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In Everybody Comes To Rick's [the play from which the script for "Casablanca" was adapted], the leading lady was Lois Meredith, an unmarried American woman of loose morals who sleeps with three different men during the course of the play. For the Warner Bros. screenwriters, her character was a problem from the beginning because such behavior was not to be shown in American movies and almost certainly wouldn't have been approved by the Hays Office, the keeper of Hollywood's Production Code.
When it was learned that Swedish beauty Ingrid Bergman had been engaged for the role of leading lady, new possibilities opened up for the writers. She proved ideal for their need to clean up Lois' act. Bergman was a bright new star on the American scene with an impeccable reputation and a delightful Scandinavian accent. So, it was easy to change the movie's leading lady into a fine and honorable European woman who is loyal to her husband until she believes him dead; then loyal to her new lover, Rick; then loyal again to her husband when he reappears. Thus Lois Meredith became Ilsa Lund.
As for Ilsa's nationality, there was really only one logical choice -- Norwegian. This was for several reasons. First of all, most of the other Scandinavian countries were not in political favor at the time. This included Bergman's native country, Sweden, which was a neutral nation but was actively trading with the Axis nations. The Swedes were selling the Germans high-grade iron ore, precision ball-bearings used in aircraft engines and other war-related items. Because of this, Sweden was getting a considerable amount of bad press in the west. Denmark was out of the question because when the Germans invaded that country in April, 1940, the Danish Army offered only token resistance and the Danish Government and King Christian chose to remain in Copenhagen and were eventually forced to submit to the will of the Nazis.
Ilsa could not have been Finnish because Finland was at war with the Soviet Union and Britain, and Finnish troops were actively cooperating with the Germans inside the Soviet Union, particularly with regards to the Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg).
Ilsa might have been Icelandic, another Scandinavian nation, because Iceland had, by roundabout means, become an Allied nation. At the beginning of the war, Iceland was a possession of Denmark, but, under strong diplomatic pressure from Britain and the United States, proclaimed its independence and joined the Allies. But, all told, the American people knew little of Iceland and its people.
On the other hand, the Americans and other westerners had a strong love-hate relationship with Norway. The hate factor centered around one man, Vidkun Quisling. Quisling had been the leader of the small pre-war Norwegian Nazi Party known as the "Nasjonal Samling." When the Germans occupied Norway, Quisling sold his soul to the Germans in order to become Norway's top political leader. His cavorting with the enemy was so blatant and outrageous that he was vilified time and again in the western press to the point where his name became synonymous with "traitor." Throughout the war, the word "quisling" was used to describe others who betrayed their countries. That word came into such universal use that it survived the war and appears in most English language dictionaries. It still means traitor.
As for the love part of the equation, there was plenty. Americans had long admired the Norwegians as being peace-loving, democratic, hard-working, clean and honorable people. When the Germans attacked their country in April, 1940, their small army put up a heroic, but futile attempt to save the nation. The Government of King Haakon VII refused to surrender and fled to England to carry on the fight as a Government-in-exile. Rallying to that Government came the magnificent Norwegian merchant fleet, one of the largest in the world. That fleet, which consisted of more than 1,800 vessels, became a vital part of the Allies' worldwide sea-going transportation operations. A considerable number of Norwegian ships were sunk by enemy action during the war and many Norwegian merchant seamen gave their lives for the Allied cause.
Furthermore, the Norwegians had an unofficial, but very attractive ambassador in Hollywood during the time Casablanca was coming into being. She was ice skating champion Sonja Henie, an Olympic gold-medalist-turned-movie star. Henie appeared in a series of movies centered around ice skating, romance and popular music and became something of a darling daughter to everyone. In 1939, she was Hollywood's third-ranked star after Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.
Sonja Henie also had a popular ice show in which she starred and toured the nation.
In 1942, the British-made movie shown in the United States under the title The Avengers enjoyed some considerable success. This movie told the story of Norwegian resistance fighters who destroy a German submarine base with the help of British Commandos.
Warner Bros.' rivals, Twentieth Century-Fox and Columbia, were currently working on Norwegian films that would run concurrently with Casablanca. Twentieth Century-Fox's film was entitled The Moon is Down (1943) and was based on John Steinbeck's best-selling novel of the same name which related the story of a Norwegian town that resists the Nazis. Columbia's film was First Comes Courage (1943) that told the story of a Norwegian girl who appears to be a quisling but, in reality, is a spy for the Allies.
Furthermore, Warner Bros. had their own Norwegian film in the making entitled Edge of Darkness. This film, starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, told a story much like Twentieth Century-Fox's The Moon is Down about a Norwegian village fighting the Nazis. Helmut Dantine (Casablanca's Jan) was also in the film.
Given these conditions, could Ilsa, with her Scandinavian accent and wholesomeness, be anything other than Norwegian?
The Warner Bros. writers also slipped another Norwegian into the script. He is Berger, the Free French operative who reveals himself to Laszlo early in the movie by means of his ring which bears the Cross of Lorraine. Berger could have been any of several nationalities, and most likely should have been French. But, the Norwegian appeal was so strong in Hollywood that Norway won out again.
After Casablanca was released, Jack Warner was asked if the movie was beneficial in any way to the war effort. In reply, he cited the Ilsa character in the movie as promoting international understanding as a courageous Norwegian woman and a reminder of the suffering of the Norwegian people.
Excerpt by permission of Riebel-Roque Publishing Company. Copyright © 1997 by Riebel-Roque Publishing Company.