The Great American Film Why Casablanca still lives in our hearts and minds.

We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie

Noah Isenberg (2017, W.W. Norton & Company) 336 pages with notes, illustrations, and index

Howard Koch, co-screenwriter of the iconic film Casablanca, could never have guessed when he picked up his Oscar in 1943 that 20 years later another Oscar would enter his life: Oskar Schindler. Koch’s 1965 screenplay, To the Last Hour, was the first attempt to chronicle the tale that eventually became Schindler’s List. Many observers have commented on the similarities of the swashbuckling, enigmatic Schindler to Rick Blaine, Casablanca’s unforgettable hero. In a 1980 phone call Koch confided to me that Oskar Schindler was the most fascinating character he had ever encountered. More fascinating than one of the most famous characters in cinema history? Could some of Rick’s DNA have made it onto Schindler’s List?  I am shocked, er, was shocked when I heard it from the horse’s mouth.

This curious footnote is about the only one missed by noted film historian Noah Isenberg in his meticulously researched and engaging study, We’ll Always Have “Casablanca.” Isenberg has assembled an all-star cast of film critics, filmmakers, families of crew members, and fans from all walks of life to share their analysis, anecdotes and nostalgia for a film that Umberto Ecco has characterized as “‘not one movie; it is ‘movies.’” (XIII) From its humble origins in 1940 as an unproduced three-act stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, through its turbulent, chaotic production on the Warners assembly line, Casablanca, behind the scenes, had as much intrigue and as many exotic characters as was eventually captured onscreen. Isenberg introduces us to the major players, beginning with the unknown playwrights describing the birth of Rick: “While writing the play, certain characters were molded around composites of people that Burnett and Alison either knew personally or had read about. Burnett often claimed that Rick was a mix of an ideal version of “’himself and a college roommate.’” Here Alison took a different view: “’I always scream when he identifies with Rick, because he was a country boy, unsophisticated. Both of my husbands were wide-shouldered and fine athletes, and Rick was my concept of a guy that I could like. Clark Gable.’”  As for the female lead, the inspiration may well have come from across Burnett’s desk. “’Murray’s concept of sophisticated was me,’” insisted Alison. “’Lois was based on me.’” (13-14)

From its humble origins in 1940 as an unproduced three-act stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, through its turbulent, chaotic production on the Warners assembly line, Casablanca, behind the scenes, had as much intrigue and as many exotic characters as was eventually captured onscreen.

Lois, an American in the play, would soon become Ilsa in the film and thus began the constant changes and negotiations in a collaborative process that was shepherded by legendary mega-producer Hal Wallis. Isenberg provides us with studio memos exchanged between Wallis, Warners story editors and various screenwriters as the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s ‘will hereafter be known as Casablanca.’  

Isenberg takes the reader on a 1940’s Warners backlot tour through the script development process as contract writers Julius and Philip Epstein, a pair of wisecracking New Yorker twins began molding the classic characters of Rick, Ilsa, Laszlo and Captain Renault. The plucky brothers took “immense joy in ridiculing figures of power” and that attitude “found its way in tone and sensibility into the screenplay they hatched.”(24)

By 1942 the Epsteins were established pros and had already worked with Michael Curtiz, the director tapped to helm Casablanca. Isenberg cites film historian Patrick McGilligan’s 1983 interview with Julius Epstein to give us a flavor of the Warners writing assembly line: “For Epstein during the 1940’s, it didn’t much matter whether you received credit for a picture, since you were on contract and the studio knew the extent of your contribution. ‘There were seventy to seventy-five writers at Warners—it wasn’t called the motion picture industry for nothing. It was like an assembly line.’” (25)

Isenberg delineates stylistic differences between the Epsteins and Howard Koch, the next Casablanca writer down that line: “What the Epsteins were particularly good at was dialogue, often of the cheeky variety, and many of the final screenplay’s finest and most mordant lines can be traced back to them. The fast-paced, testosterone-laden banter between Rick and Renault bears their signature.” (25) Koch, by contrast, a relatively new contract writer at Warners, had worked with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the notorious 1938 Halloween episode of  War of the Worlds: “When he received drafts of the Epsteins’ script from Wallis Koch did not often share the twins’ approach. “‘They apparently see the situations in terms of their comic possibilities,’” he wrote in a memo to Wallis of May 11, 1942, “‘while my effort has been to legitimize the characters and develop a serious melodrama of present-day significance, using humor merely as a relief from dramatic tension.’” (28)

If the Epsteins were the Coen Bros. of their day, then Koch injected the screenplay with an Oliver Stone gravitas. Isenberg states that “Koch was keen on giving Rick, in particular, more political depth; his gunrunning habit in Ethiopia and his anti-fascist combat in Spain came from Koch.” The author further deep drills into the origins of oft-quoted lines of dialogue as he describes the Epstein brothers riding in a car along a “curvy patch of Sunset Boulevard. As Philip’s son Leslie tells it, stopped at a red light at the corner of Beverly Glen, still wracking their brains for the perfect formulation, they both turned to each other and, in unison, cried out: “’Round up the usual suspects!’” (27)

Isenberg’s own list of ‘usual suspects’ expands as the screenplay was polished by the highly paid, yet uncredited writer Casey Robinson (Now, Voyager), brought in by producer Wallis to shore up the romance. Of ironic note is Julius Epstein’s claim of Robinson’s only lasting contribution to the script, “the line ‘A franc for your thoughts in the Parisian flashback,’ which I always thought was a terrible line.” (30)

… if Isenberg tends to hang out too much dirty laundry, he quickly returns to the sweet aroma of nostalgia as he reflects on why this film is so deeply embedded in our hearts and psyches.

Isenberg speculates along with fellow film historians about the source of other iconic lines (“‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’”) and many of the film’s major players have taken credit for various script embellishments but we will always have these squabbles and if Isenberg tends to hang out too much dirty laundry, he quickly returns to the sweet aroma of nostalgia as he reflects on why this film  is so deeply embedded in our hearts and psyches.

Isenberg asserts that Casablanca is a film very much “of its time,” yet it is also “timeless,” appealing to succeeding generations. He quotes Hollywood journalist and film historian Aljean Harmetz  from Harmetz’s 1992 book, Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of  “Casablanca” ‘There are better movies than Casablanca, but no other movie better demonstrates America’s mythological vision of itself—tough on the outside and moral within, capable of sacrifice and romance without sacrificing the individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism. No other movie has so reflected both the moment when it was made—the early days of World War II—and the psychological needs of audiences decades later.’ (115)

Isenberg’s narrative becomes most evocative when describing the actual on-set production experience and he focuses on the influence refugees from Nazi-occupied nations had on every aspect of the production.  Life truly imitated art as “nearly all of the some 75 actors and actresses cast in Casablanca were immigrants. Among the fourteen who earned a screen credit, only three were born in the United States:  Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Joy Page, Jack Warner’s stepdaughter … Stage 8, where Rick’s Cafe was assembled, was known as International House.” (127)  The film’s director, Michael Curtiz was a Hungarian Jewish emigre and an early member of a growing number of German-speaking filmmakers that included Ernst Lubitsch, agent Paul Kohner, and writer Salka Viertel. These influential artists established the European Film Fund that assisted in bringing over refugees, providing stipends and securing work for authors and actors. Isenberg cites Casablanca cast members Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre and S.Z Sakall as chief donors to the fund. “By the 1940’s, more than fifteen hundred film professionals from Germany and Austria alone had landed on the West Coast, where they began to change the flavor of their adopted city.” (126)

Isenberg’s narrative becomes most evocative when describing the actual on-set production experience and he focuses on the influence refugees from Nazi-occupied nations had on every aspect of the production. Life truly imitated art as “nearly all of the some 75 actors and actresses cast in Casablanca were immigrants. Among the fourteen who earned a screen credit, only three were born in the United States … ”

Speaking to the aura of authenticity lent to Casablanca by refugee cast members from 30 nations, film critic Pauline Kael observed:  “If you think of Casablanca and think of those small roles being played by Hollywood actors faking the accents, the picture wouldn’t have had anything like the color and tone it had.” (128)

The emotional force that infuses the group scenes in Rick’s Cafe emphasizes the plight of stranded refugees and is yet another factor in explaining the film’s continued relevance to contemporary audiences. Isenberg points out visual stylistic devices that further bolster the global implications of the narrative. The film’s prologue, as envisioned by Hal Wallis, was laid out in a memo on August 1, 1942:

 

“‘For the opening of the picture, immediately preceding the montage of the refugees we would like to have a spinning globe–an unusual, interesting shot, sketchily lighted. As the globe’s spinning slackens and stops, the camera zooms up to the general vicinity of our locale, and at that point you can dissolve to your montage.’” (131)

 

In a chapter entitled “‘We’ll Always Have Paris,’” Isenberg delves into the depiction and execution of the romance between Ilsa and Rick which forms the emotional core of the picture. An examination of the Production Code concerns and how Casablanca’s filmmakers navigated through a minefield of censorship notes affords an inside look at the challenges faced by the production team. Isenberg sees that one of the “great triumphs of Casablanca comes from its subtle, ambiguous, often oblique handling of love, sex, and romance. Throughout the film, what is left unsaid is every bit as important as, if not more important than, what’s said… The kind of intricate storytelling employed by the film’s writers, director, producer, cast, and crew relies on deferred and largely denied satisfaction. This … only heightens the intense longing and invites narrative participation from the viewer’s imagination … to help fill in the gaps of a story that remains otherwise incomplete.” (165)

The author further asserts that the film’s reliance on romantic flashbacks aids in circumventing the censor’s concern that Rick and Ilsa are engaged in an “‘adulterous relationship.’” In his description of the flashback of them dancing rhumba cheek to cheek, Isenberg uses anecdotal evidence to further take the reader into the personal life of the on-set experience. “Hal Wallis insisted on the use of the “seductive rhythms of ‘Perfidia’ … in the swank ballroom of a Parisian nightclub (a scene that Bogart purportedly dreaded, for fear of the awkward height differential between him and Bergman and his known lack of skill as a dancer).”(165)

Isenberg sees that one of the “great triumphs of Casablanca comes from its subtle, ambiguous, often oblique handling of love, sex, and romance. Throughout the film, what is left unsaid is every bit as important as, if not more important than, what’s said …” 

Later in this chapter, Isenberg returns to consider additional screenplay changes made to bolster the love story and it is here that We’ll Always Have Casablanca meanders in extraneous biographical background on Casey Robinson, the uncredited screenwriter. The reader is once again plunged into sour-graping from the writers’ memoirs as decades later they continued jockeying for credit. As time went by and Casablanca’s stature climbed to the top of everyone’s greatest film list the early fathers sought to claim increased paternity rights. Those bragging rights were inherited by various sons and daughters and Isenberg quotes liberally from Philip Epstein’s heirs. Readers who wish to pursue branches of the Epstein family tree for trivia be delighted to discover Philip’s grandson, Theo, who recently brought more gold into the family vault as the president of baseball operations of the World Champion Chicago Cubs.

In my own research for this review I was personally rewarded to find Howard Koch’s son, Peter, a retired marine biology professor and ecologist, living in his family home in upstate New York … on of all streets, Casablanca Lane. In a recent phone interview, I asked him, first, for his thoughts on whether Howard had injected elements of Rick Blaine into his portrayal of Oskar Schindler. He agreed that the original line, “‘I stick my neck out for nobody,’” could apply to both Rick and Oskar when we first meet them.

“But each of them ended up doing the right thing.”  Koch also buried any hatchets from his dad’s closet when he said that, in his later years, Howard’s final take on the writing “partnership” was that “it was a joint effort, everybody chimed in and it was a very collaborative endeavor.” Peter Koch went on to say that, at the time, his father and all associated with the production were “… very unsure of how the film would turn out. There were lots of changes all the way through. They initially didn’t think it was going to be a success. There was great trepidation.”

Noah Isenberg puts that trepidation to rest in the final chapter, “’A Beautiful Friendship.’” In addition to his own conclusions on the film’s enduring legacy, he includes a round-robin of testimonials from scholars, critics and die-hard fans.

Isenberg cites Kenneth Turan’s endorsement in Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film: “‘The finished film manages the feat of being as political as it is romantic, a story where humor, idealism, cynicism, espionage, melodramatics, and even deadly gunplay all play a part. It’s almost like a whole season of films crammed into a single 102-minute package.’” (246)

Isenberg’s thorough research and his relaxed, engaging style make this a must-read for scholar and fan alike. I think this is a renewal of a beautiful friendship with a film we know and love.

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