American Pop Culture
15 Oct 2018
We’ll Always Have Casablanca Book Review
Noah Isenberg is currently a professor of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College and is the director of the Screen Studies program. He has been an adjunct professor at many prestigious universities around the United States like the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College. Isenberg has written Edgar G Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins and was an editor for Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era. Noah Isenberg’s most recent book, We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, received a spot on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. In We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, Isenberg claims Casablanca is a timeless movie worthy of studying over seventy years later.
In We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, Isenberg gives an in-depth view of the making of the iconic American movie. Isenberg begins with the history of the story. Casablanca began as a not so well received play written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison called, Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The play was inspired by Burnett’s trip to Nazi occupied Austria. After smuggling out family heirlooms, Burnett and his wife visited a nightclub outside of Nice, France. Burnett’s experience among refugees was what inspired him to write a play set in the club. When the screenplay was revised for the big screen by Warner Brothers, the studio that produced the movie, casting was taken very seriously. The writers put lots of focus into the backgrounds of the three main actors, therefore so did Isenberg. Humphrey Bogart was a well-established American actor, while both Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid were both European born; like their characters. Even actors who played small roles were typically European refugees from World War II. This attention to detail and employment of refugees shows Warner Brother’s dedication to helping immigrants resettle in America. This was partly because Harry Warner, the head of Warner Brothers at the time himself, was Jewish, and the child of immigrants. Chapters three and four discuss the historical controversies associated with Casablanca and Warner Brothers. Harry Warner chose to publicly condemn Hitler, Nazis, and fascism. While America was trying to stay neutral with international affairs, Warner had no issue playing anti-Nazi videos before his movies and he even testified in front of the United States Congress. In Rebecca Prime’s Los Angeles Times review of We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca,’ she points out that Isenberg speaks to Andre Aciman’s question as to why Jewish people are employed at Warner Brothers and as actors, yet they are not allowed to explicitly state it in the movie. Isenberg beings to criticize Casablanca for being so uncontroversial in a time where anti-Semitism desperately needed to be confronted across the world.
Isenberg now brings in other primary sources to discuss the other social controversies of Casablanca. The Production Code Administration was “operating in full swing” by censoring any movie that showed sympathy for crime, wring doing, evil or sin; showed the incorrect standards of life; or violated natural law. Therefore, fate of a movie was determined by who was a part of the Production Code Administration at any time. Casablanca hit a road block with the iconic Ilsa and Rick love story because she was already married when the met. Ilsa has to confirm that she had been told her husband was dead, to then allow her relationship with Rick to be appropriate for the American people to see. When her husband is discovered to be alive, it is her duty to leave her new love and return to her husband. Censorship was a real issue for directors and actors, outside writers were brought in to help remake the scenes the Production Code Administration did not approve of. With the heavy censorship and rules of decency for the time period, Isenberg speaks to the high-quality acting in Casablanca. For example, “a number of lines that referred to Renault’s womanizing were removed from the script.” Isenberg argues that the subtly of the gestures and eye glances of the actors insinuate everything that the story is not allowed to show. The need for censorship shows the conservative American values of the time and can explain why Warner Brothers didn’t want to be too openly controversial with Casablanca in the first place.
Isenberg argues that today, Rick is not recognized for its moral story. Isenberg sees Rick as a “reluctant hero” who does not know how to help a bad situation. With modern day political and social issues, the reluctant hero should be a relatable figure. Yet, the screenwriter Howard Koch said that Casablanca is more than just a movie, it’s “something that is gone from our values today.” Isenberg did not fully develop this idea of connecting 1940s Rick to a modern-day Rick-like hero. Therefore, the argument is not effective; even though what Koch said was incredibly thought-provoking.
Isenberg’s major argument is that Casablanca is a timeless film. Casablanca focuses on important themes like anti-Semitism and refugees; two issues still relevant today. Isenberg touches on modern day political issues towards the end of the book like the Syrian refugee crisis. The Syrian refugee crisis is an excellent current day example of the American government showing neutrality to an international situation similar to the indifference America had towards World War II, in the beginning. Isenberg also brings in modern day reviews of Casablanca to show how it is relevant to every day and age. Now, in a time where intimate romantic relationships do not face the same scrutiny as they did in the 1940s, film critics idealize the tortured relationship between Rick and Ilsa. College students at Harvard and Stanford watched Casablanca during the 1960s. The movie was popular to a new generation then and continues to be watched by future generations.
While, Isenberg obviously finds Casablanca a timeless and incredibly important part of cinematic history; he shows a fair judgement of Casablanca by including the criticism Casablanca received as well. With the influx of new young fans, there came a wave of independent film loving, anti- “cornball” movie goers. Casablanca is an old Hollywood movie. There is cheesy music and there are stereotypical lines. French filmmaker François Truffaut doesn’t think of Casablanca as the best Humphry Bogart movie, but he acknowledges that “American students adore [Casablanca].” Casablanca is considered a “cult movie” that shows the harsh reality of living in a world where immigrants are not accepted or celebrated.  They are forced to flee and are taken advantage of by corrupt government officials. These truths show the importance of America as an accepting melting pot and that is exactly why Isenberg calls We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’ a timeless movie.
I believe that Isenberg impartially and effectively proved that Casablanca is a timeless movie with cultural significance. In Gerald Bartell’s Washington Post review of We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, Bartell criticizes Isenberg’s lack of a “strong authorial voice.” Bartell felt he had to “rummage through” all the information in We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’ to find the important parts of the book. I disagree, because not only is all of the information important to understand the cultural context of Casablanca; the impartial view Isenberg gives lets the readers really absorb all the facts and come to their own conclusions about the social impact of Casablanca. If the evidence was laid out forcefully with only one right answer, then Casablanca would no longer be applicable to any situation and therefore not timeless. Isenberg did a good job drawing on logos, pathos, and ethos, by using primary sources and modern-day connections to prove that Casablanca is a timeless movie with cultural meaning.
 Isenberg, Noah. “About.” Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.noahisenberg.com/about/.
 Isenberg, About.
 Isenberg, About.
 Isenberg, Noah. Well Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywoods Most Beloved Movie. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, 4-5.
 “Harry Warner Biography.” The Famous People. Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/harry-warner-5761.php.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 101.
 Prime, Rebecca. “BOOK REVIEW; Two Film Classics’ Crusades.” Los Angeles Times, Feb 26, 2017. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1871900729?accountid=10427.
Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 133.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 166-167.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 170-171.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 182-183.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 176.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 122.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 122.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 273.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 212-213.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 216.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 217.
 Isenberg, Well Always Have Casablanca, 221.
 Bartell, Gerald. “‘Casablanca’: It’Still the Same Old Story, but it Never Gets Old.” WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post.
 Bartell, “Casablanca.”