Valentine’s Day: Examining the Jewish influences on ‘Casablanca’

Click photo to download. Caption: The original theatrical release poster for "Casablanca" (1942). Credit: Bill Gold/Warner Bros. via Wikimedia Commons.

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

On Feb. 14 each year, many Americans attend screenings of “Casablanca,” rent the movie, or view it in another way for Valentine’s Day. As time goes by, the Jewish influences on the Oscar-winning 1940s romantic film become more apparent. 

Jews involved in the production of “Casablanca” include Murray Burnett, the author of the play on which the movie was based, director Michael Curtiz, screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein and Howard Koch, producer Hal Wallis, composer Max Steiner, and actor Peter Lorre (born László Löwenstein).

“Burnett wrote the play before World War II began,” James Pontuso, author of the book “Political Philosophy Comes to Rick’s: Casablanca and American Civic Culture,” tells JNS.org. “This was a warning to Americans about what was happening. America was an isolationist country. We didn’t want to get involved in Europe, especially after World War I. In October 1941, in response to the Nazi invasion of France, the United States House of Representatives came within one vote of disbanding the U.S. army. That was our response to World War II. Burnett was warning people. He was saying, ‘Look, you Americans need to get ready. This guy (Hitler) is after you too.’”

According to Hollywood journalist and film historian Aljean Harmetz, Burnett as a 27-year-old English teacher at a New York vocational high school went to German-occupied Vienna in the summer of 1938 to help Jewish relatives smuggle out money. He returned to the United States with the idea for an anti-Nazi play in which an embittered saloonkeeper helps a crusading Czech newspaper editor escape from Casablanca, Morocco, with the woman the saloonkeeper loves.

When Burnett could not find a Broadway producer for  ”Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” which he co-wrote with Joan Alison, “the play was sold to Warner Brothers for $20,000 and the title was changed to ‘Casablanca,’” Harmetz wrote in the New York Times.

Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, “Casablanca” won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1943, and Curtiz won the Oscar for best director.

Curtiz was born Kertész Kaminer Manó to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. He was fond of telling tall tales about his early life, including that he had run away from home to join the circus and that he had been a member of the Hungarian fencing team at the 1912 Olympics. In reality, Curtiz had a conventional middle-class upbringing; he studied at Markoszy University and the Royal Academy of Theater and Art in Budapest before beginning his career as an actor and director, working under the name Mihály Kertész, at the National Hungarian Theater in 1912. 

“Casablanca,” Pontuso tells JNS.org, “was meant to be a warning, but it also ended up being a film that captured the American character.”

“It was saying America has to be responsible for what is going on in the world, and we didn’t want to do that,” explains Pontuso, the Patterson Professor of Government & Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College. “We were above European politics. Take Bogart’s Rick character. At the beginning he is self-centered and then at the end he is an idealist. If you threaten natural rights, if you threaten my ability to live as I want, you better be careful of Americans, like Rick at the end.” 

Broadcaster and online journalism pioneer Eliot Stein—who has reported for CBS, NBC, Mutual, the Associated Press, United Press International, and USA Radio Network—interviewed “Casablanca” screenwriters Howard Koch and Julius Epstein in 1995. It was Koch’s final interview; he died shortly thereafter.

“When America got into World War II, one of the first things that happened was Washington, DC sent emissaries to Hollywood to meet with the heads of the studios, including Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and his brothers, and Daryl Zanuck,” Stein tells JNS.org. “They told the heads of the studios, ‘We need you. Through your motion pictures, through the newsreels, the shorts like the Three Stooges and the cartoons. We need you to promote America’s involvement in World War II....We need to be in World War II.’”

In the movie industry’s early days, major corporations “didn’t want to get involved,” but Jews “had visions that this film thing was going to be huge,” according to Stein.

“They got involved in the business and creative ends, and it has stayed that way,” Stein says. “There is a strong Jewish influence and agenda in ‘Casablanca.’”

One of the driving forces behind “Casablanca,” Stein added, was its producer, Hal Wallis. Born in 1898 in Chicago to Eva and Jacob Walinsky, Eastern European Jews who changed their surname to Wallis, Hal’s family moved in 1922 to Los Angeles, and in 1923 he found work as part of the publicity department at Warner Brothers. Within a few years, he got involved in the production end of the business and eventually became head of production at Warner Bros. In a career that spanned more than 50 years, he was involved in the production of more than 400 feature films.

“Hal Wallis’s work was influenced by his Jewish background. He went through anti-Semitism in his life and discrimination. He had a driving desire that this film was going to be made and be great,” Stein says.

One author claims that even the leading lady in “Casablanca,” Ingrid Bergman, may have had Jewish family ties. According to Charlotte Chandler, author of “Ingrid: Ingrid Bergman, A Personal Biography,” after her father’s death, Ingrid was sent to live with an aunt, who died of heart disease only six months later. 

“She then moved in with her Aunt Hulda and Uncle Otto, who had five children,” Chandler writes. “Another aunt she visited, Elsa Adler, first told Ingrid, when she was 11, that her mother may have ‘some Jewish blood,’ and that her father was aware of that fact long before they married. But her aunt also cautioned her about telling others about her possible ancestry as ‘there might be some difficult times coming.’”

The ending of “Casablanca”—when Bogart urges Bergman to get on the plane—continues to be a subject of debate. Most critics agree that the ending implies what course should be taken in the difficult times that were coming. Stein says the producers wanted audiences to walk away believing that there is a greater cause than personal satisfaction.

What accounts for the continuing popularity of “Casablanca?”

“It captures the American character in many ways,” Pontuso tells JNS.org. “We don’t like being a world power. But who else is going to do it? Because of Hitler we had to take on world responsibilities. We do it, but only because we have to. It’s the greatest American film. It shows we’re willing to fight for the right reasons.”

Stein says that while viewers enjoy the romance of “Casablanca,” standing up against evil—of the past or present—remains an important message conveyed by the film.

“They wanted audiences to feel that we must pull together to defeat evil, meaning the Nazis,” Stein says. “It’s an inspiring movie.”

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Posted on February 8, 2014 and filed under Arts, Features, U.S..