In spring 2016, the “New York Times,” and countless international newspapers and websites across the world, posted the obituary of 92-year-old actress Madeleine Lebeau. The passing of an actress who throughout her career had played only supporting roles and had never been involved in unsavory escapades generally does not warrant such widespread recognition. However, Lebeau was the last surviving member of the cast of "Casablanca,” a Hollywood production released in 1942. Her obituary was accompanied by the unforgettable shot of her rendition of "La Marseillaise" as she and patrons of Rick's café belted out the French national anthem to drown out the Nazi chorus.
In the introduction to "We'll Always Have Casablanca," by Noah Isenberg, the author states that he wrote it " in an attempt to capture the story of not just how this most remarkable movie was made - and of the indispensable role that refugees from Hitler's Europe had in making it - but to explore how and why 'Casablanca' continues to live on in our collective consciousness…"
The movie started life as "Everybody Comes to Rick's" and was written in 1940 by an English high school teacher during his free time. It was sold to Warner Bros who retitled it "Casablanca," and it was filmed during the summer of 1942, before the Allied landings in November 1942.
In 2001, The Writer's Guild of America ranked the screenplay number one out of the 101 greatest screenplays, and it remains one of the most frequently taught scripts to aspiring writers and actors. This is all the more remarkable as the original script had gone through multiple drafts and the characters were still developing as the film was being shot.
In a later interview, Ingrid Bergman explained that no one knew exactly where the story was going and how it was going to end. "Every day we were shooting off the cuff: every day they were handing out the dialogue and we were trying to make some sense of it."
Anxious to stay in character, Bergman demanded to know with which of her two lovers she would eventually escape the Nazis and board the flight to Lisbon: the director was evasive. "We don't know yet… play it in between."
Bergman later recalled, "I made so many films that were more important, but the only one people want to talk about is that one with Bogart.” Playing with Bogie was no sinecure. He worried that the public would not believe that a woman as beautiful as Ingrid Bergman could fall for a guy who looked like him.
Weighing 155 pounds and one inch shorter than she was, Bogart was a balding actor who had spent most of his life playing snarling triggermen. In an interview he admitted that he wasn't up to "this love stuff" and had to be coached to play a romantic lead: he was told to stand still, and allow Bergman to come to him. However, when the scenes were over he would flee to his dressing room where he spent most of his time.
"We'll Always Have Casablanca" is much more than a book about Hollywood backstage gossip, though I found that part added a certain piquancy when I viewed the movie after reading the book. The book also, and more importantly, conveys a vivid picture of the times, of the war years, of the censorship that prevailed at the time, a censorship so different than that which prevails today, and of the men and women who, fleeing the advances of the Nazis in Europe, found refuge in the United States and profoundly influenced Hollywood and the movie industry.
And by the way, lest anyone think interest in "Casablanca" is waning, in November 2014, that old upright piano on which Sam was requested to "play it again" and again, and again, sold at Bonham's on Madison Avenue for $3.4 million dollars.
Noah Isenberg is director of screen studies and professor of culture and media at The New School. He is the author of" Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins" and editor of Weimar Cinema, and the recipient of an NEH Public Scholar Award with which he wrote this book.