How Casablanca's Villain is a Hero
I'm reading Noah Isenberg's new book, “We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie,” and while it's not great, the third chapter is. That's when he recounts the number of refugees who helped make this movie about refugees:
Nearly all of the some seventy-five actors and actresses cast in Casablanca were immigrants. .... Hailing from more than thirty different nations, the majority of refugee actors in the film served merely as day players, performing small parts—generally either as Nazis or as refugees fleeing the Nazis—most without significant dialogue. Among them, however, were many distinguished European artists with illustrious pasts on stage and screen.
The one who intrigues me most is Carl the waiter, S.Z. Sakall, who was born in 1883 under the Austria-Hungary Empire and died in L.A. in 1955 at the age of 72. Think of all he lived through. He wrote a memoir with a great title, “The Story of Cuddles: My life under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolf Hitler and the Warner Brothers,” which could be great to read, but it's going for $120 on Amazon. Somebody needs to get that book back in print. Among the “trivia” about him on IMDb is this sobering note: “All three of his sisters perished in Nazi concentration camps.”
Then there's this note about Conrad Veidt, the distinguished German actor (“Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “The Man Who Laughs”), who played the movie's villain, Maj. Heinrich Strasser:
Even an actor like Conrad Veidt, who left Germany of his own accord in 1933 (the same year he married the Jewish-Hungarian Lily Prager), was essentially a refugee by the time of the production. To express his opposition to the regime, the non-Jewish actor is said to have listed “JEW” in large block letters for his religion on a form he was required to submit with National Socialist authorities. The Nazis responded in kind, keeping his films from being shown anywhere in the Third Reich.
In his way, Veidt was braver than the actor who played the hero. When it was Humphrey Bogart's turn to face up to fascism—the right-wing, blacklist kind—he began to do the right thing, then folded. Maybe it's the character actors who have the character.