Sunday 23 October 2016

Obituary: Madeleine Lebeau

Actress whose career peaked with the iconic rendition of La Marseillaise in the Bogart classic Casablanca

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Stirring: Madeleine Lebeau with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Photo: Alamy
Stirring: Madeleine Lebeau with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Photo: Alamy

The French actress Madeleine Lebeau, who has died aged 92, was the last surviving cast member of Casablanca (1942). She is best known for her tearful but defiant singing of La Marseillaise and cry of "Vive La France!" in one of the film's most memorable and moving scenes.

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Although her role as Yvonne, the spurned ex-lover of Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, was small, it was crucial to the film. Her relationship with Rick, the disaffected bar owner in Vichy-controlled Casablanca during the war, revealed Bogart's character as that of an embittered and lonely man, seemingly uninterested in any kind of commitment, let alone a lasting relationship with a woman.

"Where were you last night?" Yvonne asks Rick. "That's so long ago," he replies, "I don't remember."

"Will I see you tonight?" she persists. "I never make plans that far ahead."

Cast off by Rick, she then goes off with a German officer, but is redeemed in a scene which has come to be known as the "duel of anthems". Set in Rick's bar, it begins with a group of Nazi officers singing Die Wacht am Rhein, a patriotic German folk song. When the Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) hears the song, he tells the band: "Play the Marseillaise! Play it!" The band members look at Rick, who nods to them, thereby finally taking a stand against the Nazis and allying himself with the Resistance.

Laszlo begins the song alone, but soon others - including the dolefully beautiful and moist-eyed Yvonne - are joining in; the music swells and La Marseillaise drowns out Die Wacht am Rhein.

Many cast members of Casablanca were refugees from Europe who had recently fled Nazi occupation. Madeleine Lebeau herself had left France for Hollywood with her then husband, Marcel Dalio, a French actor of Jewish origin, shortly before the Germans invaded Paris.

During the filming of the "duel of anthems", several of the actors were genuinely crying. "They brought to a dozen small roles in Casablanca," wrote the film historian Aljean Harmetz "an understanding and a desperation that could never have come from central casting."

Marie Madeleine Berthe Lebeau was born in Paris on June 10, 1923. At the age of 16, she was given a small role in a play starring Dalio. The actor, who was 20 years her senior, was captivated by her beauty and they married in 1939.

In June 1940, the couple fled Paris via Spain and Portugal and managed to obtain visas to Chile. En route to South America, however, their ship stopped in Mexico, where, after discovering that their Chilean visas were forgeries, they managed to get temporary Canadian passports and finally reached the US.

Madeleine Lebeau's first Hollywood film was Hold Back the Dawn (1941), starring Olivia de Havilland. This was followed by an appearance the following year in the Errol Flynn picture, Gentleman Jim, after which she was cast as Yvonne in Casablanca and signed to Warner Brothers.

While she was filming her scenes in Casablanca, Dalio, who played Emil the croupier in the film, filed for divorce. Professional disappointment followed when Warners terminated her contract shortly before Casablanca's release. She had hoped that the film would be her stepping stone to Hollywood stardom, but it was, instead, her finest hour.

In 1943, she appeared in the French underground drama Paris After Dark (1943) and the following year had a role in Music for Millions, a musical with Margaret O'Brien and Jimmy Durante.

After the war, however, she returned to France, appearing in Cage of Gold (1950).

Her later films included Une Parisienne (1957), starring Brigitte Bardot, and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963).

In November 2015, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris, the "duel of anthems", a two-minute YouTube video of Madeleine Lebeau's rousing scene, was shared by thousands to show solidarity with the victims.

Madeleine, who died on May 1, married the Italian screenwriter Tullio Pinelli in 1988. He died in 2009.

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