Monday, February 19, 2018

We’ll Always Have Casablanca by Noah Isenberg

Reviewed by Jeanne

2017 marked the 75th anniversary of the release of “Casablanca,” the iconic film starring Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Raines, and Paul Henreid. Isenberg’s book, published to coincide with the milestone anniversary, is subtitled The Life, the Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. While that may sound like hyperbole, there is certainly an argument to be made that the film deserves the title and all the accolades.

For one thing, it’s a pop culture touchstone.  Even those who have never seen Casablanca recognize quotations from the film:  “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the worlds, she walks into mine.”  “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Arguably the most famous one of all, “Play it again, Sam” is a bogus quote.  Ilsa says, “Play it once, Sam, for old time’s sake.  Play it, Sam.  Play As Time Goes By.”  Rick’s later line is “You played it for her, you can play it for me. . .  Play it!”

Then there’s the incredible cast. Interestingly enough, the cast did reflect the movie setting in that  there were only three American-born actors in the main cast; everyone else was an immigrant or refugee, giving a sense of authenticity to the piece.  Many of the actors had intimate knowledge of the situation, having fled Europe to escape the Nazis.  Conrad Veidt who played the villainous Major Strasser had been a major film star in Germany before he and his Jewish wife left for England. Veidt said he knew Strasser’s type well:  a man who had betrayed his friends and his country to become a somebody. He plays the character just that way.

Isenberg spends the first section of the book documenting the movie’s genesis.  Perhaps oddly, the idea germinated when a young man and his bride honeymooned in Europe; it began its literary life as a play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s.  Isenberg concentrates on the personalities involved, and all the fingerprints that ended up on the script.  Each person who tweaked the script had a different idea of how the movie should work, keeping in mind all the time the rigid movie code of the day.  A number of lines were altered or cut as being too suggestive. It’s also why Ilse has a line which implies that her husband is dead because otherwise she and Rick might be seen as adulterers. 

The book did begin to drag a little for me when the author started discussing other projects that referenced Casablanca, but didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the book.  However, I very much liked reading how the movie itself was received in other parts of the world: in some cases, the references to the Third Reich and Nazis were cut, shortening the movie considerably, as one might imagine.

Isenberg did credit other sources for some of his material, especially Round Up the Usual Suspects:  The Making of Casablanca by Aljean Harmetz.  First published in 1992, Harmetz was able to personally interview more of those connected with making the film.  I’m adding that book to my reading list.

In short, this is a book best read with a copy of the movie close at hand so you can check out the various scenes and characters. Some scenes may play a bit differently when the background is known, but it doesn't really detract from the film for me.  Sam can play it as many times as he likes.

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