[May 1st marks the 80th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s release. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some contexts for Kane and other classic films, and I’d love your thoughts on them all and other films you’d AmericanStudy!]
On two ways the iconic film resonates in the age of Trump.
While of course any 80-year old movie is going to feel dated in various ways, I would argue that Casablanca also feels about as contemporary as any 1940s film could. There are numerous reasons why (including the whip-smart dialogue and very telling human moments), but I would say that the film’s iconic romance is a particularly relatable element. Casablanca is at one and the same time a deeply sentimental love story and a realistic examination of the limits of such romantic love in a world where those kinds of personal relationships don’t necessarily amount to, well, much more than a hill of beans. And, as that hyperlinked final exchange illustrates (SPOILERS here and throughout, duh), the movie combines those two seemingly contradictory tropes into a final vision of romantic love as something that we can carry with us and be inspired and motivated by even if the world and its realities take us in other directions. That’s a lesson well worth playing again and again, I’d say.
It’s also a timeless one, of course. But there are likewise elements of Casablanca that have more specific lessons to offers us in this Age of Trump. For one thing, the arc of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick directly and powerfully refutes the “America First” rhetoric of Trump and company (rhetoric that of course had made its debut during the 1930s). Rick may be far away from the United States, but the insular concern for only his own café and needs with which he opens the film nonetheless clearly reflects American isolationism and self-interest (in but not limited to World War II). Part of what pushes him toward engagement with the world instead is still a personal interest, if one centered on another person’s needs: his love for and desire to help Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa. But through her, Rick also connects to the resistance efforts of her husband, Paul Heinreid’s Victor Laszlo; and while in their love triangle Rick and Victor are rivals, in the course of Rick and the film’s arc the men become allies as well. Rick’s concluding decision to join the resistance even convinces Claude Rains’s corrupt police officer Renault to do the same, a potent representation of the broader potential effects when Americans step outside their insulated bubbles and join the cause of freedom and social justice worldwide.
Of course, in the age of Trump many of the most prominent international news stories have involved not the U.S. entering the world, but the world coming to the U.S., most especially in the form of refugee communities. Nearly all of the characters in Casablanca are refugees and exiles from the war in Europe; and, for that matter, so were many of the film’s actors, especially those who played supporting roles. As film historian Aljean Harmetz puts it, these refugee actors brought to their roles “an understanding and a desperation that could never have come from Central Casting.” What truly motivates Rick’s evolution in the film, starting as early as his famous nod in the iconic “duel of the anthems” sequence, is his recognition that these refugee and exile communities deserve respect and support, and indeed his sense that he is in solidarity with them. It would seem to be a truism that America is in solidarity with refugee communities—with the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, to coin a phrase—but in fact that has always been a contested concept, and never more so than in late 2018. So we could all still stand to learn the romantic, realistic, and timeless lessons of Rick and company’s journey in Casablanca.
Next FilmStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this or other classic films?