The fun­da­men­tal things ap­ply

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY GER­ALD BARTELL book­world@wash­ Ger­ald Bartell is an arts writer in Man­hat­tan.

Read­ing Noah Isen­berg’s “We’ll Al­ways Have Casablanca” is like clean­ing out the fam­ily home after your par­ents are gone. From decades past, you find things to keep and things to toss. You’re over­whelmed, but all the stuff gives you in­sight into the way you were and may still be.

Isen­berg comes up with a lot to rum­mage through. The au­thor of a bi­og­ra­phy of film­maker Edgar G. Ulmer, he has mined files, archives and pub­lished sources on “Casablanca.” Yes, much of what’s here has been pub­lished be­fore, but along with the fa­mil­iar and the triv­ial, he of­fers a lot that’s fresh and per­cep­tive. In a chap­ter on cast­ing, for in­stance, he sketches out a Paul Hen­reid who was not quite as suave in life as his Vic­tor Las­zlo char­ac­ter is in the film. Balk­ing at play­ing sec­ond lead to Humphrey Bog­art, Hen­reid called the script “ter­ri­ble … re­ally rot­ten.” When Hen­reid was off set, ex­as­per­ated cast mem­ber Claude Rains al­legedly called him “Paul He­m­or­rhoid.”

Be­yond good dish, Isen­berg makes some in­sight­ful con­tri­bu­tions to “Casablanca” lore, too. His open­ing chap­ter ar­gues for the in­flu­ence of the screen­play’s source, Mur­ray Burnett and Joan Ali­son’s play “Ev­ery­body Comes to Rick’s.” Per­haps be­cause the play never made it to Broad­way, many “Casablanca” his­to­ries dis­count its in­flu­ence on the film. But Isen­berg shows that “large swaths of di­a­logue” and “quite a few im­por­tant set pieces and char­ac­ter de­scrip­tions” from the play found their way into the movie.

More vi­tally, Isen­berg points out that the play brought to the film a theme that the plot’s ro­man­tic tri­an­gle over­shad­ows — and one that cur­rent events makes timely. Vis­it­ing Vi­enna dur­ing a sum­mer hol­i­day in 1938, Burnett, who, Isen­berg says, was “nom­i­nally Jewish,” wit­nessed “vir­u­lent forms of in­sti­tu­tional anti-Semitism that had been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally adopted by the an- nexed state [Aus­tria] in May of that year.” Mur­ray also learned of the “refugee trail,” the route fol­lowed by Jews and oth­ers from Mar­seille to Morocco and then, if they were lucky, to the United States.

Isen­berg’s sharp pro­file makes clear that in 1941, Warner Bros. was the per­fect home for “Casablanca.” Spear­headed by con­tract player Ed­ward G. Robin­son, the stu­dio had pro­duced gritty blackand-white melo­dra­mas warn­ing against fas­cism, in­clud­ing “Con­fes­sions of a Nazi Spy” (1939), the story of a Nazi spy ring op­er­at­ing in New York City. With a call-toarms theme im­plicit in the film’s stir­ring fi­nal scene, “Casablanca” fell in line with the stu­dio’s in­ter­ven­tion­ist bent.

Isen­berg’s dis­cus­sions of the film, its stars, its pro­duc­tion and its on­go­ing im­pact of­ten have the air of a panel ses­sion, with Isen­berg mov­ing things along as mod­er­a­tor. Con­sid­er­ing Bog­art’s char­ac­ter, Isen­berg points out that Rick Blaine links “to a long line of he­roes of the Amer­i­can western, men who sim­i­larly know when to do the right thing, even if it means tak­ing the law into their own hands.”

It’s frus­trat­ing, then, when this ob­ser­vant and as­tute au­thor quotes oth­ers to cap a point. He turns to Ste­fan Kan­fer’s bi­og­ra­phy of Bog­art to sum up the ac­tor’s im­age. To end the book, he de­fers to Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.).

Had Isen­berg let his own views pre­vail, the book would have a stronger au­tho­rial voice and a sharper fo­cus. Clearly, he can hold down cen­ter stage, as his de­scrip­tion of the film’s en­dur­ing place makes clear: “[‘Casablanca’] flick­ers, as bravely and beau­ti­fully as ever, in the glo­ri­ous black-and-white shad­ows of our imag­i­na­tion.”

From all that Isen­berg presents in “We’ll Al­ways Have Casablanca,” that quote is some­thing to keep.


By Noah Isen­berg W.W. Nor­ton. 334 pp. $27.95

WE’LL AL­WAYS HAVE CASABLANCA The Life, Le­gend, and After­life of Hol­ly­wood’s Most Beloved Movie

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