaking to someone who is not an intimate—or even a false and shared insouciance thought to be necessary either for the sake of form or even more discretion. The earlier scene with Ugarte is in certain respects the best in the film with its depiction of that kind of special resonance we find in all moments, cinematic or existential, of intersubjective and reciprocal recognition—in this moment when Rick says having learned that it is Ugarte who has killed the Nazi couriers (it is only later in the film that we are able to infer the full depth of Rick’s admiration for this bold anti-fascist act, no matter that in Peter Lorre’s case the act has more monetary and less political motives), “Yes, I do now have more regard for you.” No, Rick wouldn’t have in this case with Ferrari had recourse to this particular kind of insouciance.

Yes, I know, one could find inconsistencies and infelicities a myriad of times over in this film and in any film. But the American vernacular denigration given Ilsa to say is not a mere infelicity. It rings in the film louder than the Marseillaise. It stings to hear it and no champagne—or charm—can assuage the sting.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Casablanca: A Lament and a Riposte on Its Seventieth Birthday

  1. Marjorie Perloff

    CASABLANCA is a Hollywood film–I once met the two rather crass writers who more or less threw it together–and makes no sense at all kinds of levels. (1) The “boy” comment is ridiculous because Ilsa is a European and Europeans didn’t call black men “boy”–strictly an American and especially Southern usage. (2) Viktor Lazlo is not at all meant to be a Communist; he talks like a good old American patriot fighting the Nazis, (3) the reference to Rick fighting in Spain is a note of radical chic–appropriate for the Hollywood of the time but, as you point out, meaningless. And what did Ilsa live on in Paris when Viktor was imprisoned? Champagne?
    The “boy” line stands out like a sore thumb because a Scandinavian woman, walking into that bar, as the wife of the resistance fighter, would not have started giving orders–“Play it, Sam!” –and so on. But I guess the question is: given all these problems, why is it such a famous and enjoyable movie?

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