We Must Remember Casablanca

Jan. 19, 2017
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Casablanca is among the great movies of classic Hollywood and, alongside a considerably different film, The Wizard of Oz, it remains the most beloved. And unlike the carefully composed Citizen Kane, which usually outranks it among film historians, Casablanca resulted form a series of happy accidents. Success, it is said, has many fathers, and this was never truer than in Casablanca. Noah Isenberg reminds us of the movie’s enduring emotional power in We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie (W.W. Norton).

Director of “screen studies” at the New School, Isenberg has done his research, mined the archives and read the secondary sources. He hasn’t unearthed anything startling but winnows facts from the legends that have grown around the production. No, Ronald Reagan was never seriously considered for the role Humphrey Bogart played, but George Raft was put forward for the part by no less than Jack Warner—Col. Jack Warner by that time. Yes, Hedy Lamarr and Ann Sheridan were among the actresses rejected for the role that fell to Ingrid Bergman.

It’s difficult to imagine Casablanca without Bogart and Bergman. With Raft as Rick and Lamarr as Ingrid, the quantum uncertainty of human chemistry would almost certainly have resulted in a far more ordinary wartime Hollywood picture. In that parallel universe, Casablanca might nowadays fill the 10 a.m. timeslot on TCM. No one would think to honor it with a book. “Here’s looking at you kid,” would draw a blank stare.

The urtext behind Casablanca was an unproduced stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. It “contains much of the raw material, not to mention the well-chiseled characters and inspired plot points, that would be transported to the big screen,” Isenberg writes. Their agent shopped it around Hollywood for over a year with no luck until it was read by Warner Brothers producer Hal B. Wallis days after Pearl Harbor. A genuine sense of urgency crackles throughout the resulting film, which manages, unlike most of Hollywood’s contributions to the war effort, to convey the risk of high stakes. Watching Casablanca, we feel that the Nazis were an existential threat to America, not boogiemen or cardboard villains.

The process of writing and rewriting a “property” purchased in Hollywood often results in pulping that material, trading lifeblood for clichés. Somehow, with Casablanca, the process produced a stronger screenplay. Again, that quantum uncertainty of human chemistry—a fruitful collaboration whose results represented everyone’s best efforts. Julius and Philip Epstein, known for their effervescent comedies, provided cheeky dialogue. Howard Koch took their handiwork and infused it with political content. After his turn, the script went back to Epsteins who lightened Koch’s ponderous tendencies. Next, Wallis brought in Casey Robinson, an ace at writing love scenes. The result was magic.

As Isenberg points out, Casablanca as we know it couldn’t have happened at any other studio. Warner Brothers was the scrappiest outfit in Hollywood, known more for grit than gloss and the only studio to stand against the Nazis before American entered the war, regardless of losing market share in German-occupied Europe.

The afterlife of Casablanca almost got off to a bad start as Warner Brothers drew plans for a sequel, tentatively called Tangier. Fortunately, Casablanca’s image was never tarnished by a disappointing follow-up; “studio-bred cousins” such as Passage to Marseilles didn’t spoil the memories. Although it came from the Casablanca template, To Have or Have Not found its own unique chemistry thanks in part to Bogart and his new partner, Lauren Bacall.

In America, Casablanca’s status as a classic grew out of repertory art house screenings that began in 1957 at a cinema near Harvard. The cult soon grew into the scale of a major religion. By then, Casablanca already made deep inroads into the French imagination when it arrived in theaters after war’s end. “Casablanca remains, intriguingly and seductively, a story without an ending,” Isenberg concludes. The fable of love and sacrifice, as Umberto Eco once said, encompasses half-a-dozen archetypes and is “not one movie. It is movies.”

We'll Always Have Casablanca will be published in February.

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