The best scene in the 1942 classic “Casablanca” involves a song prefaced by the words “Play it.”
No, not that song. This one.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman play minor roles here. The star is Paul Henreid, as Victor Laszlo, a leader of the Czech underground, trying to make his way with his wife to America from the refugee haven in North Africa.
The movie was made the year after America’s entry into the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The scene encompasses the spirit of the period. The Germans are cocky: They’ve conquered most of Europe and have turned their sights on Russia. The Nazis were convinced world domination was theirs.
Thousands of refugees were trying to escape Hitler’s tyranny, getting out of Europe and finding any possible way to make their way to America.
But there is uncertainty on how committed America is to the battle. U.S. troops are in Europe, things are looking grim and the invasion of Normandy is two years away. And the Americans came into the war not because of Germany, but because of the Japanese, half a world away.
Look at how the scene plays out. The Nazis have taken over the piano at Rick’s American Cafe. (Isn’t that Sam’s piano?) They sing of the glory of the Fatherland. It’s already established that the people in the bar are from all parts of Europe: Bulgarians, French, Russians even persecuted Germans. Everyone is despondent. The Nazis gloat.
Victor is in Rick’s (Bogart’s) office when he hears the Germans. Disgusted by the spectacle, he marches to the house orchestra and demands it play the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”
And here’s the importance of the scene: The musicians don’t start immediately, they look to see if Rick will allow it. The world is waiting to see where America stands. Rick nods approval and the music begins. Laszlo leads the singing and everyone joins in immediately, but none of this is possible without Rick’s assent.
What they sing isn’t a simple song of love of country. The message of La Marseillaise is: “We are going to kick your ass!”
Here’s a translation of the refrain:
“To arms citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let’s march, let’s march!
May impure blood
Water our furrows!!”
Henreid isn’t the only one who carries this scene. At one point, the focus is on Madeleine Lebeau, who sings the line: “Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras.” (They are coming into our midst.)
Who is Madeleine Lebeau?
She is the movie’s last surviving credited cast member.
In the movie, she plays Yvonne, a French girl spurned by Rick, who out of spite takes up with a German officer. Early in the movie, she’s ridiculed by a French gendarme for being with a German. At the beginning of this scene, she’s drinking alone at a table, miserable while the Germans celebrate. Then “La Marseillaise” begins, and she is in tears, singing with a fierce passion. At the end of the song, she cries out “Vive la France!”
Lebeau was born in France in 1921. When she was 19, she and her Jewish husband Marcel Dalio (who plays Emil in the film) fled Paris during the German occupation. They went to Lisbon (an important transit point to the western hemisphere) and unwittingly picked up forged visas, ending up in Mexico. Eventually, they made their way to America. Their journey, despite its setbacks, was exactly what the characters in this movie hoped to accomplish.
Knowing this, you realize her tears, and the energy she puts into the anthem, are real.