Song: The True Governing Power in Casablanca

The city of Casablanca is a small slice of heaven (or hell for some) nestled right in between a war controlled Europe. While most of the continent is fighting, rationing food, and ultimately doing anything to survive WWII, the people of Casablanca are eating, drinking, and gambling away their time. There is some pieces of WWII present, like the corrupt officials and Nazi leaders deciding who can get in or out, but these same people frequent Rick’s bar just like everyone else we see in Casablanca. The people of Casablanca seem to live behind a veil of alcohol and gambling, masking themselves from the harshness of their past lives as well as from the state of Europe as a whole. Rick especially seems to be just a shell of a man at the beginning of the film, throwing aside the very human emotions of lust and greed by turning down both women and money. In fact, we don’t see any emotion out of Rick until one key event happens: he hears Sam play “As Time Goes By”.

Rick’s expression when he first hears “As Time Goes By”

This song is all it takes to turn someone who’s sole identity is a bar owner back into a passionate human being. With a few chords, the veil that Casablanca has placed on Rick is torn off, and he is now seeing nostalgic glimpses of his time in Paris with Ilsa (who’s face is equally as emotionally revealing during this song).

The change that “As Time Goes By” makes on Rick is not just a temporary one. For the remainder of the film, he is a completely different man than the one we are first introduced to. The man that “never drinks with his guests” is now seen in every following bar scene with a cocktail in hand. The previously straight laced, successful Rick eventually finds himself alone in his bar with just Sam, pitifully finishing a bottle off on his own. It’s during this scene that we once again see extreme emotion out of Rick, unsurprisingly after he forces Sam to “play it again”.

“Play it again, Sam.”

The final, and potentially most powerful example of song taking over the people of Casablanca is during the intensely emotional national anthem battle. As soon as Laszlo begins conducting the band to start the French Anthem, people immediately put down their drinks to stand up and join. Gamblers, drunks, Casablancans become the people who they really are when there isn’t a veil over their eyes: sad refugees away from home who still have a sense of nationalistic pride. What reveals this more than the French woman who literally has tears screaming down her eyes as she belts the French anthem?

“Viva La France!”

Everyone in Casablanca has come from a different place. Some are sad, some are only concerned with escaping, and some are just drunk. It is very easy to forget where one has come from in Casablanca with all the distractions it creates. However, there is only one thing that can take the people back to their past and true selves: song.

3 comments
  1. Been thinking about why “As Time Goes By” was so effective in this film. The characters don’t seem concerned with the lyrics so much as the melody (though the lyrics do support the story pretty nicely), and the melody itself didn’t really strike me with its musicality. Not sure if this is a widely held opinion, but stripped of its status as “the Casablanca song,” it may as well be a piece of elevator music to me. I think that’s part of the point, honestly: it’s not supposed to have the flash or fioriture of an especially enrapturing piece of music. It’s calm and subliminal, and likely means nothing to the average listener, but it holds similar sway over Ilsa and Rick as patriotic anthems hold over refugees and soldiers. Of course, the anthems mean nothing to Rick without context, and none of these songs should mean anything to us without the movie surrounding them, but again that’s precisely the point. The movie is so concerned with switching perspectives and walking in others’ shoes that the contemporaneous anonymity and significance of “As Time Goes By,” when contrasted with the anthems, makes perfect sense. I’m sure this ties in somehow with Rick’s “hill of beans” comment at the end of the film, if anybody wants to look deeper into that connection.

  2. While I agree that the music is a powerful way to show the emotions of the characters as well as provide an opportunity to establish Rick finally taking a stand in a political argument, I would like to also point out that the music is used as a way to show the passing of time. Aside from the two important songs of the French Anthem and “As Time Goes By” the rest of the songs played from the diegetic source of Sam and the band are always in the background. However, I never really hear a song played all the way through. The movie always cuts to Sam at the piano starting or ending a song with very few moments in between.

  3. I also found the dueling anthems scene to be extremely powerful. I think it also marks an interesting pivot in the plot, as Rick gives the band the go ahead with a nod of his head. Not only does Lazlo create a conflict between the two sides, but Rick also chooses one of these sides. I believe this is the first time in the film where Rick takes a stance in the political conflict and against the side of Major Strasser.

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