Humphrey Bogart will always have Paris!


What Yevtushenko said: Has it really been eighty years since Casablanca appeared?

Actually no, it hasn't. According to the leading authority on the topic, "the film premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City on November 26, 1942."

According to the same source, the famous film "went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between Churchill and Roosevelt."  

It hasn't been 80 years just yet, but TCM is showing the film in some big-screen theaters this week, jumping the gun a tad. In the Washington Post, Dave Kindy has recalled the film in a short essay which has already generated well over 2,000 comments.

As Kindy recalls, Casablanca remains the most mysterious of our great films; it's the unmistakably great film which wasn't intended as such. It wasn't expected to be a great film. This factor help animate the ongoing quest to explain its magic, its never-ending significance.

What makes Casablanca so great? Different people say different things. For ourselves, we'll offer a few tiny points:

Casablanca a stunningly well-wrought portrait of the so-called "human condition."  Also, it wonderfully mocks the gloomy existentialism which had been the calling card of high Europe—of the Kierkegaards and the Sartres, even later of a figure like Camus—down through the annals of time.

In fairness, high Europe had plenty to be gloomy about as of the time Casablanca appeared on the screen. Europe was experiencing the disaster og Nazism in a way we Americans weren't, not even out there in Hollywood.

That said, the film captures and mocks the existential crisis—the crisis of "the absurd"—right from its opening moments. Everyone is trapped in Casablanca, a city from which there's no way out. They gather in Rick's Cafe to dance and sing, but they know there's no solution to the human dilemma.

At that point, the mocking humor of the comedically brilliant Julius and Philip Epstein takes over. This may be the cleverest movie script of all time. The final use of the immortal repeated phrase, "Round up the usual suspects," must be the greatest moment of intentional humor found anywhere on the planet.

Along the way, we get to see a semi-heroic portrait of human behavior in the face of vast impending evil. At Rick's Cafe, we human beings really want to sing and gamble and gambol and play:

We human beings just wanna have fun, until you finally push us too far:

At that point, we'll stand and fight, and sing the Marseillaise. We'll stand behind the heroic leader who is right there in our midst.

Do we in this country still know how to do something like? We've become so fragmented by our many identity groups that the answer is far from clear. There's nothing "wrong" with any of these groups, but it isn't clear that a very large modern nation can hope to succeed with so many such identity groups. The forces pulling people apart defeat those pulling a nation together. 

Casablanca is very funny, and it's deeply insightful—and that works in several ways. On the one hand, it's a movie about saving the world. But it's also a movie about three little people, whose problems amount to something much more than a mere hill of beans.

As we read through the comments to Kindy's piece, we were struck by this remark by Indyagnostic:

COMMENT: I guess that I'm the only one who fell asleep during the movie. But then I didn't like the Beatles either. I've tried watching it again, but it's a movie where everyone loses. Depressing.

Is Casablanca a movie where everyone loses? In part, we'll assume that means that Humphrey Bogart loses Ingrid Bergman, and perhaps that Ingrid Bergman loses him.

But along the way, something extremely important happens. Near the end of the film, the Bogart character gets to say this:

"We'll always have Paris."

What has happened has given Rick Blaine the story of his own life back. This allows him to return to the fight—to be himself again.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." The late Joan Didion said that.

Some of the stories we tell ourselves are about our own lives. But some of the stories we tell ourselves are about the worth and the value of other people and other people's lives.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Yevtushenko recommended a story which starts like this:

No people are uninteresting.

No people are uninteresting, Yevtushenko said. 

Presumably, that would include the people who voted for Donald J. Trump. At these times of ugly tribal loathing, we recommend the poet's tale.


  1. I saw the film in the early seventies and as I kid, I had only a faint grasp of the historical backdrop of its events. The College audience laughed and cheered along with gusto.
    You have to wonder if an audience today would get it at all, or if the temporarily amoral Louie could be forgiven. But, time get’s everything, you have to feel a little sorry those who can’t get it enough to enjoy it.

  2. Somerby might have understood both Casablanca and post-war Europe better if he had been a literature major instead of studying philosophy. He imposes some misunderstandings on the film today:

    "Also, it wonderfully mocks the gloomy existentialism which had been the calling card of high Europe—of the Kierkegaards and the Sartres, even later of a figure like Camus—down through the annals of time."

    First, Camus and Sartre did not represent "high Europe". They were more part of a counter-culture, occupying positions that were not popular nor representative of mainstream Europe, much less high culture of that time. They later won Nobel prizes for their writing and neither much wanted that honor.

    Camus and Sartre were both political activists, very involved in anti-colonialist and fringe politics, not the political mainstream. Both worked in the resistance in France during the war. That is NOT high Europe.

    Wikipedia says of Sartre:

    "Sartre remained a simple man with few possessions, actively committed to causes until the end of his life, such as the May 1968 strikes in Paris during the summer of 1968 during which he was arrested for civil disobedience. President Charles de Gaulle intervened and pardoned him, commenting that "you don't arrest Voltaire".[88]"

    It is in retrospect that we understand the contributions of both Sartre and Camus. I don't know much about Kierkegaard but my understanding is that he was different. He was Danish and he died in 1855. He may have been reflected by high Europe but he was very different than Sartre or Camus in his life.

    Cont. below

  3. Here is a review of high culture in the 1940s & immediately after, what might be termed "high Europe". Note that Germany was the center of culture prior to Hitler's rise. The war disrupted everything, as noted below:

    "Racked by economic problems, shaken by internal crises and shifting alliances, reviled by the far left and the far right, successive centrist governments struggled ahead for another 10 years. Although politically precarious, the Weimar Republic nonetheless witnessed and helped to foster an extraordinary explosion of creative talent, notably in the arts.

    Wassily Kandinsky and Max Ernst in painting, Bruno Walter in music, Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt in the theatre, Walter Gropius in architecture, Albert Einstein in physics, Erwin Panofsky in art history, Ernst Cassirer in philosophy, Paul Tillich in theology, Wolfgang Köhler in psychology, Fritz Lang in films—all these became household names, partly because every one of them took refuge abroad after Hitler came to power in 1933.

    All, in their various ways, were part of the cosmopolitan “Modern movement” that pervaded the whole of Europe. Kandinsky was a typical example. Born in Russia, he learned a great deal from French Fauves such as André Derain and Henri Matisse, then settled in Munich, where he developed his own characteristic style. German Expressionist theatre and cinema, likewise, drew inspiration from abroad, in particular from Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Germany was equally influenced by Austrians: Sigmund Freud in psychiatry, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler in the theatre, and Karl Kraus in the press. In architecture the clean, functional lines of Gropius’ Bauhaus school found imitators throughout Europe.

    Like all such phenomena, the Modern movement was not wholly novel. Many of its practitioners and their artifacts had predated or coincided with World War I. Even Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurism, so dominant in 1920s Italy, was a relic of the prewar past.

    But the mood after 1918 was no longer so euphoric as at the beginning of the century. Before the war, the French novelist André Gide and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had exchanged letters in leisurely French like two survivors from the 18th century. After it, following a six-year silence, Rilke wrote of “the crumbling of a world,” and both complained of the complications caused by passports and frontier formalities, looking back nostalgically to the carefree “journeys of long ago.”

    The postwar world, as seen by writers and other artists, had the fragmentary, disillusioned quality of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922. It was self-conscious and introspective, as in Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author. It was more open to the unconscious, as in Dada and Surrealism. It was more aware of man’s dark fears and instincts, as in Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926). It was more responsive to the appeal of “the primitive,” whether in African sculpture or in jazz—the quintessential art of the 1920s, which also influenced mainstream music, notably in the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek’s 1927 opera Jonny spielt auf (“Johnny Strikes up the Band”).

    No less pervasive, however, was the brittle hedonism typified by the gossip-column antics of the “Bright Young Things.” They were not wholly isolated. Already in 1918 Thomas Mann had published his Reflections by an Unpolitical Man; this was a mental label thankfully worn by many who, after the rigours of war, were eager to pursue private happiness, whether in metropolitan society or in placid suburbia. The Europe of Weimar also was the Europe of the detective story and the crossword puzzle. Both were analgesics at a time of political uncertainty and economic disquiet."

  4. "Along the way, we get to see a semi-heroic portrait of human behavior in the face of vast impending evil. At Rick's Cafe, we human beings really want to sing and gamble and gambol and play..."

    Again, Somerby misunderstands what is happening in the film, perhaps because he doesn't know much about the details of WWI. The people in Rick's cafe are not all there to have fun.

    First, Casablanca is occupied by the Germans, with local power such as police collaborating with German officers. Their sympathies are not with the Germans but they have surrendered and have few other options. The entertainment at Rick's cafe is to serve the Germans who are there to party. The rest of the people are there to connect with each other and conduct underground business of various sorts. Some are seeking exit visas and transit passes. Some are trying to sell goods to support themselves during an uncertain time. Some are there to engage in resistance subversion of German activities -- the Laszlos, for example. Rick himself opposed the Germans and fled following the fall of Paris, ahead of the German occupation. He was just trying to make money and survive until the end of the war, neutral to the Germans who were his wealthy and powerful customers. He tried to keep a lid on the various other activities going on around the oblivious Germans, cooperating with the police and trying to stay neutral.

    In the film, there is no joy, no enjoyment, no fun in the depicted activities of the others besides the Germans at Rick's cafe.

    At the conclusion of the film, Rick stops being neutral and looking out only for himself but recognizes the need of all to get involved in the war. He sends Ilsa back to her husband in order to sustain Victor's resistance efforts, realizing that he might collapse without her love and support, and he is important to the anti-German war effort. His is an act of self-sacrifice, but also of support for the war. He then recognizes that he cannot remain in Casablanca, nor can his compromised chief of police who aided him in helping Laszlo escape, so they both join the foreign legion, which is helping to fight Germany in North Africa. He goes from being neutral to being involved in the War.

    That is why this is an example of a wartime propaganda film, in addition to its other merits.

    Somerby's failure to see that there is no revelry among the occupied people is startling, but as always, he uses other people's work to further his own arguments, whether it fits the author's intended message or not.

    Somerby corrupts the story told in Casablanca in order to tell his own preferred story about human beings. The complexities that exist now are no less complex than those existing in Casablanca or in Europe prior to and during WWII. That's because people are complex and they disagree, they engage in conflicts. Fortunately, democracy and other approaches to conflict resolution manage to prevent wars like that in the film. Somerby has never understood that. He keeps working on people's feelings, trying to change their attitudes, when it is the protection of ways of making group decisions, resolving conflicts that needs his focus. Democracy prevents civil war. When democracy is threatened, our entire way of life is threatened with it, our own national peace. That's why Somerby's support for The Others, and conservatives who are attempting to manipulate and even do away with democracy, is so destructive. Somerby is embracing the forces represented by Hitler's Germany in the film, not those of Rick, the Laszlos, and the usual suspects.

    1. typo: details of WWII.

    2. Thanks for clarifying how wrong Somerby gets the film.

      Somerby also misunderstands how society functions and the role of having a nation.

      Somerby: "We've become so fragmented by our many identity groups"

      This is such an ass backward assertion. We are fragmented because a single dominant group oppresses various other groups. We are fragmented by oppression, not by identity. We are fragmented by our capitalistic economy as well, as it functions to divide people into the 1%, which holds in excess of 60% of the wealth, and the rest of us.

      Somerby: "it isn't clear that a very large modern nation can hope to succeed with so many such identity groups."

      Nations exist to resolve conflicts between people. Trying to unite a nation into a single identity is a fascist ideal. Nations that are progressive seem to be succeeding well; Somerby does not even try to bolster his nonsense assertion with evidence.

    3. You had me until you said this: "wartime propaganda film"

      Wrong. By 1942 few Americans had to be sold the idea that the war against the Nazis was critical.

      They needed no "propaganda."

    4. But they were still trying to sell war bonds.

    5. Trying to sell war bonds is hardly "propaganda," fool. And it has nothing to do with this movie as well.

    6. The propaganda is meant to encourage people to buy the bonds. Do we have to explain everything to you? And the year during which the movie was released was during the war, so they were selling war bonds in the theatres during that time. After watching the rousing patriotism of Bogart, folks would feel better about buying the bonds sold in the lobby.

  5. "No people are uninteresting, Yevtushenko said."

    Actually, this is what his translator said. We do not know whether "uninteresting" is the right word, the meaning he intended in Russian, without being able to read Russian ourselves.

    The better translation might have been "No people are insignificant" or "No people are unimportant" or "No people lack value" or "No people are without impact on others" or "All people matter in the eyes of those around them".

    This sentence is taken entirely out of context. The context might have provided a way of figure out what sense the poet intended. It could be interest as significance or interest as uniqueness or interest as having value. Somerby doesn't tell us. He assumes the phrase fits his own understanding. He never worries what the author might have meant by it.

    Given how different Yevtushenko and Somerby's circumstances were, I doubt he meant whatever Somerby is attributing to his words. Given the way Somerby talks about Maddow, I doubt Somerby even likes people much. I think he uses them to promote ideas that are counter to anyone's best interests. I hope he is getting paid for that, since it would be worse to think he writes tripe here for personal reasons. In the same sense, the German Nazis who were just following orders are better morally than those who were sadists and enjoyed their work, in my opinion. The same metric applies to Somerby.

    1. “ The same metric applies to Somerby..”

      So this is what you tell yourself when you’re cashing your checks, Anonymouse 2:22pm.

  6. Whew! Camus? Sartre? Bob reminds me of the narrator of Pale Fire.
    It takes something to drag down the average intelligence level of film criticism, while keeping up the level of pretentiousness.

  7. Aljean Harmetz’s “Round Up The Usual Suspects” is a very fine book on Casablanca. Bob’s comment about existentialism sounds awful right wing know nothingesque. Big surprise.

  8. There you have it. The consensus of our many, all totally different commenters with distinct writing styles is that Bob is an uninformed pretend liberal!

    1. Not a Rationalist SockJanuary 24, 2022 at 4:24 PM


    2. It doesn’t really matter if Bob is liberal or conservative. He could be either and do a good job at what he claims he wants to do. It’s not that hard to insist on fair play for people you disagree with or don’t like. He just, for some reason, forgot about all that.

    3. Rationalist, why are you so concerned with counting how many commenters there are here, and entirely unconcerned with what any of us say? And by the way, you sound a lot like AC/MA, who has the same preoccupation.

    4. Interesting, ir-rationalist, because the only mention of the word “liberal” prior to your comment was in Mao’s comment, disagreeing with Somerby. Did you even read the comments?

  9. Why ruin your comments with a reference to Trump? You want tolerance for a mob, which gets you less than zero--by any measurement.

  10. “No people are uninteresting, Yevtushenko said.

    Presumably, that would include the people who voted for Donald J. Trump.”

    They aren’t necessarily uninteresting, but they make terrible indefensible decisions that I loathe.

  11. In all reports on Casablanca, always left out - and not surprising -- was that Rick was - maybe still was -- a communist - who else went to fight in the Spanish Civil War? Maybe even a Stalin fan until Stalin did his deal with Hitler. Can that explain his disillusionment along with so many others? Orwell as a Rick clone or vice versa?