In honor of Casablanca‘s 75th anniversary, historian Noah Isenberg provides a lively account of the making of the 1942 Warner Bros. classic and why it has endured as “Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie.”
The sublime, if kitschy, love story set in Morocco during World War II (directed by Oscar winner Michael Curtiz) made Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman international superstars, displayed Hollywood moviemaking at its most polished, captured the anti-Nazi zeitgeist and won three Oscars (including best picture).
In We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie (Norton, 275 pp., **** out of four stars), Isenberg rounds up the usual historical facts:
►Casablanca was based on the unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, and championed by producer Hal Wallis — the movie’s creative force.
► The Oscar-winning screenplay was a patchwork, with the main contributions from twin scribes Julius and Philip Epstein, who supplied the sharp wit, and Howard Koch, who focused on the political drama.
► The project was always earmarked for Bogart.
Still, there’s something extraordinarily special about the lasting influence of Casablanca on the American psyche and on the world of cinema. As critic-philosopher Umberto Eco noted, Casablanca “is not one movie; it is ‘movies.’ ” Or as Bergman said, “It seems to have filled a need, a need that was there before the film.”
For Isenberg, who teaches at The New School in New York, Casablanca represents not only the best of Hollywood but also of this country, in which we united to defeat Hitler, and offered refuge to European emigres who fled Nazi Germany. This extends to Warner Bros., which was a leading studio in making anti-fascist movies and hiring European actors.
Aside from three actors (including Bogart and Dooley Wilson as Sam, the club’s popular African-American performer), the rest of the cast was international and many were refugees (headlined by Austrian Paul Henreid as resistance leader Laszlo, German Conrad Veidt as the villainous Major Strasser and German-speaking Peter Lorre as the slippery Ugarte).
Thus, Rick’s Cafe, the centerpiece of the movie, where everyone gathers, serves as a microcosm of romance and refuge. And in Bogart’s Rick Blaine (the actor’s first romantic performance), the cynical expatriate becomes a champion of the underdog, discovering a sense of heroic patriotism and self-sacrifice.
Isenberg’s great contribution is tying together the production and its legacy, especially the backstories of these European emigres and why their participation in Casablanca was so significant.
The author suggests that the pivotal scene occurs when Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), Rick’s ex-girlfriend, vigorously sings La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, to drown out the Nazi chorus of Die Wacht am Rhein, which inspires the cafe patrons to join in. She became the face of the French resistance, and this “sentiment encapsulates the magic of Casablanca,” Isenberg writes.
Interestingly, there’s even a Casablanca connection to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the multiple Oscar nominee, with its hero worship of Bergman and bittersweet finale in the jazz club. The message of love’s great sacrifice for greater goals lives on, 75 years later.
Bill Desowitz is author of James Bond Unmasked.