Rebel Art Fridays: Radical Decency in the Face of Fascism

In 1938, Murray Burnett, a high school English teacher from New York, took a trip with his wife to Vienna, which, following the annexation of Austria by Germany earlier that same year, had fallen under Nazi control.

Burnett, Jewish, was shocked by the “indescribable horror” of the already robust Nazi presence in Vienna. He observed vile propaganda papering the city, posters with ugly  Jewish caricatures, the words “murderer” and “thief” slapped across them, and later recalled the militant atmosphere of Vienna as an ominous, “city of marching feet.”

Burnett returned to America consumed by “the white heat of anger … at stupid people who refused to acknowledge that Hitler and Nazism were a threat.”

He set out to write an anti-Nazi play, and wound up collaborating with co-author Joan Alison to write a script about a cynical American, navigating the rising tide of fascism in a little gin joint along the North African coast, called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”Everybody Comes to Ricks

At the time the play was written in the late 1930’s, fascism was rearing its head in Europe, but large swaths of the United States had retreated into obstinate isolationism. Congress was working to tie President Roosevelt’s hands at every turn with the Neutrality Acts, and a sizable percentage of Americans were simply unwilling to sacrifice much, if anything, to confront the growing fascist threat.

In that climate, Murray Burnett’s 1938 passion project was the definition of Rebel Art: bold, insistent and subversive … and exceedingly unlikely to ever see the bright lights of Broadway.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and suddenly Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s little play  became a hot commodity, the movie rights for “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” selling to Warner Bros. for a then-record $20,000.

The resulting film, of course, was “Casablanca,” a towering classic of American cinema, but also, in its own way – and despite being the ultimate big studio Hollywood production – an inspiring, enduring, and endlessly instructive, piece of Rebel Art.


Casablanca POster

“Casablanca” was rushed into production mere months after Pearl Harbor, and conceived, developed, and shot in what must have been an intensely patriotic fervor. As a result of that backdrop, it is hardly a nuanced piece of art, but rather a behemoth of broad, sweeping moral certainty.

And that, for me at least, is one key way in which “Casablanca” is instructive in our difficult present.

We’ve been trained for years to reject sentimental bromides and cliches, to challenge and chip away at expressions of absolute moral certainty. But when society is up against an utterly immoral and shameless attack on its most basic values – when the lines of basic human decency are increasingly blurred every day – not only is moral certainty okay, it is essential.


Nowhere in “Casablanca” are the moral lines drawn as clearly as in the classic La Marseillaise scene at Rick’s Bar, where the infamous Czech resistance leader Victor Lazlo (who is also Rick’s competition for the affection of the film’s leading lady, Ingrid Bergman’s character Ilsa), leads a chorus of the French national anthem to drown out a group of obnoxious Germans:

I love how delightfully on the nose this scene is: Lazlo’s brave defiance, Rick’s muted, begrudging nod of approval; the flamenco guitarist, the deep-voiced, off-key lady with a tear in her eye.

Then on the other hand you have the Nazis: outnumbered, utterly outclassed, and briefly defeated … until the villain, German Major Strasser recalls that he’s an authoritarian, gosh darnit, and he can just shut this whole thing down.

I can’t help but watch this scene and be struck by its echoes of our present reality. We know that a vast majority of Americans oppose Trumpism, that the President and his Enablers are pariahs in the eyes of most of this country. And yet our future is dangerously uncertain because of the raw power this corrupt President holds, his capacity, through brute force, to simply shut the moral majority down.


To that end, one of the broader propositions of “Casablanca” is that, when you’re up against raw, brutal institutional power, the actions of one brave man or woman is never enough; it takes all of us, in our own way and our own little corner of the universe, engaging in daily acts of bravery and sacrifice.

Victor Lazlo is the epitome of bravery, a revolutionary hero, but he needs Ilsa’s steadfast support to be his best self.

And beyond just offering stand-by-her-man support,*** Ilsa bravely confronts her ex-lover Rick – subjecting herself to his whisky-stained anger, toying with his emotions and fearlessly tapping into her own – all to secure the transit papers Lazlo needs to escape the Nazis and continue his resistance work.

Rick, of course, needs to summon new wells of bravery and sacrifice – selling his bar, forswearing the woman he loves (and letting her fly away with his debonair rival), killing a German captain – in order to save Lazlo and Ilsa.

And ultimately, the film only has a “happy” ending because Captain Renault (the cowardly French policeman “Louis”) finally finds the courage to stand up against the Germans, and save Rick.

Casablanca

Thecharacter of Louis alone is a succinct expression of “Casablanca’s” broader themes of power and courage. Throughout the film, Louis is mealy-mouthed and spineless, but the conflict boiling within him is palpable.

The side-eye Louis shoots at Rick when the Germans begin their odious song in the La Marseillaise scene above is a mirror image of the look he gives – in the iconic final reel of the film – when he shields Rick from arrest for killing the German captain, and redirects the police to “round up the usual suspects”:

There’s a lot to unpack in those final scenes of “Casablanca” – including at least three of the most iconic lines in cinema history – but for me, nothing tops the moment when Louis, having finally choses sides, recognizes what he’s done, and the unmistakable look of relief that washes over him.

Louis is – demonstrably, compared to his strained affect throughout the rest of the film – a new man, as he tosses aside a bottle (conspicuously marked “Vichy”) and steps into not just “the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” but a life of proud, dissident patriotism.

This, too, is a thematic undercurrent of “Casablanca” that I find especially apt in 2019: patriotism is never just words; it is action, especially in times of intense moral struggle. And sometimes the only way to find your footing in a world like this one – where there is a clear right and an even clearer wrong – is to plant your feet firmly on the side of right, and act.


For all the indelible, classic moments in “Casablanca,” when I think about the film as Rebel Art, the scene that comes to mind most readily is Rick’s rescue of two desperate Bulgarian newlyweds – the wife tortuously mulling an ugly, indecent proposal from Louis – early on in the film:

I suspect that this scene was, for the writers, a throwaway bit of exposition, an effort to show us Rick’s underlying good character, beneath the cigarettes, whisky and dashing aloofness. Even if that were the case though, even if the writers were not straining for a deeper meaning, I went ahead and found it, and I love this scene for all that it truly does expose.

First, this scene – as well as the film as a whole – offers up a view of manhood that we’ve sadly lost track of in this battered, unsteady world of ours. Honor, dignity, stepping out and standing up for those less powerful than us, used to be the bedrock of what it meant to be a “man” in our culture, and all of us hapless American men, in 2019, would do well to reclaim that mantle.

But I’m even more struck by what this scene reveals about the town of Casablanca – a multi-cultural melting pot at the edge of the world – and the dire times the film portrays.

Rick has been approached by a woman who is being sexually extorted by a sleazy, corrupt Frenchman. It’s great that he’s willing to sacrifice a tiny slice of his nightly casino take to save her from that degradation, but if we’re being honest, isn’t that about the least Rick can do?

Yet the reaction from Rick’s employees – “Boss, you’ve done a beautiful thing!” – suggests that, for them, this simple, decent act is one of immense heroism.

I can’t help but see this fawning by Rick’s staff as reflective of the dark cloud hanging over Casablanca, the way that it has become – like any society living under the yoke of fascism – inured to the deluge of assaults on basic morality and decency that fascism so often brings.

The subtext of this scene is not that Rick’s generosity to the Bulgarian couple would be uniquely heroic in normal times – it wouldn’t be. Rather, this scene reveals that the residents of Casablanca have become tragically accustomed to a world where the worst imaginable corruption is just part of the scenery. Rick’s simple, decent act is, to them, a lightening bolt of rebellion, and it sets the stage for the bolder, more consequential rebellions to come later in the film.


Casablanca II

I chose this week to highlight “Casablanca” as a great piece of Rebel Art, because for the past few weeks in America, we’ve seen the President become more unhinged, more obviously unstable, more dangerous, than he’s ever been before.

This has prompted the predictable backlash, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that all of it won’t just settle into the scenery in a few days, and that before long even this latest salvo of madness – and all the rank immorality, in every corner of our nation, that accompanies it – will be something we just get used to.

I love “Casablanca” because – even in its sentimental, old-school Hollywood way – the film managed to offer a strikingly clear-eyed view of that type of oppressive, systematically indecent political environment.

And I love “Casablanca” because it used every tool Hollywood had to offer to make a compelling case that the best antidote to that oppressive, dogged immorality is radical, unyielding human decency.


FOOTNOTES:

*** First, the sexual politics of “Casablanca” are dicey (and the racial politics downright troublesome), but it was 1942 for God’s sake, so I think we can all agree to gtfup, and get over it?
Second, the conventional wisdom is that Ilsa truly needs a man to “think for the both of us,” that her love for Rick is her all-consuming emotion in the final act of the film. I think that’s bullshit. I think Ilsa is as white hot angry as any of the men, and she’s doing what she has to do to ensure the viability of the resistance. That’s not to say she doesn’t love Rick, but she’s playing that old sap – tugging at his love for her, and his better angels – and I think that’s pretty badass.

BONUS MATERIALS

I fell in love with “Casablanca” 20+ years ago, when I was a lonely 15-year-old whose social life featured a lot of trips to the video store. It’s been on my Mount Rushmore of films ever since, but when I mention that, I tend to get some grief because it is, admittedly, an old-fashioned (the first 10 minutes or so are rough sledding!), overly-sentimental, schmaltzy film. 

“But what’s so wrong with that,” I’d say. “What’s so funny about honor, decency and a righteous fight against fascism?”

Which reminds me of the Elvis Costello classic, performed beautifully by Shovels & Rope here:

And “Casablanca” is indeed a great example of how “Rebel Art” doesn’t always have to come from a place of tortured, starving-artist dissidence. We can all be Rebels, even the most mainstream, crowd-pleasing among us.  

To that end, lately I’ve been rocking out on the treadmill to Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad,” performed with Tom Morello:


Enjoying “Rebel Art Fridays”? 

Check out previous editions, from past Fridays, here:

8.16.19 – Anna Akhmatova’s quiet defiance of Stalin’s Great Purge

8.9.19 – Malvina Reynolds, Nina Simone, and the importance of being “nice”

8.2.19 – Agnes Humbert – A diary of Resistance

7.26.19 – Richie Havens’ “The Klan”

2 thoughts on “Rebel Art Fridays: Radical Decency in the Face of Fascism

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