Maddow Sidekick Kent Jones Sorely 'Misinformed' About 'Casablanca'

Kent Jones, a former Air America Radio humorist and writer for "The Daily Show," has his moments when he appears each weeknight on "The Rachel Maddow Show."

But based on Jones' whopper of a claim about the movie "Casablanca," film criticism is not his forte.

Here's what Jones said May 5 on Maddow's MSNBC show in describing recent articles by Stephen M. Walt and Daniel W. Drezner on the best films about international relations --

Two writers from Slate.com, Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner, each made a list. High on both lists was "Casablanca," which makes the radical claim that America is just one part of the rest of the world.

The segment segues to a clip from the film, showing Humphrey Bogart's cynical saloonkeeper Rick Blaine (yes, that was his last name) and Claude Raines' amoral French police captain Louis Renault --

RICK: I came to Casablanca for the waters.

RENAULT: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.

RICK: I was misinformed.

As was Jones if he believes the America in "Casablanca" is "just one part of the rest of the world." This is not merely inaccurate. More accurately, it could hardly be more wrong.

In fact, America is mentioned tellingly in "Casablanca" dialogue immediately preceding that cited by Jones, as Rick and Renault look up to see a plane take off from the nearby airfield --

RENAULT: The plane to Lisbon (pause) You would like to be on it?

RICK: Why? What's in Lisbon?

RENAULT: The clipper to America (pause) I have often speculated on why you don't return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man. It's the romantic in me.

RICK: It was a combination of all three.

RENAULT: And what in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?

RICK: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters ...

Moreover, the significance of the New World in the context of the film is quickly established in the voiceover narration that opens the movie--

With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, or auto, or foot, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca -- and wait -- and wait -- and wait.

And where do many of those fleeing Europe converge after reaching Casablanca? To a nightclub and gambling den by the name of "Rick's Cafe Americain." As Renault tells the German major Strasser, "Everybody comes to Rick's." 

Strasser is in pursuit of Victor Laszlo, a Czech Resistance leader accompanied by his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Unbeknownst to Laszlo, Ilsa was once in love with Rick, in Paris shortly before the German invasion, when she mistakenly thought Laszlo was dead.

Much of the action in "Casablanca" centers around Strasser's ruthless efforts to find two stolen letters of transit that ensure escape from Casablanca. Strasser accurately believes a petty thief named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) gave the letters to Rick --

STRASSER:  I strongly suspect that Ugarte left the letters of transit with Mr. Blaine. I would suggest you search the cafe immediately and thoroughly.

RENAULT: If Rick had the letters, he's much too smart to let you find them there.

STRASSER: You give him credit for far too much cleverness. My impression was that he's just another blundering American.

An earlier version of America as "just one part of the rest of the world." To which Renault responds with one of the best lines in the movie --

RENAULT: We mustn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.

This is the extent of Renault's defiance of Strasser, at least initially, and he compliantly bends to Nazi pressure. Renault tells Rick that Laszlo is trying to escape to the United States and warns him not to help --

RENAULT: Rick, Laszlo must never reach America. He stays in Casablanca.

Laszlo later tells Rick why it is essential for him to flee for the States --

LASZLO: You must know it's very important that I get out of Casablanca. It's my privilege to be one of the leaders of a great movement. You know what I have been doing. You know what it means to the work, to the lives of thousands and thousands of people that I be free to reach America and continue my work.

Laszlo and Ilsa are hardly alone in their rationale for coming to Casablanca. It is shared by the aging German couple, the Leuchtags, who speak in broken English and toast their imminent departure with brandy served by Carl the waiter -

MRS. LEUCHTAG (beaming with happiness): To celebrate our leaving for America tomorrow.

CARL (sitting down): Thank you very much. I thought you would ask me, so I brought the good brandy and a third glass.

MRS. LEUCHTAG: At last the day has come.

MR. LEUCHTAG: Frau Leuchtag and I are speaking nothing but English now.

MRS. LEUCHTAG: So we should feel at home ven ve get to America.

CARL: A very nice idea.

MR. LEUCHTAG (raising his glass): To America.

While the Leuchtags are elated at thoughts of their new home, the desperation of a newlywed couple to escape is palpable. The young woman, Annina Brandel, appeals to Rick for help while her husband loses at roulette--

RICK: How long have you been married?

ANNINA: Eight weeks. We come from Bulgaria. Oh, things are very bad there, Monsieur. The devil has the people by the throat. So, Jan and I, we, we do not want our children to grow up in such a country.

RICK: So you decided to go to America.

ANNINA: Yes, but we have not much money, and traveling is so expensive and difficult.

"The devil has the people by the throat" in Europe -- and can't be trusted to respect the neutrality of countries like Portugal. This is why those leaving Casablanca don't feel safe remaining in Lisbon. With evil gaining ground around the world, America is the only safe place left.

Jones's claim about "Casablanca" jogged my memory of an essay by Lance Morrow that appeared in Time magazine in December 1982,  coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the film's release --

Semioticians, who study the significance of signs and symbols, have discussed Casablanca as a myth of sacrifice. One can have fun with that. Consider it this way: America is the Promised Land, the place of safety and redemption. Rick Blaine has been cast out of America, for some original sin that is as obscure as the one that cost Adam and Eve their Eden. Rick flees to Europe, which is the fallen world where Evil (the Nazis, Satan) is loose. He meets and beds the widow of Idealism. Idealism (meaning Victor) is dead, or thought dead, but it rises from the grave. Rick, losing Ilsa, falls obliviously into despair and selfishness: "I stick my neck out for nobody." He becomes an idiot in the original Greek sense of the word, meaning someone indifferent to his duties as a citizen.

That Jones would make such a claim about "Casablanca" on the Maddow show comes as little surprise considering its namesake's penchant for Depression-era revisionism and shaky grasp of American history. Rather than accurately convey what America represents in "Casablanca," Jones inadvertently reveals what America means to him.

Updated by Noel Sheppard at 3:20 PM |  Jones isn't just clueless concerning "Casablanca," because a tad later in the segment, another inanity surfaced:

JONES: Also noted the 1997 film, "Wag the Dog" in which the government and media team up to invent a completely fictitious rationale for starting a war. Like that would ever happen.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Mushroom cloud -

Pretty preposterous given the war fabricated in "Wag" was to cover up the fictional president's sexual scandal. As such, when the film came out, most people thought it was pointing fingers at then President Clinton.

In fact, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, and Clinton implemented a strategy of regime change in Iraq months later, only to commence a four-day bombing mission -- Operation Desert Fox -- against that country in December, many considered it a "Wag the Dog" scenario designed to distract the public from looming impeachment proceedings.

This somehow eluded Jones and Maddow.

Of course, the original book that "Wag" was loosely based on was "American Hero" by Larry Beinhart. This was a satirical conspiracy theory alleging Bush 41 had started "Desert Storm" to further his re-election chances.

As such, by using this movie to bash Bush 43, Jones was once again demonstrating an ignorance of film, history, or both.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts