Here’s the best thing about this book: whether you’re a Casablanca devotee or just a film-history buff, the story of how the iconic movie got made and what the world made of it is downright fascinating, an absolute page-turner, even a kind of narrative nonfiction thriller. The 1942 film began life as an unproduced stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, conceived by a schoolteacher who wanted to voice his concerns over German anti-Semitism in the years leading up to WWII (a message to people who didn’t think Hitler was a real threat). Warner Brothers bought the film rights, threw a lot of different writers at the project, changed the story around a bit, rushed the picture into theaters to capitalize on pro-American war news (the Allies had just invaded North Africa), and saw solid—but not spectacular—box-office returns. Isenberg capably recounts all this history, but his book isn’t trying to compete with Aljean Harmetz’s Round Up the Usual Suspects (1992), the definitive account of the making of Casablanca. Isenberg is telling a broader story about the history of the film and its cultural significance (it became a classic, he argues, in large part because it reinforced America’s vision of itself as tough, resourceful, morally upstanding, and heroic). Along the way, the author dispels some cherished myths about the movie—despite the legend, Ronald Reagan and George Raft were never serious contenders to play Rick Blaine—and tosses in a few nifty surprises, such as the revelation that Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, couldn’t actually play the piano. The author does some very nice detective work, too, poring over script drafts and production records to nail down who exactly wrote the movie. Yes, the credited screenwriters played roles, but some of the film’s most famous lines probably came from others (unconfirmed stories, for example, suggest that director Michael Curtiz may have given us the line, “Here’s looking at you, kid”). A valuable and insightful addition to the literature of film history.
This review originally appeared in Booklist, December 2016