Dueling Anthems: Memo From Hal Wallis

70 years ago today, Casablanca premiered.

Memo from Casablanca producer Hal Wallis to Max Steiner, composer:

On the Marseilles, when it is played in the Cafe, don’t do it as though it was played by this small orchestra. Do it with a full scoring orchestra and get some body to it.

They don’t make producers like that any more, folks.

It is one of the greatest scenes ever filmed. Without it, Ilse’s choice of men at the end might not make sense. You can already see the choice she will make in this scene. And so much of the power of the scene has to do with the giant almost martial swell of sound that erupts when the bar starts singing the Marseilles en masse.

Aljean Harmetz, author of The Making of Casablanca, writes:

Of the seventy-five actors and actresses who had bit parts and larger roles in Casablanca, almost all were immigrants of one kind or another. Of the fourteen who were given screen credit, only Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Page were born in America. Some had come for private reasons. Ingrid Bergman, who would lodge comfortably in half a dozen countries and half a dozen languages, once said that she was a flyttfagel, one of Sweden’s migratory birds. Some, including Sydney Greenstreet and Claude Rains, wanted richer careers. But at least two dozen were refugees from the stain that was spreading across Europe. There were a dozen Germans and Austrians, nearly as many French, the Hungarians SZ Sakall and Peter Lorre, and a handful of Italians.

“If you think of Casablanca and think of all those small roles being played by Hollywood actors faking the accents, the picture wouldn’t have had anything like the color and tone it had,” says Pauline Kael.

Dan Seymour remembers looking up during the singing of the Marseillaise and discovering that half of his fellow actors were crying. “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees,” says Seymour.

Madeleine Lebeau shouting “VIVA LA FRANCE” at the end, in tears, gives me goosebumps every time. Remember: she was a glorified extra and she got a closeup like that. Very rare. She had one scene with Bogart, as his upset lover, where he blew her off. But her real moment was at the end of the anthems. You got the sense her character was an opportunist, at first, willing to flirt with a Nazi to make Bogart mad. But during the national anthem, her true feelings exploded. She is the representation of every refugee in that room, every refugee fleeing through Europe at the very moment the movie was being filmed. Devastated, furious, and determined. Her heart-broken yet courageous shot is the button on the whole scene. Michael Curtiz knew what he was doing.

Here is the “dueling anthems” clip.

Listen for that “unrealistic” symphonic orchestra swelling. And take a moment to bow, with respect, towards Hal Wallis.

And keep a thought reserved for refugees everywhere.

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3 Responses to Dueling Anthems: Memo From Hal Wallis

  1. Mirandola says:

    This almost happened. Denis Sinor, who died last year and was a great Central Asian scholar, had the Marseillaise played to a French and German audience in the Hungarian Institute in occupied Paris.


  2. Mr. Lion says:

    So much genius in that scene. Also note the look Rains gives Bogart– there’s SO much there without saying a word. The moment Laszlo becomes something other than an inconvenience, and the score just drives the point home. Brilliant.

    There’s more to learn about making a film in Casablanca, in every facet involved in doing so, than in any other I’ve ever seen.

  3. Shelley says:

    As a writer, I think we need more scenes like that, both in literature and in film: scenes that are about something bigger than individual happiness.


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