Wednesday 18 May 2016


 It is one of the most beautiful, and most moving, close-ups in film: Madeleine LeBeau, as Yvonne, tears streaming down her face, shouts 'Vive La France' after joining the patrons of Rick's Cafe Americain in singing 'La Marseillaise' to drown out the Nazis singing 'Die Wacht Am Rhein'. The news was released this weekend that LeBeau had died on 1 May, at the age of 92; she was the last surviving cast member from Casablanca. Her's is one of the best scenes in a movie filled with memorable scenes, and Yvonne's tears are what gives a moment that might seem absurd, a battle of songs between the Nazis and the melange of refugees and Vichy French in French Morocco, dramatic credence. It's enough to make me want to be French every time I see it.

The back-story makes it work. We first see Yvonne sitting at the bar, attended by the drooling baman Sascha (Leonid Kinskey). Rick (Bogart, of course) has just dumped her, and he deals with her pleading with a harsh existentialism: "Where were you last night?" "That's so long ago, I don't remember." "Will I see you tonight?" "I never make plans that far ahead.” The dialogue helps us understand that Rick's unwillingness to commit to anything—it's a metaphor for wartime neutrality, which is what, on the grander scale, the film is nominally about. Rick has already refused to help Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who has robbed and killed the couriers carrying prized letters of transit, which he has given to Rick to hide. After a police have shot Ugarte trying to escape, one patron says 'I hope you'll do more when they come for me,', to which Rick replies, 'I stick my neck out for nobody'.

Yvonne returns to Rick's on the arm of a young German officer (Hans Twardowski), as if to flaunt him in Rick's face. LeBeau's acting is perfect, part pouting child, part femme fatale, and she gets a couple of sour glances as she's seated. But Rick is upstairs with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) who's trying to get stolen letters of transit from him, so he and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) can leave Casablanca. Rick has refused to sell at any price, telling Laszlo to 'ask his wife' why, when the sound of the Germans singing reaches his office.

In a series of cuts we see the Germans singing, Laszlo in frozen anger on the stairs with Rick, police prefect Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) looking discomforted, and Yvonne staring with shame into her drink. Then Laszlo marches to the bandstand and orders the band to play La Marseillaise. They look up to Rick, who nods his approval. The singing begins, and Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) tries to get his Nazis to sing louder before they sit down in defeat. In another close-up, Yvonne sings with barely disguised shame and rage, as the tears begin; by the time the song ends her face is swimming in tears as she shouts 'Vive La France'. I usually post that clip on social media each Bastille Day, and each time I feel a lump in my throat.

But for LeBeau the film must have had extra resonance. Exile, and fleeing the Nazis was real. She and her husband, Marcel Dalio, had fled Paris ahead of the Germans. Like Victor and Ilsa, they obtained letters of transit from Spain to Lisbon, whence they boarded a Portugese ship, carrying Chilean visas which turned out to be forgeries. They were stopped in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but managed somehow to get temporary visas for Canada, and on their way north stopped in Los Angeles where they stayed looking for work in Hollywood.

Dalio was a major actor in France; a comic star who played major roles in two of Renoir's classics, La Regle du Jeu and La Grande Illusion, where his comic skill belies the seriousness of the parts. They had met when she was a teenaged stage actress, and married in 1939, the year she landed her first small file role, in Pabst's Young Girls in Trouble. Dalio was some 20 years older; a prefiguring of Bogart's romance with Lauren Bacall that began on the set of To Have And Have Not, in which Dalio would have one of his best Hollywood roles. Dalio was Jewish; born Israel Moshe Blauschild to Romanian Jewish parents; the Germans actually used his face on posters to illustrate their warnings against the typical Jew. Dalio's parents would die in concentration camps.

Both of them landed work. Dalio got character roles and LeBeau worked her way up with smaller parts in better films at Warner Bros: Hold Back The Dawn, with fellow French expat Charles Boyer, and in Raoul Walsh's boxing drama Gentleman Jim. But by the time they made Casablanca, the marriage had already failed to survive Hollywood; Dalio sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion. One senses he was an older professional; she was younger and beautiful and may have had her head turned.

Dalio, of course, plays Emil the croupier in Casablanca; he's the one who hands Capt. Renault his winnings an instant after Renault has closed Rick's under Strasser's orders, because he is 'shocked, shocked, to find gambling is going on in here'. Renault's initial response to Strasser's order, 'but everyone's having such a good time,' is one of Rains' many marvels.

Yvonne disappears from the movie at that point; LeBeau played in two more films, with one good role alongside Dalio, George Sanders and Brenda Marshall in Paris After Dark (1943), then disappeared from Hollywood after the war. Her postwar career in France was peripatetic, with few starring parts or memorable roles. The most notable is probably her title role in (ironically) The Sins of Madeleine (1951) playing a prostitute who scams her clients with a pregnancy scare. She also gathered some epic bad reviews playing a singer in a British film, Cage Of Gold (1950, see photo left) alongside Jean Simmons.

Dalio worked consistently on both sides of the Atlantic; he even took the Capt. Renault role in a short-lived American TV series of Casablanca in 1955. You can see him in Sam Fuller's China Gate, John Ford's Donovan's Reef, and even in Mike Nichols' Catch-22, but his biggest role was one of his last, as an American rabbi returning to the France where he was born, in Gerard Oury's The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, which was followed by a key part in Walerian Borowczk's soft-core classic La Bete.

LeBeau made little impact again until she played a tempermental French actress, again called Madeleine, in Fellini's 8 ½ at which point she stayed in Italy with one of the film's writers, Tullio Pinelli; they married in 1988. You can see some of her character reflected Valentina Cortese's character, Severine, in Truffaut's Day For Night. She retired from films in 1965, and lived quietly. Pinelli died in 2009 at the age of 100. She died in Barcelona, after breaking a hip in a fall.

As it happens, I often write obituaries, and they often drive home changes in my own world, changes that rarely seem for the best. I can't say how many times I have watched Casablanca in my lifetime; often enough to have most of the film's key lines down by rote. I've probably watched Madeleine LeBeau sing La Marseillaise five times as many times, and as I said, I will continue to replay it on July 14 for years to come. Vive La France! Vive LeBeau!

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