UW News

March 26, 2013

Documents that Changed the World: The ‘Casablanca’ letters of transit

UW News

Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 film "Casablanca"

Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 film “Casablanca.”

For the latest installment of his Documents that Changed the World podcast series, Joe Janes chose a completely fictional document that nevertheless became well known: The famous “letters of transit” from the 1942 movie “Casablanca” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

In the podcasts, Janes, professor in the UW Information School, explores the origin and evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these periodically, and all of the podcasts are available online.

A contrivance of the film’s (multiple) writers, the imaginary letters of transit allowed the bearer to travel through Nazi-occupied countries and set up action and motivation in the film story.

“I’m a major film nut, and of course, ‘Casablanca’ is ‘Casablanca,'” Janes said when asked why he chose this particular fictional document. “I’ve known for years that there were no such things as letters of transit, but in researching this I learned just how compelling that idea would have been in 1943 given the context of travel at that time.”

He added, “I think that’s something we can’t fully appreciate now, just how appealing and tantalizing the idea is of being able to escape, to get away, in a chaotic and frightening world.”

Film dictionaries cite the letters as an example of a “MacGuffin,” a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock and writer Angus McPhail to describe a movie plot point deliberately left vague to keep from distracting from the larger story but interesting enough to propel the story’s action along. (The eerily glowing briefcase in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” is another great film MacGuffin.)

Janes packed the house in the downstairs auditorium of Town Hall on Feb. 27 when he discussed the Documents that Changed the World series and created a live podcast that evening. His lecture will soon be available for viewing on UWTV.

Janes continues to research and record new installments. The podcasts also are available at the iSchool website and on iTunes, where the series has passed its 25,000th download.

  • Joe Janes’ on UWTV: Janes’ “Documents that Changed the World” presentation at Town Hall on Feb. 27, 2013, will be shown on UWTV premiering at 10:30 p.m. Monday, April 22, and many times thereafter.