America First wanted us to stay out of World War II.
The history books don’t look kindly on America First, but there were a lot of America Firsters and their point of view was pretty darn reasonable.
They looked back at WWI with suspicion, anger, and regret. The most knowledgeable America Firsters knew that we fought Germany because American millionaires had lent money to Great Britain and France and wanted to be paid back. The masses just knew that the Germans weren’t our enemies and yet five million American men were sent to Europe to crush them.
After Pearl Harbor, getting America Firsters to agree to turn against Japan was easy enough. Still, Germany hadn’t attacked us. People needed to be convinced that this wasn’t just another war of choice against an innocent faraway German empire to protect banking interests.
Appropriately, three Jewish guys (Philip Epstein, Julius Epstein, and Howard Koch) wrote “Casablanca” – a perfect propaganda film that demonstrates that the Nazis are fundamentally more terrible than the Germans we fought in World War I.
The story takes place in early 1942. Europeans with money and connections were making their way to America by any means necessary. An important stop on the path to freedom was French Morocco. Soon Casablanca was a cosmopolitan city, teeming with desperate refugees looking for Visas.
The cultural center of immigrant culture in Casablanca is Rick’s Café Americain. Every night at Rick’s, there’s music and booze. And there’s also illegal gambling, French Underground organizing, and black-market Visa transactions. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) gets away with it because he’s honestly neutral and because the local police captain has a raging crush on him.
The story heats up when Nazis come to town. They are on the trail of eloquent resistance writer Victor Laszlo. And Laszlo’s beautiful wife (Ingrid Bergman) happens to be Rick’s ex-girlfriend.
This is not a perfect movie. The love triangle doesn’t have a lot of passion. And we never believe that the milquetoast dude who plays Laszlo is a fearless freedom fighter who just escaped from a Nazi death camp.
The heart of “Casablanca” and the secret to its timelessness is the sophisticated, hilarious performance by Claude Raines as Captain Louis Renault.
Captain Renault is a greedy, selfish, lustful bisexual. He cooperates with his German bosses and makes no apology for doing so.
In Captain Renault, we can glimpse the future of male characters in American entertainment. The era of the Man’s Man – the Humphrey Bogart type – was slowly drawing to a close. We can’t relate to guys like that, anyway.
The legendary characters of the future were to be more like Captain Renault – more villain than hero, smarter than they are handsome – and yet easy to root for. Without Renault there would be no Tony Soprano, Stewie Griffin, or Eric Cartman.
The ending of “Casablanca” is perfectly written propaganda. Rick and Renault both come to the conclusion that the only cause more important than their own desires is the urgent need to kill Nazis. On that foggy runway in Morocco, the America First movement was defeated. And the Third Reich was certain to follow.