Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Allons, Enfants!

The world's national anthems are a mixed bunch.

Sadly, that of my own homeland ranks far from the top by almost any measure - singability, the power to inspire, general elegance.  Those of many of the post-colonial nations all too often sound like bits and pieces from forgotten operettas.  "God Save the Queen" is a stately old thing, but played too slowly can be a bit of a snooze (hearing it, I frequently lose a bar or two wondering if Her Majesty quietly sings it as "God Save Me").  That of Germany, by contrast, courtesy of dear Mr. Haydn, has more than once in its checkered history proven a tad too exciting.

No, few indeed measure up to the wonderful piece of work that was first sung in Paris on this date a mere 221 years ago.  "La Marseillaise" has bloodthirsty lyrics that make our Rockets Red Glare look like a folkie peace number, but its stirring tune and sheer momentum vault it to the top of the Anthem Hot 100.

Here we have what is at least for most American cinephiles, its most-loved appearance.  The triumph of "La Marseillaise" at Rick's is in some ways the heart of Casablanca, the tipping point that shows how it will all play out, right down to Ingrid Bergman's almost unwillingly admiring expression as she watches her husband take the wind out of the Nazis' sails.  It's a never-fail crowd-pleaser of a scene, and one that for me at least always brings on the waterworks.

Casablanca is in a way the purest product of the old studio system, a piece that went through the Hollywood assembly line and somehow emerged as a work of art.  Its near-perfection has done much to burnish the legends of its stars - Bergman, Bogart, Henreid, Raines, Lorre, et al - but the "Marseillaise" scene has also ensured a kind of immortality for at least two of the lower-billed players - Madeleine LeBeau, a real French actress playing a bar girl who, in a single heart-stopping closeup, suddenly realizes her own self-worth, and Corinna Mura, the coloratura playing a gypsy guitarist whose thrilling top notes take the scene over the top.  Today LeBeau is the last surviving member of the Casablanca cast; she arrived in Hollywood after having escaped Europe, via Lisbon, in a way that must have made filming the scene particularly meaningful.  As for Mura, this moment was the high point of her relatively brief film career.  Her life must not have been terribly dull, though; for a while she was the stepmother of the brilliant author and illustrator Edward Gorey.

So Happy Birthday, "Marseillaise," and may your jour de gloire go on for another 221 years or so, at least.


  1. My favorite version of La Marseillaise is the one Jesse Norman did for the French BiCentennial. Norman is a formidable forth of nature, but the staging and costuming made her look like a mountain in motion. Hard to forget, and compelling to watch.

    1. Well, even Hollywood in its heyday is hard put to outdo the setting, the spectacle (by Jean-Paul Goude, an erstwhile Mr. Grace Jones), a gown by Alaia, and the phenom that is La Norman. Who is, by the bye, a personage indeed. I had to sit behind her once at Radio City and only saw bits of the sides of the stage, as she was wearing a Baduesque headwrap of gargantuan proportions...

  2. Terrific observation regarding the film. I feel that way about The Wizard of Oz. Contract players used to their best effect in roles that, in many ways, defined their careers. The music, sets, costuming, makeup, etc. are by craftsmen working at the top of their game. It all added up to something so much more than the sum of its parts.

    As for Mura's brief stint as step-mama to Mr. Gorey, well it only reminds me that I am still waiting for someone (likely Tim Burton) to crank out a live action version of one of my favorite works of Gorey's, "The Gashlycrumb Tinies"...preferably as an actual snuff film.