By Immigrants, For Immigrants: Why “Casablanca” Still Matters

By Noah GittellMarch 10, 2017

By Immigrants, For Immigrants: Why “Casablanca” Still Matters

We’ll Always Have Casablanca by Noah Isenberg

WHEN 56-YEAR-OLD ACTOR S. Z. Sakall escaped his native Hungary in 1939 and arrived in the United States to relaunch his acting career, he had a significant handicap: he spoke not a word of English. At lunch with his new manager in New York, he drew a picture of an egg to describe what he wanted to order. His manager became furious, thinking that Sakall was mocking his bald head. It turned out that Sakall’s problem was that he didn’t travel far enough west. “Once I arrived in Hollywood,” he said, “my language troubles were over. There I found Laszlo Kardos, Laszlo Fodor, Laszlo Vadnay, Aladar Laszlo and about another ten or fifteen Laszlos — all Hungarians and all potential and helpful interpreters.” Hollywood is a land of immigrants, as Meryl Streep recently reminded us, and it always has been.

The election of President Trump has inspired a new wave of historicism in the American media — new efforts to return to the archives (especially the cultural history of World War II) to make sense of our political present. We’ll Always Have Casablanca, a lively new book by Noah Isenberg, approaches the film of its title with this historicizing method. Drawing on writings by film critics, historians, Casablanca’s filmmakers, and their family members, Isenberg recounts the making of the film, its immediate impact, and its long legacy. While devotees of the film will be delighted by the book’s collection of fun facts and accounts of behind-the-scenes drama, it also touches the raw nerve of this political moment. Watch closely, the book argues, and Casablanca will tell you how to live in our troubling time.

Like many films of its era, Casablanca was made primarily by European immigrants or their offspring. Director Michael Curtiz was Hungarian-born, and screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein were the children of Jewish immigrants, while their film was teeming with actors who had also fled Europe in the previous two decades. (Sakall played Carl, the head waiter of Rick’s Café Américain.) This demographic on set was not unusual. As recounted in Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own, Hollywood and the American myths it perpetuated were in fact created almost entirely by Jewish immigrants. Gabler writes, “These Eastern European Jews, so afraid of being seen as un-American, helped create our modern American culture.”

In these terms, however, Casablanca is a significant outlier. What separates it from its cinematic peers — if it has any — is that it refuses to hide the immigrant experience. Instead, it creates a new American myth celebrating that experience as a core American value. In those early days of the United States’s involvement in World War II, when compassion for the displaced was an urgent political priority, Casablanca served as both an instrument of empathy and a vital piece of anti-fascist propaganda. It was the rare film made by immigrants, about immigrants, and, in the greatest sense of the word, for immigrants.

In the first third of his book, Isenberg dutifully recounts the backgrounds of the film’s actors, writers, and director, paying keen attention to how the experience of being an outcast shaped the artists and thus the film. Take the Epstein brothers, for example. Isenberg notes that their “immense joy […] in ridiculing figures of power,” a defense mechanism of the marginalized, often got them in trouble with their bosses. After Jack Warner complained about their perpetual tardiness — “Even presidents of banks have to show up at nine,” he harrumphed — they sent him the next round of completed pages with a note: “Why don’t you tell a bank president to finish the script.” This wit is evident in some of the film’s darkly comic dialogue. “Will I see you tonight?” a girl asks Rick. “I never make plans that far ahead,” he quips.

Escape from dreadful conditions can also imbue confidence, even cockiness, into a performance. Paul Henreid, who played Victor Laszlo, fled Austria when Hitler came to power and carried with him the entitlement of a survivor that served both him and the picture. After having established himself as a romantic lead in Now, Voyager (1942), Henreid had some trepidation about taking a role that was, in his eyes, second fiddle:

He fought with Curtiz over specific scenes, especially when it looked like Bogart had the upper hand. In the playing of the “Marseillaise,” for example, which requires a nod from Bogie, he objected: “I’m supposed to be a leader of the masses, and here I have a stinking little band, and I can’t get them to do what I want!”

This resentment and anger finds its way to the screen, where Bogart and Henreid seem barely able to stand each other’s company. Further, Isenberg notes that the script was being rewritten on the fly, so none of the actors knew which character would end up with the girl until well into production.

If these immigrants brought their own experiences of hardship and perseverance to the film, they did so in service of something larger than themselves. According to Isenberg’s research, this understanding of Casablanca’s importance was well understood at the time. The screenplay for the film, adapted from a play entitled Everyone Comes to Rick’s, landed at the Burbank offices of Warner Brothers on December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. From the start, Casablanca was seen as part of the war effort, with the character of Rick serving as the perfect vessel for its interventionist message. “Rick, who for untold reasons is banished from his home, claims to be interested neither in world affairs (‘Your business is politics,’ he announced to the visiting Nazi delegation, ‘mine is running a saloon’), nor in the fate of others (‘I’m the only cause I’m interested in’),” Isenberg writes, framing the character as an archetype for those Americans who were uncertain about the country’s participation in an overseas war. “[W]ith remarkable flair and efficiency,” he continues, “the larger political drama manifests itself in the contradictions of his character, in the bitter clash between self-imposed isolation and principled commitment to a far greater cause.”

Sensing its importance and timeliness, Warner Brothers rushed the film into theaters just as the Allied forces were moving into North Africa. To moviegoers at the time, it must have seemed ripped from the headlines (indeed, a battle in the real-life Casablanca occurred just a week before the film’s release). Of course, it feels just as timely today, as refugees have once again captured the imagination of a public torn apart by economic struggles and subsequently vulnerable to xenophobic and isolationist rhetoric. “What does it take to be a good person in a monstrous age?” asks cultural critic Todd Gitlin, summing up the film’s moral, which, tragically, may never go out of style.

And yet there is a contradiction in Isenberg’s reading of the film as a celebration of political freedom. In one section, he argues that the film’s thematic ambiguity — essential to its artistic victories — was a byproduct of a more repressed time. He spends ample ink on the filmmakers’ efforts to evade the constrictions of the Production Code, a self-regulating agency that censored Hollywood films prior to their release, claiming that the Code ultimately improved the film. In particular, he lingers on one moment, the cut-away after Ingrid Bergman falls into Humphrey Bogart’s arms in the penultimate sequence, which obscures what surely would have been a more frankly sexual scene today:

Bogart is smoking the standard-issue post-coital cigarette, the airport tower is recognizably phallic, and the shot sequence of embrace/dissolve away from scene/return is a conventional device for signaling an off-screen — a censored — significant act. Throughout Casablanca, Paris serves as a ‘stand-in for the utopian, unsustainable erotic bliss alluded to in the flashback […] It’s why ‘We’ll always have Paris’ is once of cinema’s most enduring lines of romantic dialogue. Because of all that it suggests but doesn’t tell.

Is Isenberg saying that your grandparents were right — that it truly was sexier when they didn’t show everything? Indeed, the restrictions of the Code altered the fundamental nature of Rick and Ilsa’s relationship and heavily influenced the film’s famous climax on an airport runway. “He couldn’t run off with a married woman — even their Parisian romance had to take place under the presumption of Laszlo’s death — and thus violate one of the Code’s foremost moral prohibitions,” Isenberg writes. Quoting film historian Tom Doherty, he adds,

The film needs Rick to stick his neck out and commit to the Allied cause at the same time it needs to respect the sanctity of the bonds of matrimony […] One reason Casablanca endures in the popular movie memory is the aberrational decisiveness of its climax, which tackled and resolved the question of dual loyalties head on.

Basically, the tension between the hard realities reflected in the immigrant experience and Casablanca’s forced commitment to corny political principles are what made it great, at least in part, and what continue to draw new generations of cinephiles to it. In the final third, Isenberg affirms the film’s “cult” status — an odd, but perhaps technically accurate classification for such a widely beloved film — by recounting its first revival screenings, and documenting the many attempted spin-offs, sequels, and adaptations to other mediums. This section feels perfunctory, as if Isenberg felt obliged but not particularly inspired by these attempts to cash in on the film’s legacy. Perhaps this is understandable. When compared to the majesty of cinema, his account of a Borscht belt comedian spoofing “As Time Goes By” (“a bris is still a bris”) is a letdown.

And yet Casablanca’s enduring, multipronged legacy remains worth the exploration, especially with a writer of Isenberg’s passion and whimsy behind it. Combining trenchant analysis of the film’s poetic and political power with a well-researched and playful account of its legacy, We’ll Always Have Casablanca is a necessary book and perhaps even an urgent one. Had it not already been claimed by a popular film podcast, the opening line of the film’s famous theme song would have made an even better title:

You must remember this.


Noah Gittell has written about film and politics for The Atlantic, the Guardian, The Economist, and others. He is a regular on-air contributor to BBC’s Talking Movies with Tom Brook.

LARB Contributor

Noah Gittell is a film critic and journalist with bylines at The Atlantic, the Guardian, Slate, Esquire, GQ, Elle, and others. He is a regular contributor to BBC World News’s Talking Movies and a frequent lecturer at Smithsonian Associates.


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