Dec 20, 2017

Book Review--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
Noah Isenberg
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017

Few films have won the unanimous acclaim of the classic to end all classics Casablanca (1942). While the World War II era romantic drama has had plenty of detractors over the years, no one can deny its enduring impact on movie culture and the unique magnetism which has always held it above other cinematic works. Now, to celebrate the movie’s 75th year entrancing audiences, Noah Isenberg has written an in depth celebration and exploration of the film.

The book follows the progression of this celluloid phenomenon from its stage play origins to the way it has influenced audiences and artists throughout the years. It’s an interesting journey, as the production takes on new layers of meaning through each step of its existence.

As the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s the essential plot that formed the basis of Casablanca was intriguing enough to attract the attention of studio heads, but as not much more than a story that could attract enough ticket buyers to turn a profit. It is on the movie set where this budding classic found its soul. While there was a member of the production who called one of the trio of stars “Paul Hemorrhoid”, it seems that for the most part the set was a happy one. It is here that the combination of great screenwriters, the dedication of director Michael Curtiz, perfectly cast roles and the very real connection of the supporting players to the story that the film became something more significant than the latest attraction.

That last element is key to the significance of Casablanca and one of Isenberg’s most interesting points: this film about refugees was packed full of actual refugees playing their own lives. Performers like Marcel Dalio, S.K. Sakall and Conrad Veidt had all escaped with their lives from Nazis. Though grateful to be safe and employed, Veidt was particularly bothered that he found the final successes of his life effectively playing the Nazis he had loathed. The set was filled with actors like these, speaking various languages, enjoying the California sun, but longing for home. They offered each other support, and their own traumas and fears gave the final product a feeling of authentic heartbreak and peril.

The rich diversity of the cast, coupled with a witty and sometimes subversive script gave Casablanca an edge over other productions of its time. Isenberg details the various contributors to the script, from the stolid Howard Koch to the playful twin writing partners Julius Epstein and Philip Epstein, with some mention also given to the uncredited contributions of Casey Robinson. He also gives ample attention to the remarkably talented, wide-ranging cast, paying particularly poignant tribute to vocalist Dooley Wilson, whose rendition of the film’s love theme captures its spirit.

Isenberg’s production notes and analysis of the unusually devoted fan following to develop in the decades after the film’s release are tightly and effectively written, forging a confident and compelling narrative. He is less surefooted when he explores the cultural impact of the film, losing a bit of organizational sharpness and occasionally granting excessive significance and attention to the various cinematic, literary and musical offerings inspired by Casablanca. However, this is for the most part a solid, compelling work which successfully reveals the essence of this remarkable film and analyzes the source of its magic with great conviction.

Many thanks to W.W. Norton & Company for providing a copy of the book for review.

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