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Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have Casablanca…”

Dear Commons Community,

This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the release of the movie, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Just in time, Noah Isenberg has authored, We’ll Always Have Casablanca:  The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie.  The movie became a cult favorite in my parent’s generation for a number of reasons but mainly because it was a great love story that gave people hope in the early years of World War II.  In addition, it is a tense movie set in an exotic locale where people of different nationalities are fleeing the cruelty of the Nazi regime and trying to escape to the United States.   

I have just finished reading Isenberg’s book and as a Casablanca fan, I found it provided provocative insights into the movie, the script, and especially the actors.  I like the vignettes of the secondary cast such as Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, Rick’s piano playing buddy.  Conrad Veidt, who played the Nazi Commander  Heinrich Strasser, out to detain Victor Laszlo, actually emigrated from Germany because he was deeply concerned about the safety of his Jewish wife. He is quoted as saying:  “I know this man (Strasser) well.  He is the reason I left Germany many years ago. He is the man who turned lunatic and betrayed his friends, his homeland, and himself in his lust to be somebody and to get something for nothing.”  Isenberg also captures well the emotions of the movie especially as generated from the music namely the refrain of As Time Goes By, and the tear-rendering singing of La Marseillaise. 

In sum, I highly recommend Isenberg’s book for Casablanca fans. Below is an excerpt from the New York Times book review by Peter Biskind.

Tony

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“We’ll Always Have Casablanca” was written by Noah Isenberg, the director of screen studies at the New School, and probably best known for a biography of Edgar G. Ulmer, a B-film director much beloved by cineastes. Here, Isenberg gives us the soup-to-nuts on “Casablanca,” dutifully making his way through script, casting, production and reception, to the inevitable squabbling over credit, all the while trying to account for its enduring popularity.

“Casablanca” was rooted in a trip that the aspiring playwright Murray Burnett and his wife took to Vienna in the summer of 1938, just after they were married. Austria had overwhelmingly voted to serve itself up to the German Anschluss that March, and was busy implementing the notorious Nuremberg Laws. Burnett quickly discovered that it was not the best place for Jews on their honeymoon. But getting out of Vienna was considerably harder than getting in, especially since Burnett, wearing diamond rings on every finger, and his wife, wearing a fur coat in August, were smuggling out valuables belonging to relatives. When they reached the South of France, they stopped at a cafe full of refugees and army officers. Burnett said to his wife, “What a setting for a play.”

Burnett developed his play with his writing partner, Joan Alison, but could not get it produced. He did, however, manage to sell it to Warner Brothers, generally known for its progressive pictures, and in particular a series of anti-Nazi films like “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” released in 1939, when other studios were still trying to protect their German assets.

Nobody involved with “Casablanca” had high expectations for the picture, although it was written by the colorful Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, and Howard Koch. The Epsteins were widely admired for their witty dialogue, on and off screen. Of the film, Julius once said, “There wasn’t one moment of reality in ‘Casablanca.’ We weren’t making art. We were making a living.” Nevertheless, when it was released, it became an instant hit, and won three Oscars, including best picture. It’s all in Isenberg’s account, and “Casablanca” fans will find it to be a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes.

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