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Awake to glory

| Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It’s a cliche at this point to note that a lot of celebrities died in 2016 (though from a purely numerical perspective, the past year is far from anomalous). Since we all know the big names, I’d like to focus on one that many of us, myself included, missed. On May 1, Madeleine Lebeau, the last living credited actor in “Casablanca,” passed away. She was 92.

Lebeau was born in Antony, France, in 1923, and later moved to Paris. During the German invasion in World War II, she and her Jewish husband fled France. They passed through Lisbon, and were headed for Chile when their ship was stopped in Mexico and they were stranded, desperately trying to gain passage to the Free World. Art imitates life (imitates art).

Upon arriving in America via Canada, Lebeau was cast in “Casablanca” as Yvonne, Rick Blaine’s mistress. Her husband, Marcel Dalio, also appears in the film as the croupier Emil — he’s the one who gives Capt. Louis Renault his winnings when the latter is “shocked to find that gambling is going on here!” In fact, much of the cast was made up of European refugees. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and Ugarte (Peter Lorre) were just a few of the other refugee cast members. The refugee status of the actors lends weight to their performances, especially one pivotal scene at the film’s midpoint.

Note: The rest of this Viewpoint will discuss the plot of “Casablanca” in detail. If you have not seen the film, I have two things to say to you. First, go watch Casablanca. Second, spoilers!

“It’s December 1941 in Casablanca. … I bet they’re asleep all over America.” Rick Blaine is a morose expatriate who has buried his sympathies for revolutionary causes and adopted a facade of neutrality. When his friend Ugarte is dragged away by the police, Blaine proclaims “I stick my neck out for nobody.” The French Yvonne is a regular at Blaine’s bar, and has taken to consorting with the Nazis, prompting Renault to comment, “so Yvonne’s gone over to the enemy.”

While Yvonne is with one such German, Victor Lazlo walks in to find Strasser’s Nazis at the piano singing “The Watch on the Rhine,” a German song proclaiming the defense of the German homeland against the French. Disgusted, he approaches the band and commands them to play “La Marseillaise.” Uncertain, the band members look to Blaine, and receive a subtle nod — his first overt partisan action. As the national anthem swells, the singing of the bar’s patrons overwhelms that of the Nazis. Yvonne joins in, and the camera gives her a close-up; Madeleine LeBeau’s tears were real. As the bar erupts in applause, she shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!” Her arc manifests Blaine’s journey toward accepting that he is meant to be a revolutionary, and spurs the film towards one of the greatest endings ever.

So why am I talking about “Casablanca” — beyond the fact that I love the film and will gush about it for six hours if you ask me? Well, Blaine’s situation at the film’s opening parallels that of many Americans — burned out and unsympathetic to a refugee crisis, resigned to a comfortable neutrality. Heck, we’ve even got the Nazis walking through our streets and organizing rallies in D.C.

It’s hard to know if or when the American people will have their “Marseillaise moment,” but I have faith that we will rise to the occasion, should it occur. I’ve seen this movie, and I like the ending.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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