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Homage to Madeleine LeBeau

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madeleine-lebeau-casablancaIt’s one of the most memorable close-ups in film: Madeleine LeBeau, as Yvonne, tears streaming down her face, shouts ‘Vive La France!’ after joining the patrons of Rick’s Café Americain in the ‘Marseillaise’ to drown out the Nazis’ singing of ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’. LeBeau died on 1 May, at the age of 92; she was the last surviving cast member of Casablanca.

LeBeau and her husband, Marcel Dalio, had fled Paris ahead of the Nazi invasion. Like Victor and Ilsa, they obtained letters of transit from Spain to Lisbon, where they boarded a Portugese ship. Their Chilean visas turned out to be forgeries and they were stopped in Vera Cruz, Mexico. But they managed to get temporary visas for Canada, and on their way north stopped in Los Angeles.

Dalio was a major actor in France; a comic star who played serious roles in La Règle du jeu and La Grande Illusion. LeBeau met him when she was a teenage stage actress. They married in 1939, the year she landed her first small file role, in Pabst’s Young Girls in Trouble. Dalio was more than twenty years older (a prefiguring of Humphrey Bogart’s romance with Lauren Bacall, which began on the set of To Have and Have Not, in which Dalio had one of his best Hollywood roles). Dalio was born Israel Moshe Blauschild to Romanian Jewish parents; the Nazis used his face on anti-Semitic posters. Though he escaped, Dalio’s parents died in concentration camps.

Both Dalio and Lebeau landed work in Hollywood: he got character roles and she worked her way up with smaller parts in better films at Warner Bros: Hold Back the Dawn with Charles Boyer, and in Raoul Walsh’s boxing drama Gentleman Jim. By the time they made Casablanca, the marriage had already failed to survive Hollywood; Dalio sued for divorce on grounds of desertion.

In Casablanca Dalio plays Emil the croupier, who hands Captain Renault his winnings an instant after Renault has closed Rick’s under Major Strasser’s orders; Renault says 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 another of Claude Rains’s many marvellous moments.

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), but disappeared from Hollywood after the war. Her postwar career in France was patchy, with few starring parts or memorable roles. The most notable is probably her title role in The Sins of Madeleine (1951), playing a prostitute who scams her clients by pretending to be pregnant. She got some bad reviews playing a singer in a British film, Cage Of Gold (1950), alongside Jean Simmons.

Dalio, however, worked consistently on both sides of the Atlantic; he even took the part of Captain Renault in a short-lived American TV series of Casablanca in 1955. He was in Samuel Fuller’s China Gate, John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef and Mike Nichols’s Catch-22, but his biggest role was one of his last, as an American rabbi returning to France, where he was born, in Gérard Oury’s Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.

LeBeau made little impact again until she played a temperamental French actress, called Madeleine, in Fellini’s (1963). She stayed in Italy with one of the film’s writers, Tullio Pinelli; they married in 1988. Valentina Cortese’s character, Severine, in Truffaut’s Day For Night seems partly based on her. She retired from the movies in 1965. Pinelli died in 2009 at the age of 100. LeBeau died in Barcelona, after breaking a hip in a fall.


Read more in the London Review of Books

Gaby Wood: Jean Renoir · 9 February 1995

Jenny Diski: Humphrey Bogart · 19 May 2011

David Bromwich: Cold War Movies · 26 January 2012

Comments

  1. This photo is but one example of hundreds that media impose on readers, showing an angry someone shouting, with tonsils almost visible! This image has become such a common trope that it’s unwelcome. (You may add to this objection smiling figures as well.) An LRB blog article should avoid such common print and TV advert figures.
    Spare us, please.

    • CConnor says:

      What sort of picture do you want to see? Madeleine LeBeau wearing a veil? The point of this photo is that it illustrates (probably) best-known moment in her film career, or at least the moment for which people recognise her most easily. It’s also an extremely moving moment in Casablanca. It’s not an advert.

      • wildaker says:

        Quite so. And it’s not an “angry someone shouting” but an impassioned one. As the piece says: “It’s one of the most memorable close-ups in film: Madeleine LeBeau, as Yvonne, tears streaming down her face, shouts ‘Vive La France!’ after joining the patrons of Rick’s Café Americain in the ‘Marseillaise’ to drown out the Nazis’ singing of ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’.”

        It’s not a “trope” but a still from the scene that is being described in the text.

        • Joe Morison says:

          She was a French Jew whose country was occupied by the Nazis at the time of filming, and, as you say, she’s just shouted ‘Vive la France!’. Her face shows extraordinary emotion, and I don’t suppose any of it was acted.

  2. In case the Blog editors think that constant use of such tropes is forever acceptable, I recommend Horkheimer and Adorno on the Culture Industry.

    • RobotBoy says:

      Adorno on popular culture, alas, is not Adorno at his best. I love me a good Marxist snob but his snobbery tends to overwhelm his (Hegelian) Marxism when it comes to things like jazz and film, and even his usually stunning deployment of psycho-analysis becomes a rather blunt instrument. That said, might you expand on your argument against the use of the photo? (Which portrays emotional conflict and extremity, not anger).

  3. Neil Foxlee says:

    For centuries,’trope’ referred to any literary or rhetorical device, such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, which consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense. The modern sense – ironically closer to ‘topos’ in the literary sense – seems to have crept in in the 1990s or thereabouts, and has now taken over in current discourse. Shame.
    Don’t get me started on ‘riff’…

    • Alan Benfield says:

      Indeed, the word ‘trope’, which has a careful literary meaning going back centuries, has lately been hijacked by lazy people who don’t really know what it means to mean ‘cliché’. I recently saw a film reviewer refer to ‘visual tropes’, where he clearly meant ‘visual clichés’.

      The horror…


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