We can argue all day about whether Citizen Kane or Casablanca is the greatest movie ever made — my choice would be Gold Diggers of 1933, but comedies don’t get no respect — but what we can’t argue is the profound effect the Warner Bros. 1942 patriotic drama has had on our culture, or how much we love each of the individual performances from actors great and small. With the death of Madeleine Lebeau, however, we’ve now lost them all.
The last living performer from Casablanca is gone, as French actress Madeleine Lebeau, who played Yvonne in the 1942 Academy Award winning classic, and in real life lived through experiences as harrowing as those of the film’s lead character, died following a hip injury on May 1. She was 92.
Born in 1923 in Antony, Hauts-de-Seine, France, Lebeau began her career in film immediately before the start of World War II with the 1939 French drama Jeunes filles en détresse (Girls in Distress). The following year, in a scene right out of the film for which she would become best known, Lebeau, who was Jewish, was forced to flee Paris with her then-husband Marcel Dalio ahead of the advancing German invasion. The couple ended up in Lisbon, Portugal and from there attempted to travel to the Americas on a Chilean visa. Their transit across the Atlantic was stopped in Mexico when it was discovered their visas were forgeries, but were eventually able to secure temporary Canadian passports which they used to make their way to the United States.
Dalio, of course, was equally memorable as the croupier at Rick’s Cafe Américain. And, indeed, many of the supporting cast were themselves refugees in real life, giving an added poignancy to their performances as the lost souls trapped in Casablanca and trying to escape the Nazis.
Here’s Lebeau in her most memorable scene (referred to by aficionados as the “battle of the bands” — that’s Dalio at the end of the clip):
But here’s another wonderful scene from the same film, with Bogey; the brothers Epstein (the screenwriters) at their witty, cynical best:
And for those of you who missed it when it came out, here’s my contribution to the legend of Casablanca, which has been translated into more than twenty languages. Enjoy.