Featured Fellow: Noah Isenberg

NYIH Fellow Noah Isenberg is Professor of Culture and Media at the New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, where he also directs the Screen Studies program. Isenberg, a scholar of film, has also taught German and film studies at Wesleyan, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania. His previous work includes Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, which the New York Times called “a page turner of a biography” and Huffington Post selected among its Best Film Books of 2014; Detour, a book-length study for the British Film Institute on Ulmer’s acclaimed low-budget film noir; and, as editor, Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era. His latest book is We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. We spoke to him about Casablanca’s enduring place in cinema and popular culture, the film’s politically loaded historical context, and its resonance today.


How did you get started on this project?

In 2012 I wrote an op-ed piece about Casablanca for the Wall Street Journal; at the time I was doing a seminar at the New School on the film and all the different paths that led to it – the other films before it, the actors involved. I wrote the opinion piece based on my experiences in the classroom and there was an incredible and overwhelming response. That led to a screening of Casablanca at the Center for Jewish History with another NYIH fellow, J. Hoberman, former chief film critic at the Village Voice. The place was just completely packed. There wasn’t a free seat. So that really confirmed for me the decision to do the book. That was five years ago.

I didn’t anticipate the response the book would get, but people keep writing me emails out of the blue. The book and the film really seem to resonate with their audiences – partly, I think, because of our current political circumstances.

One of the striking things about Casablanca is that not only are political refugees very much the subject of the film, but that many – most – of the people involved in the making of the film were themselves refugees or immigrants.

Yes, both political and ethnic refugees. The political context has to be explained – it was very much an anti-fascist film, but at the time you couldn’t talk directly about the ethnicities of the refugees or the fact that they were Jewish. The refugee crisis was already underway when Murray Burnett, who wrote Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the unproduced stage play that Casablanca is based on, went to Europe in the summer of 1938. That was after the Nazis had annexed Austria, and not long before they stormed Czechoslovakia and Poland. Refugees were in high number and very present. By the time the screenplay was written in spring of ’42, the refugee crisis was acute.

Warner Brothers was one of the first studios that was anti-fascist and one of the few studios that took on pictures that reflected those real historic events. In some cases that was by way of allegory, as in the case of Juarez, for example, or by the use of historical tales removed from the present but with clear resonance, like The Life of Emile Zola. And then you have the much more explicit anti-Nazi film they did – Confessions of a Nazi Spy. They took some real heat for that.

In fact, in September 1941 Harry Warner was brought in before Congress to testify. There was a very, very vocal nativist and isolationist faction in Congress that was deeply concerned that Hollywood in general, and Warner Brothers in particular, were beating the drums of war. Because of the density of Jews, leftists, and communists, Hollywood was kind of a den of iniquity in the eyes of these Congressmen. That was the political context that prompted Groucho Marx to say – in an unusually and uncharacteristically sober register – that Warner Brothers was the only studio in Hollywood with any guts.

So many of the people involved in Casablanca, including almost all of the supporting cast, were European-born Jews, who, when they made it out, still had relatives stranded in Europe. So they were telling this story of stranded refugees – in this case in North Africa, but by way of Europe – with firsthand experience of it. Many were getting intermittent communiques from Europe about family members who were imperiled or who in some cases perished. A few of them lost a number of family members.

This was a Hollywood film in 1942 and of course it was out to do well at the box office and appeal to the masses, and that is how it is remembered today – as the greatest romance of all time. That has come to eclipse the political aspect. One of the things I tried to highlight in the book was the significance of that refugee story.

During your research did you find anything that particularly surprised you?

Yes – two things in particular. The first concerns the perception of the film in Aufbau, the newspaper of the New York German Jewish community. For the Aufbau reviewer it was entirely a refugee film, a refugee story. The review focuses specifically on that aspect, and the number of refugee actors and crew members. That was an important discovery for me because it gave a new level of credence or truth to something that I had been speculating on – what the film meant to a core constituency represented by that German Jewish newspaper.

Another related discovery concerned the inclusion of Dooley Wilson, the black actor who plays Sam the piano player. I was curious as to whether the film was reviewed in the black press, and it turns out it was reviewed in the Amsterdam News. One of the things that the Amsterdam News review focused on was of course Dooley Wilson and the significance of the film to a black audience. Watching it today it doesn’t seem especially progressive – the way he calls Bogart “sir” and “boss,” for example – but he was really a fully realized character in many ways and a true friend and confidante for Bogart’s character.

The Amsterdam News review was basically exhorting readers to see the film because it was taking an African-American character to a new place. Apparently – and I haven’t been able to confirm this completely but I have no reason to think it’s not true – when the film was shown in theaters in Harlem they would stop the film and re-show the scenes with Dooley Wilson. Or they would show the film in its entirety and then show just the Dooley Wilson scenes. If that’s true, that really testifies to the significance of his performance.

The film was not only released during the war but in fact released very shortly after the Allies retook French Morocco. It came out at an extremely specific and serendipitous time. Do you think it would have been received the same way if it was released at a different time? I think of the French resistance film Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres), now considered a masterpiece, which, when it was released in 1969, was condemned by critics who accused it of being nationalistic Gaullist propaganda.

The producer of the film was extremely savvy when it came to such concerns, as was Jack Warner – this was one of Warner’s signature productions and he had his hand in everything – and fortuitous timing definitely had an effect. But I think there is obviously something more to the film. Ingrid Bergman speaks of the film as being almost mystical. There was a need for it, I think, that predates the film’s release.

In terms of speculation – since you’re asking for conjecture on my part – it’s interesting to consider a question like: “What if it had come out after the war?” Pauline Kael once remarked in an interview that were it not for the deep refugee crisis that brought all these foreign-born actors to Hollywood – were it not for its deep European-born émigré cast – the film would not have nearly the authenticity that it does for a film made on a Warner Brothers sound stage nowhere near the North African outpost that it somehow manages to conjure on screen. Those actors – their voices, their experiences – are somehow tapped.

Had it been made in 1940, the summer when it was written, perhaps Hollywood would not have been ready for it. They were getting there but it took almost until 1942 for studios to be prepared, and more so for audiences to be prepared, culturally. Of course I think what most people saw when they watched the film was the brilliant romance – or rather unfulfilled romance.

Although it seems preposterous, there are probably many people my age – I was born in 1990 – who have never seen Casablanca, or, for that matter, any black-and-white feature film. If you had to try to explain the film’s essence to someone who hasn’t seen it, what makes it such a classic?

I am very aware of the situation you describe, given that I teach millennials, and in most of my courses introduce them to films – silent and talkies, black-and-white and color, art house and commercial, foreign and domestic – which they’ve never seen before. What’s fascinating to me is that Casablanca somehow plays well with all audiences. Sure, people in their 60s and 70s, who have seen the picture three dozen times, respond to it differently than does a 20 year-old watching it for the first time. But the film speaks to audiences across generations. As for its essence, I think it’s the snappy story, the tale of bittersweet romance, of moral and immoral choices, and of wartime refugees in desperate flight, that grabs hold of viewers and makes the film endure over time.

How does this project tie into your other work in film studies? I know that you have a background in German.

The main link between the Casablanca book and my previous books, in particular the critical biography of émigré filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer that I published in 2014, is the refugee story and the unusually cosmopolitan, polyglot world of Hollywood in the 1940s. It's not for nothing that filmmakers today still use the abbreviation M.O.S. (“mit out sound”) when shooting a silent sequence.

What is your next project?

I don’t have a book-length project in the works just yet, but I’d love to edit and introduce Billy Wilder’s Weimar-era journalism, which has never been published in English and is filled with much of the same delicious wit, charm, and whimsy as his later screenplays and movies made in Hollywood.


Interviewed by Oliver Conroy