A film scholar explores the legendary history and lasting appeal of Casablanca (1942).
Casablanca remains one of the most memorable films ever produced. A star-making vehicle for its two lead actors, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, it has served as a textbook example of how the studio system, in this case Warner Brothers, applied its best efforts and assets in producing a film of exceptional merit. As Isenberg (Screen Studies/The New School; Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, 2014, etc.) notes, the film required complex collaborations among several of Warner’s most talented writers, composers, set decorators, and cinematographers, and it featured iconic performances by popular contract players such as Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. The original source, an unproduced play titled Everyone Comes to Rick’s, didn’t appear destined for greatness when it sold to the studio in late 1941. Yet under the guidance of studio heads Jack Warner and Hal Wallis, and aligning with the timely events of a country about to enter the war, the prescient material would have an urgent appeal. “Thanks not only to the fortuitous timing of its release,” writes the author, “but also to the sly intermingling of history, politics, and fiction, Casablanca gave viewers the chance to reflect on the current state of the world…while also feeding their appetite for entertainment at the movies—larger-than-life characters, exotic backdrops, heart-wrenching romance, and plenty of glimpses of universally identifiable, basic humanity.” Isenberg has scrupulously researched the developmental details of the production, and he offers an interesting dissection of the legendary script contributions and in-depth background histories of the many bit players featured in the film. However, in focusing the latter portion of the book on the film’s continuing impact, he tends to broadly overstate his message, expansively recounting every film revival, TV and theatrical offshoot, parody, and just about every example where there has been occasion for reference over the last several years. These exhaustive details are likely to interest only the most die-hard fans of the film.
A thoroughly researched and frequently enlightening but somewhat ponderous tribute to a beloved classic.