Book World: ‘Casablanca’: It’s still the same old story, but it never gets old

We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie

We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie

By Noah Isenberg

W.W. Norton. 334 pp. $27.95

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Reading Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have Casablanca” is like cleaning out the family home after your parents are gone. From decades past you find things to keep and things to toss. You’re overwhelmed, but all the stuff gives you insight into the way you were and may still be.

Isenberg comes up with a lot to rummage through. The author of a biography of filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer, he has mined files, archives and published sources on “Casablanca.” Yes, much of what’s here has been published before, but along with the familiar and the trivial, he offers a lot that’s fresh and perceptive. In a chapter on casting, for instance, he sketches out a Paul Henreid who was not quite as suave in life as his Victor Laszlo character is in the film. Balking at playing second lead to Humphrey Bogart, Henreid called the script “terrible … really rotten.” When Henreid was off set, exasperated cast member Claude Rains allegedly called him “Paul Hemorrhoid.”

Beyond good dish, Isenberg makes some insightful contributions to “Casablanca” lore, too. His opening chapter argues for the influence of the screenplay’s source, Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” Perhaps because the play never made it to Broadway, many “Casablanca” histories discount its influence upon the film. But Isenberg shows that “large swaths of dialogue” and “quite a few important set pieces and character descriptions” from the play found their way into the movie.

More vitally, Isenberg points out that the play brought to the film a theme that the plot’s romantic triangle overshadows – and one that current events makes timely. Visiting Vienna during a summer holiday in 1938, Burnett, who, Isenberg says, was “nominally Jewish,” witnessed “virulent forms of institutional anti-Semitism that had been enthusiastically adopted by the annexed state [Austria] in May of that year.” Murray also learned of the “refugee trail,” the route followed by Jews and others from Marseille to Morocco and then, if they were lucky, to the United States.

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Isenberg’s sharp profile makes clear that in 1941 Warner Bros. was the perfect home for “Casablanca.” Spearheaded by contract player Edward G. Robinson, the studio had produced gritty, black-and-white melodramas warning against fascism, including “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939), the story of a Nazi spy ring operating in New York City. With a call-to-arms theme implicit in the film’s stirring final scene, “Casablanca” fell in line with the studio’s interventionist bent.

Isenberg’s discussions of the film, its stars, its production and its ongoing impact, often have the air of a panel session, with Isenberg moving things along as moderator. Considering Bogart’s character, Isenberg points out that Rick Blaine links “to a long line of heroes of the American western, men who similarly know when to do the right thing, even if it means taking the law into their own hands.”

It’s frustrating, then, when this observant and astute author quotes others to cap a point. He turns to Stefan Kanfer’s biography of Bogart to sum up the actor’s image. To end the book, he defers to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Had Isenberg let his own views prevail, the book would have a stronger authorial voice and a sharper focus. Clearly, he can hold down center stage, as his description of the film’s enduring place makes clear: “[‘Casablanca’] flickers, as bravely and beautifully as ever, in the glorious black-and-white shadows of our imagination.”

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From all that Isenberg presents in “You Must Remember Casablanca,” that quote is something to keep.

Bartell is an arts writer in Manhattan.