WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA: THE LIFE, LEGEND, AND AFTERLIFE OF HOLLYWOOD'S MOST BELOVED MOVIE
By Noah Isenberg
W.W. Norton, $27.95, 336 pages
"Casablanca" is one of the most beloved American classic movies, and is the most shown film on the Turner Classic Movie Channel. However, it also the most powerful piece of propaganda produced by Hollywood during World War II.
That is no small feat considering that every American popular film produced from 1942 to 1945 was "strongly encouraged" to include some patriotic or anti-Axis content. In "We'll Always Have Casablanca," Noah Isenberg tells the story of how the movie was made and how it became a cult classic.
Most readers already know the movie, but for those who don't, here is a quick plot summary: Casablanca of the early 1940s is ruled by Vichy France, a vassal state of Nazi Germany. There is a strong German presence in the city to ensure that the local Vichy official adheres to the German line.
American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns the most popular nightclub/casino in town. He has a vaguely shady past that includes fighting on the rebel side in the Spanish Civil War and running guns to the Ethiopians fighting the against fascist Italy. One day, his former lover Ilsa Laslow (Ingrid Bergman) shows up with her husband Victor in tow. Victor is a famous anti-Nazi resistance fighter who has escaped from German clutches and is attempting to get a coveted Letter of Transit in order to escape to America via neutral Portugal.
Rick and Ilsa had their affair in Paris at a time when Ilsa presumed Victor dead; she left Rick without explanation when she discovers that Victor is alive. Rick is a professed neutral who "sticks my head out for nobody." The plot revolves around Rick's and Ilsa's desire to be with each other as opposed to the need to do the right thing by helping Laslow escape the Nazis. The wild card in the plot is Louis (Claude Raines), the corrupt local French police chief who holds Victor's life in his hands.
Those readers who have not seen the movie have undoubtedly heard its most classic lines in some context; these include: "Play it again, Sam" (the exact line was never said that way), "round up the usual suspects," "we'll always have Paris," and "here's looking at you, kid."
The backstory of Mr. Isenberg's book is the pre-world war struggle by a group of immigrant American filmmakers led by the Warner Brothers to wake up Americans to the existential threat of Nazism to American democracy. They were opposed by isolationist and right-wing groups such as the German-American Bund, the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan, and even aviator hero Charles Lindbergh.
Then as now, Hollywood was largely left of center, and it did not help that many of the filmmakers were Jewish immigrants themselves, and their opponents painted them as left-wing radicals trying to drag the United States into yet another old Europe conflict. The difference was that the filmmakers were right in this case. Unlike today's Hollywood luminaries, they were not anti-war activists.
Unfortunately, the author glosses over the fact that a small minority actually were hard core communists and Soviet fellow travelers. Conservative readers will note the irony that the tactics used by the isolationists to limit free speech by the Warner Brothers are very similar to those used today by self-designated anti-fascist groups and college liberals seeking to bar conservative speakers from campuses.
Fortunately for all concerned, Hitler declared war on America following Pearl Harbor, making the isolationist argument moot. "Casablanca" came out in 1942 at a time when President Roosevelt badly needed anti-Nazi sentiment. The movie portrayed the Nazis for the thugs they really were.
This is not a book for the general reader. Fanatic "Casablanca" fans and film buffs - and there are lots of them - will thoroughly enjoy it. For the general reader and casual "Casablanca" fans there is too much information and trivia. I am among the latter, and I found myself skipping over the sections about attempted remakes, spoofs and spin-offs. Particularly annoying is the author's obsession with the "La Marseillaise" scene where Rick's patrons drown out a group of drunk Germans by singing the French national anthem. It is an admittedly stirring scene, but it does not merit the many pages devoted to it.
Overall, the ultimate product has the feel of a good Atlantic magazine article padded to book length with the thorough research done by the author, who is obviously devoted to the subject. Hard core fans and World War I buffs will like it, but it will probably only find a niche market.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who lectures at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.