We'll Always Have Casablanca

nolead begins The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie nolead ends

nolead begins By Noah Isenberg

W.W. Norton.

334 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Chris Foran


Casablanca

isn't only one of the most beloved movies of all time; it's also one of the most written-about movies of all time.

Noah Isenberg, director of screen studies and professor of culture and media at the New School, does a good job of synthesizing all of that writing in We'll Always Have Casablanca. Junkies might not find a lot of new insights, but the book is a hugely readable and entertaining look at how Casablanca came to be, and how it came to be such an indelible part of American pop culture.

Casablanca got its start in a 1940 play called Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Though the play has been dismissed as so-so drama, Isenberg notes that much of what makes Casablanca what it is was in Everybody Comes to Rick's, down to "As Time Goes By."

In the film, casting was crucial. Contrary to reports that Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan would star in it, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were the preferred choices early on, and the supporting cast was filled with old pros who never missed their marks.

Isenberg shows how indebted Casablanca was to the many actors and extras in the cast who were refugees who had fled Hitler-dominated Europe.

"When shooting the Paris flashback scene of Rick and Ilsa at the French sidewalk cafe, in which the pair asks themselves how long it will be until the Germans storm the capital, one of the female extras burst into inconsolable tears," Isenberg writes. "A small bearded man, another extra on the set, purportedly walked over to the director and tapped him on the shoulder. 'I am very sorry, sir,' he said to [Michael] Curtiz. 'But that is my wife. Please pardon her. You see, our home was in Paris. And we went through that awful day.' "

Casablanca was an immediate hit and won three Oscars, including for best picture. It gained a sheen of hipness in the 1950s with help from French New Wave critics and U.S. campus film societies.

Since then, the movie has only gotten bigger. It ranks second on the American Film Institute's 100 best movies list (Citizen Kane is No. 1) and first on AFI's list of 100 most romantic movies. It has six quotes on AFI's top 100 movie quotes list and is No. 2 on AFI's best movie songs list ("As Time Goes By").

Reading We'll Always Have Casablanca will almost certainly make you want to watch it again.

And that can only lead to the rekindling of a beautiful friendship.

This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.