116: 'Casablanca' At 75
April 29, 2017 2:10 a.m.
Episode 116: 'Casablanca' At 75
Author Noah Isenberg talks about his new book "We'll Always Have Casablanca" about the legacy of the 1942 film that gave Humphrey Bogart his most iconic role. Plus people at the TCM Film Festival, wher the film screened for its 75th birthday, talk about why theu love the film.
Support the podcast at kpbs.org/feedthejunkie.
Related Story: Podcast Episode 116: 'Casablanca' Still Going Strong At 75
Beth Accomando: Welcome, back to another addition of listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’m Beth Accomando. And you must remember this.
Excerpt from movie
Even if you never seen you never seen Casablanca pieces of it must be embedded in everyone’s pop culture DNA because certain images, lines of dialogue and pieces of music seem at least vaguely familiar to everyone.
Excerpt from movie
In November 1942, Warner Brothers invited audiences into Rick’s Café. There we met its jaded American expatriate owner Rick Blaine played by Humphrey Bogart. The beautiful and enigmatic Ilsa Lund played by Ingrid Bergman, the heroic Victor Laszlo played by Paul Henreid, the loyal piano player Sam played by Dooley Wilson and of course the charmingly corrupt French captain Louis Renault played by Claude Rains.
Excerpt from movie
The iconic image of Bogart's cynical romantic in a trench coat with a cigarette in hand inspired imitations ranging from Bugs Bunny to Woody Allen who dedicated the play and film Play It Again Sam to Bogie. Bogart’s influence also jumped the Atlantic to get a tribute from French heartthrob Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. And watching Casablanca today you maybe surprised to see how typical it’s themes about refugees trying to fine safety or sense of home played out against the backdrop of Trump’s policies. But for the moment let travel to 1942 into the first trailer of the Casablanca. That trailer open with gun shots as titles wipe across the screen at promise, if you’re looking for adventure you will find it in Casablanca.
Excerpt from movie
Humphrey Bogart the most dangerous man in the world’s most dangerous city. Ingrid Bergman fighting the strange fascination that draws her closer and closer to him. Casablanca where every burning moment brings a new danger. Where every kiss may be the last.
Okay, they don’t write copy like that anymore, but some would argue that they don’t make pictures like Casablanca anymore. This year marks the 75th aniversary of Casablanca a film that would provide defining roles for its stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
So, this podcast I will be paying a tribute to the film. First we will hear from a trailer of movie lovers at the TCM film festival where Casablanca celebrated its 75th birthday with the screening to a very enthusiastic crowd, and then I interview Noah Isenberg about his new book, We’ll Always Have Casablanca: the Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. I remember seeing the film as a little kid because my dad loved movies and passed that passion on to me. I brought the Richard Jane Noble film classics library book of Casablanca where they were frame graphs of every scene along with the complete script. I remember pouring over that book endlessly because that was before VHS, DVDs or Blu-rays. You only got to see the film when it played in theaters or on TV. Put on demand where you had a craving for Bogie or Rick’s Cafe. If I suddenly wanted to see Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault the closest I could get would be to flip thought that book and remember how deliciously he delivered his lines.
Excerpt from movie
Over the decades Casablanca has lost none of its appeal. So, let’s begin this podcast with some TCM folks paying tribute to Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca.
Charlie Tabesh: Hi, my name is Charlie Tabesh. And I’m the head of programming in Turner Classic Movies and tonight we played Casablanca for the second time with TCM Classic Film Festival in honored of this 75th anniversary. It’s obviously one of the greatest classic movies of all times and for good reason. It’s unbelievably romantic and what. I really loved the politics and I loved the idealism behind it. It’s stirring. And when I saw it first as a young boy I think it inspired me in a lot of ways to think about the world and think about heroes and what heroes are and what makes someone a hero. And that was so great about Humphrey Bogart’s character and about Laszlo and the interplay between the three leads was beautiful. It’s one of my favorite movies.
Beth Accomando: What do you think gives Casablanca it’s legacy, it’s long-lasting appeal across generations?
Charlie Tabesh: I think it’s what I sort of just said the idealism behind it. I think that you feel inspired when you watch it. The scene where they played the Marseillaise and the crowds stands up.
Excerpt from movie
They stop moving and it get chills because it feels like it’s good versus evil and it feels like the good guys are fighting the good fight and you want to be on the good team and that’s how you feel when you watch the movie. It’s almost like it makes you, draws you in and you have a rooting interest. In addition the love story is really complex and it’s, you don’t know where it’s going to go. And I think that’s another thing too that make it’s such a great film, the combination of the politics and the idealism with the love story.
Excerpt from movie
Dannie Reeve: My name is Dannie Reeve from Pre-Code.com website about Pre-Code Hollywood 1930-1934. Casablanca is probably one of the films I’ve seen most in the theater. I’ve always loved it. It’s a lot of people see it was like a really serious similar classic would take us far to get around to it, but it’s actually really funny. It’s a lot of fun. In fact [indiscernible][0:08:46] has a very strong romantic undertone the belonging between Bogie and Bergman. It’s just fantastic.
Excerpt from movie
Beth Accomando: Is that the thing that stands out the most for you about it?
Dannie Reeve: No, it’s Claude Rains but I was trying to give you, I know everybody is going to say Claude Rains. Claude Rains never it is perfect. I mean there’s not a day that goes by where everybody on internet it’s not quoting this.
Excerpt from movie
He would just like the perfect kind of comic release because his character also has a really interesting part where he goes from willing collaborator to freedom fighter by the end. But it’s yeah, Claude Rains is the best part of the movie but so, it’s one of those movies where it’s I don’t think I can name a flaw in it so.
Beth Accomando: I just interviewed Noah Isenberg who has written a book about Casablanca and this is the 75th anniversary of it. One of the things he pointed out is that a lot of people may not think of it as a refugee film but in the current political climate maybe people would be looking at it this year in a different light. So how does that strike you?
Dannie Reeve: I can see that. I mean in current light was in Dr. [indiscernible] [00:10:17] and he is in the movie as the German villain. I know so many others, the character actor were also refugees and that’s kind of what interested Hollywood in the 40’s to me. It is just how like everybody started leaking in especially from Germany and like feature came and slowly like Billy Wilder and all the other stars and actors came over this way, kind of, they kind of helped make Hollywood more so fantastic about it, the 40’s, like this just giant melting pot of idealism into that America.
Beth Accomando: And what do you think has given Casablanca it’s lasting quality? why is it one of those films that just continues to gain fans and audiences?
Dannie Reeve: I think it’s a mix between Bogart’s performance which is so like moody by he seem like, I think he had like a contributes a lot to like a American character like especially like during that time where you are kind of reluctant to get involved in things. You are very much concerned with your own thing. But the end of the movie he kind of sees that he’s a big part even he is a small cog he has to do the right thing. And that’s very much what I grew up with believing in. I think a lot of people grow up believing that your duty is that American you can be small-minded but you have to realize there’s a bigger picture and work towards it. And the romance, the music and the design like it’s a gorgeous movie like Michael Curtiz just directs the hell out it.
Kelly Frad: Hi, this is Kelly Frad. I’m better known Irishjhog66 on Twitter. If you go there or my outspoken and [indiscernible][0:11:43] blog which is kellyfrad.com. As far as Casablanca goes I’ve got say one of the most significant memories for me that kind of stands out in my brain amongst the many, would be the scene where Paul Henreid gets the orchestra roused up basically it’s a battle of song against the Nazi’s.
Excerpt from movie.
And it is definitely one of the most moving moments that I think comes to pretty much everyone’s mind when they think of that film.
Beth Accomando: And what do you think about Casablanca has made it so long-lasting?
Kelly Frad: You know, I think it’s a combination of just a really good story that seems timeless and yet today I would say in many ways it feels even more timely. You think of some of the political things that we’re going through in this, globally. But even when there aren’t some of these issues going on politically, it’s still a timeless story. You’ve got romance, you’ve got action, you’ve got intrigue, you’ve got a war going on, you’ve got Nazi’s, you’ve got kind of this love triangle issue going on, and you’ve got incredible performances by incredible actors. And I think it’s really a sense of authenticity because a lot of those actors that were starring in that film including the small character roles came as immigrants themselves, where some of them literally kick out by Nazi’s and coming over to make that film. So, it’s pretty epic film.
Beth Accomando: Well, even on screen too you have refugee stories because this is a, Casablanca was a place where all of these people were waiting to transit from one country to another.
Kelly Frad: Exactly, today the issue of refugees is definitely very topical, very current. But I think that’s also an issue that’s never gone away. I mean it has always been somewhere in the world that has been an issue. But the fact that a lot of those actors were themselves actual refugees really adds to the storyline. And again the authenticity, it feels genuine and incredible, incredible performances by all of them. It’s like we have the cream of the crop in literally every role. So, whether they are playing the bartender or they’re playing the small role or the bigger roles that are memorable to all of us. And they have a favorite line. Oh, God there so many I Claude Rains line when he says whether he shocked, shocked about gambling in that establishment. I mean let’s face it. He was given like a lot of the best lines because they were delivered so cheeky as they should have been and so I, to be honest, I think he got the lion’s share when it came to a lot of those very funny lines and so...
Beth Accomando: All right, well thank you.
Kelly Frad: Thanks so much.
Beth Accomando: I spoke with Kelly Frad, Dannie Reeve and Charles Tabesh in April at the TCM Film Festival. I spoke with Noah Isenbery a month earlier in Lohoya when he was having a book signing for We’ll Always Have Casablanca. So, now we’re here at World week book store because you have new book coming out about Casablanca. So, the first time I got to speak to you, you had just written a book about Edgar G. Ulmer who is a filmmaker who was kind of on the fringes of Hollywood. And now you’re doing a book about a film which has come to symbolize kind of Hollywood itself. So, what kind of a journey was that between these two books?
Noah Isenbery: The Ulmer book you’re absolutely right that the very subtitle of it a film maker the margins underscore that sort of peripheral fringe position that Ulmer occupied in Hollywood. And this move to do a book on Casablanca was not a conscious decision to do something. It was much more of a touchstone, a Hollywood touchstone or sort of the apogee of classical Hollywood cinema. But I did want to, after spending all those years in the archives, and researching especially the immigrant community in Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s, that’s really what forms the central kind of a [indiscernible] [00:16:17] actually it’s called such much and it’s the central chapter of the book. And that’s something that I felt that would, was in need of reappraisal, reevaluation, something that I felt that’s often and overlooked in the story of Casablanca. It was always the greatest love story, the greatest romance, the Bogie Bergman picture that it remains for so many people. And I’m not disputing that. That’s a big part of it. But in addition to that, the story of all of these different emigres and exiles and immigrants who would made their way to Hollywood during the Hitler regime they are so, so very important for this film. And so I wanted to give them their due and that’s a major focus, a major emphasis of this book as well as the Ulmer book. So, that’s a sort of, that’s the hidden affinity.
Beth Accomando: That’s the bridge that gets you from one to the other. So, when you’re tackling this book what can people expect when they get it, what are you, is it exactly like a making up or is it more kind of about the legacy of this film and how it’s managed to last so long?
Noah Isenbery: It’s a combination of both. I mean the making of Aljean Harmetz is a wonderful film historian and has done a book also on Wizard of Oz. In 1992 on the 50th anniversary of Casablanca she published Round up the Usual Suspects which is a wonderful title and that book she really, she leaves very, very few stones unturned in terms of the production history of the film. I cover some of that as well in the first chapters of this book, the big emphasis big focus of this is one is well it’s the afterlife and how the film can continues to resonate 75 years after its premier in New York City on Thanksgiving Day at the Hollywood Theater in mid-town Manhattan. And so, that’s something that I wanted to account for. Why it is that we still think of it as such a touchstone of classical Hollywood cinema. Why is it that this is the film that is shown any time there’s a celebration of Hollywood. Why it is that it’s cost something on TCM for instance and all of that and why it is that it the people referring the lines and quote the lines even if they have never even seen the movie. So, that’s part of it. It is the place that occupy in our cultural lexicon so to speak. And I so, I wanted to zero in on that as well with this book.
Beth Accomando: Now, the fact that we’re talking about this film 75 years after it came out, we probably have been a bit of a surprise to some of the people making it before they started shooting?
Noah Isenbery: Mm hmm, absolutely. In fact and quite famously both Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart were really uneasy about this film, and it was a difficult production for both and for different reasons. I don’t think either of them ever would have expected to go on to become the movie that it was. And in fact Bergman, this, at least in the world of Hollywood cinema, this was sort of her calling card and she, to the end of her life really in way almost regretted how much this film was left over many arguably better films that she made in her long career. Bogart too was really unsure whether or not he could pull it off as a romantic lead. He had played so many tough guys, gumshoes, and so forth at Warner’s before this film and he just didn’t know whether he could do that. He had other personal matters that he was dealing with as well, his marriage was breaking up and so forth. And so, this was definitely a tough time make the film. The screenwriters too I mean the Epstein twins for instance Julius and Philip Epstein they thought of it as just a work for hire. I mean like they were contract writers at Warner’s as was Howard Koch and this is just one of many, many films that sort of passed through their hands. But they had no idea that it would go to win as it did in 1944 the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was part of slate of pictures from 1943 even though they rushed it into release and were able to do the premier in New York City again on Thanksgiving Day 1942, but technically it’s a ‘43 film.
Beth Accomado: So, in going through all those past details, all the history of it and speaking to people about the film’s legacy what’s your feeling about why it has managed to last so long? What kind of a chord is that’s striking with people that even contemporary audiences and young people and kids still kind of pick up on Bogart and so of the lines?
Noah Isenbery: Well, there’s a different registers I would say, the contemporary the contemporary chord that it’s strikes today no doubt and this is something I published just last Friday and the day we released the piece on the refugee problem, the refugee crisis then and now. And I think that that is definitely a register in which the film currently resonates the refugee story that’s told on screen, much of it references and then other scenes in the film implicit but really the core of the story of the first day on produce stage play everybody comes to writs but then also the screenplay here is really about that story of languishing refugees in Europe and the terribly difficult to predict I mean that they found themselves in around the time at the production of this film.
Excerpt from movie
For the kids I mean I think that it’s those quotable lines. I think that that’s something that’s still remains. I mean again actually this film at the new school I turn the film program and I show it to the students in undergraduate and at seminars and most of them have never seen the film but they know so many of the lines. I mean in political discourse today too, I mean this just that I’m shocked, shocked to find that there’s in the film it’s gambling but that line is used rarely as a week or two pass by and we going to have some reference to the film indirect usually I mean just as a line. And so, yeah, its quotability and its iconic status. I mean I think just the images from the film including the one that graces the dust jacket of this new book of mine, they’re so iconic. We know them and we know because of the Bogie Cult in the 1950s especially it past way in 57 and the Brattle screening is in Cambridge, Massachusetts or Harvard and [indiscernible] [00:22:37] students flocked to the movies during their exam period and watched the film and shouted out the lines almost as if you know anticipating the rocky horror picture show. But that’s sort of cult followed in cult attraction I think, not merely to Bogart but especially to Bogart from the 50s onward. I think it is also something that college students, any people, even younger but certainly college students at that point in time and I think strangely enough even today to a much lesser extent that even today and every Valentine’s Day this movie is shown not only at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge but the [indiscernible] [00:23:13] I teach in the summers at a [indiscernible] [0:23:15] shows that with me a regularity on Valentine’s Day and students ages 18 to 22, they pack the auditorium and watch this movie as the celebration of romance to some extent, a bitter sweet romance as it turns out. But I think also just the celebration of the film and a classical Hollywood and so, it remains, I think, the go to film not merely on Thanksgiving Day which was the day the book was released, as fate would have it but also I think whenever people are really trying to evoke a certain moment that speaks to that era, that epic of classical Hollywood. Casablanca is really first on that list and Umberto Eco made this wonderful observation in a piece that he wrote in the early 1980s that Casablanca is not one movie. It is movies. And I think that’s true. I think that is sort of the standard interest and it just because it kind of [indiscernible][0:24:17] in so many archetypes and there’s so much that’s really not only to picked it on screen but also percolating beneath the surface. And it’s more than just a single movie in many respects. There’s something strangely a composite of this, strangely – I don’t even know how to put this but in a way it depicts not only the story that they were attempting to tell on the sounds stages in Burbank, California in the summer of 1942, but it also commenting on earlier films. It’s commenting for instance on Algiers with Eddie Lamar from a good four years earlier. It’s commenting on a lot of the war pictures that Warner’s Brothers is making including Confessions of Anti-Nazi’s Spy from 1939. And it’s anticipating I think also some of the films that would come after it. I think that that’s what, it’s that richness that texture that also defines the film and also I think it accounts to a larger extent for its enduring quality and staying power.
Beth Accomando: And you also have things like Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam which probably brought Bogart to a new audience on the certain level because that was in upper 70s?
Noah Isenbery: It was, the stage play was already the end of the 60s enormously successful run on Broadway, more than a year if I’m not mistaken and then by 72 you have the Harold Ross adaptation, screen adaptation.
Excerpt from movie
That film is a direct I was mentioning moment before this that Bogie Cult. I mean this is no other testament I think to that kind of almost pathological devotion, almost monastic devotion to Bogie than the role that Woody Allen performs himself as Allen Felix, not only quoting from Bogart to Bogart there is almost his alter ego there initially on the stage at when he was going it’s a probably run and the films you have Lacy [indiscernible] [0:26:48] as the first name of the actor who plays Bogart in this piece but who was always present in and sort of giving him advice on how to be that, embody that masculinity, how to delivered those clipped sort of declarative sentences all out Chambler Hamet, James M King and so forth. And just how to comport himself and Woody Allen being the familiar videos on screen and even off is trying his best as he can to master I mean that very famous scene at the end where he is, delivers the lines verbatim from the final scene of Casablanca.
Excerpt from movie
He announces that he been waiting his whole life to deliver that’s speech and it’s says a lot. I mean it was meant of course for in a comedic vein but I think it’s more than just that. It really does betray I think that the obsession that not just Woody Allen when writing this play in the final years of the 1960s found himself facing but also others of his generation and again these legions of students that all regret that but then also there was study that was done in the 1970s of students up in Colorado at Stanford and all these interviews that were conducted and there too that it definitely had attained cult status. And I don’t even think I was only at these limited to this elite institutions. I mean I just think that in terms societies across the country. Lou Lumenick, for instance, who recently retired from the New York Post as the film critic. He was one of the dozens of people I had the pleasure of interviewing and he mentioned that when he was a student [indiscernible] [0:28:53] that that was one sort of centerpiece of the work that he had done in the film society there, and Jim Hobberman who for many years was the lead critic at the Village Voice and now writes a column for the Times, he told me how his mother when she was at Brooklyn College she watched it. So soon after he was still in general released soon after it released around 1943. So, during the War when they got to that very, very famous Marseillaise scene everybody in the theater, this is one of the big picture palaces in Flatbush, the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, everybody stood up and sang La Marseillaise – just in terms it began the level of identification, the level of engagement. That’s pretty extraordinary and I sometimes joke about it, sort of anticipating Rocky Horror picture show that’s usually my reference. I obviously almost this hasn’t quite happened the same that people quote lines from the [indiscernible][0:29:47] with the similar sense of a cult, kind of cult-ish quality to it. But this is a film I think again because of the, these quotable lines because of the, just the brilliant, brilliant script that the Epstein twins along with Howard Koch and some improvement from Casey Robinson and a few other contract writers at Warner’s. It’s that this is the script also that it’s just taught so, so widely was taught by Syd Field when he was still alive and it is also taught today in the McKay Screenwriting Seminars that are taught not only in the US but abroad. He always ends his screenwriting with a four-hour spiel on Casablanca. And one of the reasons for it is that it is such an evocative and poignant screenplay and I think a really great object lesson in how a screenplay can work when done in a way that these pieces of amazingly talented screenwriters were ask to do in 1942.
Beth Accomando: We’ve been talking mostly about its legacy in the United States but it travel overseas quite well. We just showed Breathless here in San Diego and the Jean-Paul Belmondo character is looking at pictures of Bogart and doing the little, yeah, the thumb over the lip. So, it has international appeal.
Noah Isenbery: Yeah. That scene in Breathless when Belmondo standing in front of the, he is at a picture palace cinema in Paris and it’s the harder they fall that’s the poster that he’s looking at and he does, he does his best to do that kind of Bogie but he too is very much a part of that Bogie Cult that took root not only on these shores but definitely in France. The reception in France was really quite ardent. There were those who thought that it wasn’t the most accurate reflection, of course, of history but then it was played over and over again at these repertory houses in particular in the Latin quarter and in [indiscernible][0:31:44] I mention Umberto Eco and the very famous piece that he wrote. He was not only a great novelist and critic but he was also a leading semiotician as they called the sort of the study of science. And he was working with a team of researchers at the university of Bologna when he wrote that piece. And I believe again at around an early age if I’m not mistaken but they are two major, major reception among Italians and Germany and Austria even that was censored during the adden hour period right after the war because they didn’t want to rock the boat, so to speak. So, the about 24, 25 minutes of a film were lopped off because you couldn’t have these references to Nazi’s, they would in the period of what they called – ironically enough denazification and so, when they showed it up until the 70s it was in a highly truncated censored version dubbed and then by the 1970s when you have the kind of same sort of cinephilia that already taking root in France around the [indiscernible][0:32:43] cinema crowd and so forth. In Germany, Austria began to be showing in the original and people were just smitten with it and I interviewed a number of critics and film historians, film preservationist who speak to me about that. And then in Sweden too where you would think it would have taken off very, very quickly and early because of Bergman among other reasons. But it was only really quite late that it, if we can even speak of it as having attained cult status, it was in the past decade or so and just recently there’s a wonderful documentary on Ingrid Bergman called the Ingrid Bergman In Her Words by a Swedish film making a mystique Bear Command and when that premiered at the Con film festival in 2015 I interviewed a Swedish film critic named Norton Blumtwist and we spoke about the significance of that documentary and he says that’s really what again just seeing that the documentary of Bergman it drew people back to the film. What he also commented on, so important I think was that in terms of a larger context to that same moment is Sweden next to Germany was the nation in Europe that took in the most refugees and when watching the movie in 2015 it was interviewed for Swedish radio Norton Bloomtwist the Swedish film critics had suddenly he realized it’s really it’s a refugee film and he would watched over the years but it was only in that summer when he was at Can, so in 2015 that’s suddenly he realized that it’s very, very nicely, he reviewed the book just last week in Dagens Nyheter which is one of the two leading Swedish daily newspapers and he spoke specifically about that aspect about the refugee story. I was so, so hardened to know the book it does to then reviewed in as we [indiscernible][0:34:37] teenagers in Sweden and it meant a great deal to me that it was being received. And that again it just in terms of your question but it’s yeah, the very fact that it’s being covered in Sweden shows the people are still interested, I think, in this film.
Beth Accomando: Now, it takes a long time to put a book together but when you started the book you weren’t probably aware of what kind of politics would be going on right now in terms of refugees. So, has it surprised you how contemporary some of those themes have suddenly come to be?
Noah Isenbery: Yeah. When I said earlier on about this strange bridge between the Ulmer biography and this book and that bridge is really about those refugees, exiles, immigres who landed in Hollywood in the 30s and 40s under the Hitler regime and under Fascism in Europe generally speaking. I knew to that was going to play a big part in the book and it does. It is for there are seven chapters the fourth is the central chapter. What I didn’t realized of course is that when the book would be published that we would be in the [indiscernible] [00:35:40] who could have anticipated this and what is both I think heartening as well as haunting for me is how much the story now resonates with the current kind of political regime. And I guess along similar lines the reviews that I would just incredibly happy with the book reception so far in the different people who responded to and what they’ve choose in writing. But almost all of them if they don’t make it the, sort of the central theme of their review it’s definitely next in line. But so many of them have looked at the film sort of reflected through the lens of this current political moment and the refugee crisis that we’re facing once more and the seven nation or now I guess is six nation band and so forth. And so I, of course, never could have imagined that would be the world into which the book would be sort of thrown or cast. But that’s what we’re currently facing and it’s, I mean, it’s, I guess, I don’t know, I mean I, we, I’m not sure how to respond to because in the one hand I feel almost it’s sort of changed with guilt perhaps misplaced because I don’t know but guilt that the book that I wrote is now suddenly speaking to so many people in a moment that oh, I so, so very much wish never would have written – never revisit. So, it’s a strange position to be in that the book on the one hand but I should be grateful and thrilled that so many people want to talk about it and writing about it because of this the sort of the link to what we’re all facing at this present moment. On the other hand it’s just such a depressing and these are very dark times that we’re living through. And I think again that’s an unintended infinity with the times that these people who are depicted on screen in a Hollywood film not only had, many of them had lived through, many of the actors had gone through and experience what’s portrayed on the screen. But also behind the camera Michel Curtiz had family that was stranded in Europe and several of them perished in a camps as [indiscernible] [00:38:04] as he was known on these shores and several others. And so, it’s a Hollywood movie and it’s a fiction and yet strangely it has a very, very firm anchor in the history that was unfolding at that moment.
Beth Accomando: Well, and also you have the character of Rick who is this kind of American expatriate, but he represents a very kind of American attitude and his attitude is very embracing of all these different people because his Café is kind of this refuge, a place for everybody can of whatever background they are can kind of escape to safely or be there safely.
Noah Isenbery: Yeah. And the Warner’s in the prescript they did the publicity raw materials they prepared for the film one of the things that they noted that was that showed on stage [indiscernible] [0:38:52] but they stage eight I think – specific places they called The International House because people who are from some 35 different nationalities and all these different languages that were spoken on set and in fact German it’s really again the strange link to the Ulmer biography, the German was that the lingua franca that’s what even these Hungarian born that whether it was Curtiz or Peter Lorry or [indiscernible] [00:39:18] the waiter. That German was the language they used and yes Rick is that he is the American who and also the time look his charm his best friend is the African-American Doole y Wilson Sam.
Excerpt from movie
He drinks with him. He travels with him. And sure Sam look at him and calls him boss and so and so forth but that scene went in the flashback when it was, Rick and Sam toasted one another and drink champagne together. There’s a review in one of the few Black-owned newspapers in New York City, the Amsterdam News that reviewed in the critic said, “This is one of the greatest roles an African-American actor ever played.” And I learned later that when we screen the film in Harlem, in 1943 when it was still in general list, they would screen it through and they would played the different scenes with Billy Watson because it was such an enormous advanced that Harry was, he was a fulltime character.
And Rick, that too not only does he have his dear, dear friends who were off learners in Rick’s Café. But his best friend is this African-American musician and so the film could get away with that especially since it is set North Africa but this was a time when you specially in [indiscernible] [0:40:57] there was certain films that could be shown or they would edit out the scene because this was not a moment of emigration. In addition to that, Rick too I mean he does the right thing. He began as this, with all those professions of being an isolationist, sticking my neck out for nobody. But of course that’s precisely what he does. I mean whether he’s helping the Bulgarian couple and helping with them too many Austrian born actors who plays a young Brandle whether he’s helping him in getting a little advice that number 22 may not be a bad, bad, a bad spot to put all of these chips or whether he’s helping ultimately Victor Laszlo and making sure that it was a kid on that plane with him.
Laszlo’s great, great, great, great lines that welcome back to the fight, this time I know our side will win. Let’s touch the conversion and that’s a great political conversion of this. And Rick is a wonderful American architect. I mean I wish you could have more Ricks today, but yeah.
Beth Accomando: Do you remember the first time you saw the film and what kind of an impact did had on you?
Noah Isenbery: Yeah, it’s funny. I think it was when I was in [indiscernible] [0:41:59] but it’s unclear. I was my teen age years and my mother was huge, she still is, she will be here tonight. And she is a huge fan of the film and initially I was resistant to, I thought that this is something do you know that the middle aged women loved that and it was a very kind of pigheaded, teenage, rebellious response.
How wrong I was, of course. And that it was really later when I was in colleges specifically in graduate school when I was up at Berkeley I watch and then found myself suddenly kind of almost back significantly I mean and he just said that wow, what did I miss. And I think that there are two that was the beginning of this deeper merge and the study of all of those European refugees and [indiscernible] [00:42:45]. Who in Hollywood I think that there’s a wonderful very, very chatty anecdotal history of Hollywood in 1940’s called [indiscernible] [00:42:53]. It’s a lot of great, great anecdotes in there. I was reading that around that time to that and Anthony Helbut’s Exiled In Paradise, which is another wonderful study of appearance specifically that niche and that’s I think around the time that I really learned to appreciate the film. And so the entirely new light but no one initially that is sort of strange and funny, I’ve heard of any of the book is that initially my response is I think it was really my best lukewarm if not just plain cold.
Beth Accomando: This is the film that’s been around for a long time and has been written about and talked about a lot. When you’re putting the book together, did you find anything that really surprised you or that was something you hadn’t heard about?
Noah Isenbery: So there a couple of, it’s not, there’s a fair amount of primary research in this book but as you said and as I said moments ago when I was praising the wonderful Aljean Harmetz and her Round up the Usual Suspects the 1992 production history she left very, very few stones until the part that they do bring this for sure because of my ability in linguistic facility, my ability to read primary materials in German and then to some extends in Swedish and some the others reading some in France as well.
That in particular the German, that is certainly new and there are two major, major discoveries that I found there. Otherwise they are pretty small but they’re major in the sense that first I mentioned the Amsterdam News that nobody had ever talked about this. The reception to film in the then called Black press. So that was entirely new. And I was so happy to be with. I did some research up in Harlem at the Schomburg Center and dug up a few things there in the Elliot Carpenter papers as well.
Elliot Carpenter is the guy was a studio musician. He played with Dooley Wilson already in the 20’s in a jazz band called The Red Devils. But he was the guy who’s playing off screen till he was in our band play piano. It’s a Elliot Carpenter playing off screen. So I looked at his papers and also with the [indiscernible][0:44:53] press got that. And also working at the Leo Beck Institute, the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Nobody had really look at the reception in the emigre press and those German lines called the [indiscernible][0:45:07] reconstruction was is with the direct translation of the title of the newspaper was but it was German Jewish newspaper and the review there is also incredibly, incredibly revealing. And in so far it too talks about the experience that they had actually gone through and this film miraculously enough undertook to portray on screen. And they were very, very, I think proud of that. Just those the Amsterdam News that in a Harlem-based Black owned newspaper was very, very proud of the performance by Dooley Wilson.
There a few other things too that I was, that were for me at least new discoveries but those are the two I always think aloud I think because they were, I just think so, so very revealing and very illuminating when trying to look at the film from both of those different angles. So from the angle of Dooley Wilson and you know what this film might mean. He’s not a Pullman porter, he’s not a domestic, he’s not a servant. And to see this, this kind of character because I’ve always been drawn to many way but I think to look at the context in which the films was made. Today you know people may look and kind of scoff Oh, we saw he is saying Sir, boss, and so forth, but this was huge as major drive and I can say that because it’s not just me you were seeing but the Amsterdam News is saying it and the readers, African-American readers at that time were seeing that. And then also without [indiscernible][0:46:28] the way that the German Jewish emigre community was as just trying to film, for me extremely important and I think sheds quite a bit of light on that facet of the book.
Beth Accomanda: You mentioned the writers being, people who work within the Hollywood system and were kind of cranking out films that were given to them and what does it say about the fact that this was such a product of kind of the Hollywood system which was this kind of assembly line but it’s a film that really does strikes so many chords and do you think it’s the fact that it was a product of this, that it helped it or is it a fluke of this system. I mean how do you see that because lot of times we’ve talked about the Hollywood studio system as some [indiscernible][0:47:15] way where it like an assembly line it’s not like people had to create a feeling that they would get later when the studios system broke down. But how do you see that kind of playing a role in the film?
Noah Isenbery: Yeah I think it was the French critic and he first spoke of the genius at the system. And I think that there is something too that in this film for sure. I mean it is [indiscernible][0:47:32] who also spoke of this the happiest, the happy accidents. And this is that the greatest exception to the [indiscernible] [00:47:37] because he didn’t hold Michael Curtiz the director in such high regard compared to the other two directors he was really much more drawn too. So definitely it is awesome, this is something that Ingrid Bergman said late in life because when she kept people always want to ask about Casablanca when she would travel the globe and do sort of Q&As with the audiences and so forth.
She said that there is something almost mystical about this film. And I think we are talking earlier about how at that time during it’s making that she and Bogart and others were really skeptical about it. It seems to do the up things too, they said we are making our, we are making a living. And yet there is something it say it gets hard to put your finger on, what is it, what is it about it had it to transcend just that sort of assembly line product that was being turned out in Hollywood during the studio era.
And I don’t know what that is. There is something almost mystical, she says in the court and I began with the epigraph of the book it filled the need, a certain need that was there before the film. And I think there’s a lot to that and somebody to makes them and I think it is yes. I don’t and disagree at all with [indiscernible][0:48:51] about this happiest to happy as it because I think there was something that was the great timing, the ability to take advantage of this enormous pool of highly, highly talented and well trained actors to where they are filling all these paper that this is the massive supporting casting in that film is really, really impressive. And then our role with the time was trying to achieve a certain degree and independence that Warner was doing his independent productions, he had done in a CD signature productions. He done a [indiscernible][0:49:28] the previous year with this film too, it is a [indiscernible][0:49:31] large productions. And I think he had a great deal invested in this film and he doesn’t, didn’t know it command the highest at budgets but I think he wanted to make sure this was going to be a film that he would be proud of and so you have that as well.
And Curtiz for, even if he was, they would have had greatest exception of the [indiscernible][0:49:45] he was so, so very talented, so incredibly, incredibly efficient and that efficiency was the name of the game into the studio production of that time and he was looked at, a lot of it was his credit when win so Bergman may have been very distraught during the making of this film because she didn’t know whether she should be in love with Rick or with Victor but [indiscernible][0:50:16] response to that, don’t do that, you play it in between. Play it in between, he would say and brilliant. I mean having it played in between, she really that kind of very tense and uncertain, that is a bundle of nerves that you going to see the cheeks started tremble a bit, that it is terrific any he kind of coaxes that out. And I think he coaxes incredibly, Bogart said famously he didn’t do anything differently in this picture than he’d done in all the others he just had Ingrid Bergman who looked, Ingrid Bergman who look at him with that sort of amorous gaze and suddenly he was a boom, he was a romantic lead. There is something to that but also he gives us incredible performance. Just did very response you can perhaps think, remember this great scene. When he enters after, Ilsa convinces, after Bergman convinces Sam to play as times goes by. He storms in...
Excerpt from movie
And he looks at her, he tell his cheeks are trembling there as well and he just so there is this kind of sort of unspoken gestures are really, really important in this film. And I think they are also a lot of unspoken gestures among the supporting players, the state players too, lots of glances in the film, almost the throwback to the silent, the silent pictures.
There is another great scene when you see Bogart cheeks tremble and that’s when Joy Page one of the three American-born actors who are among the credited, the 15 or so credited actors in the film. Joy Page was Jack Warner’s step daughter so nothing like a little Hollywood nepotism, but when she comes in Annina Brandel and asks what kind of advice, what would you do?
Excerpt from movie
And Rick responds saying, “Nobody ever loved me that much. No women ever loved me that much.” His checks are trembling and there was intensity that I think is really quite extraordinary. I think that Curtiz is also partly responsible for the coaxing out of his actors these wonderful performances.
Beth Accomando: We’re talking a little bit about how the film has kind of a political resonance today. But for people, when the film came out in the early ‘40’s, how was it received because Hollywood’s not know for making wildly controversial or political films. So was it taken as having a political message or having political subject?
Noah Isenbery: Yeah, I mean it definitely was. And in fact that was one of the things that all of the critics regardless of that they were few dissenting voices. I mean, since we are in San Diego maybe I should mention it. Mandy father was one of those beautiful it is when he was writing for the New Republic and he ran a piece that was called The Wonder Boy’s in Africa I think it was the title. And he felt that it was really Hollywood how come he thought that it was one of the great epic phonies as she called it.
And [indiscernible] [00:54:29] up there had a great epic phonies of Hollywood but he made a point of mentioning in particular and this is something that he did that James Agee was another dissenting voice, Pauline Kael thought of it schlocky romanticism and she put it those in her words. One of the things that all of them I think could agree upon is the powerful Marseillaise scene. And the significance of that political gesture specifically in that scene. Other critics and they were the real cause of very, very positive voices where there is mostly crowded at the New York Times and where there was a whole slew of other critics writing for the industry trades as well as for the dailies. They were enormously, I think taken with this film. One of the reason they were taken with it was because of its political message.
And look one about the [indiscernible] [00:55:15] in September 1941 Harry Warner, the president of the studio had to go before Congress and testify for very, very active and vocal isolationist faction in Congress. They were accused of warmongering and they were accused a really beating those drums of war in films like [indiscernible] [0:55:34] in 1939. Even the community and these are all biopic the life of Anizola, that too was thought of his being and they were called premature antifascists, that was real accusation and so they took kudos over there but this is a film where really, really paid off.
Beth Accomando: And one last question is do you have a favorite line or scene from the film?
Noah Isenbery: Oh, God. That is a good question. The one, I mean, you probably won’t be surprise to hear this from me. But the one scene that I just so, so love and it may be well soon coming out to much as a surprise to you but this is [indiscernible] [0:56:14] favorite scene in the movie as well is the scene of [indiscernible] [0:56:17] the elderly couple is there preparing for their journey to America when Carl sits down and drinks a [indiscernible] [0:56:25] with him, brandy with him.
Excerpt from movie
And of course I love that.
Beth Accomando: All right, well thank you very much for taking some time and talk to me.
Noah Isenbery: My absolute pleasure. Thank you Beth.
Beth Accomando: That was Noah Isenberg author of We Will Always have Casablanca: The Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. Thanks for listening to another edition of listener supported of KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I hope this has inspired you to go watch Casablanca again or for the first time. So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie.