Tuesday, August 15, 2017

“Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca”

Casablanca lives on, at the intersection of Lincoln Blvd. and Rose Avenue, not far from me in Venice, California. It’s true there’s nothing even faintly Moroccan about this nearly forty-year-old restaurant: its menu features California-Mexican cuisine, complete with margaritas, guacamole, and flour tortillas made on the spot. But Casablanca Restaurant does boast Casbah-style décor, and  houses a prime collection of memorabilia from the 1942 movie. The restaurant’s founders were so enamored of the denizens of Rick’s Café Américain that their parking lot has assigned parking spaces for Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and the rest of the movie’s featured players, should they deign to show up. 

Noah Isenberg, though SoCal born, doesn’t seem to know about Venice’s Casablanca Restaurant. But his new We’ll Always Have Casablanca is a paean to the many ways in which the seventy-five-year-old film – “Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie” – is still with us today. This is the place to find comic allusions to Casablanca on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Life; he also tracks down various literary attempts, some of them bizarre, to update the love story of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, chronicling what happens after he urges her to get on that plane with her husband because “the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Isenberg even introduces Rick’s Café Casablanca, a picturesque nightspot opened in 2004 by a former U.S. diplomat in Morocco to serve those who hanker for good seafood amid nostalgic reminders of a movie that was filmed in its entirety on the Warner Bros. backlot.

Though Casablanca is best remembered as a love story, it owes its impact partly to the fact that it was released just as Hitler and his Nazis were overrunning Europe. Isenberg is at his best in focusing on a cast filled with actual refugees, actors who’d fled to Hollywood from such places as Austria, Germany, and France to escape Nazi persecution. (Some of them ended up playing Nazi on screen to make ends meet.) The actors’ own personal sense of loss helps explain why the scene containing the singing of the Marseillaise in support of the Free French packs such a wallop. He also makes the excellent point that Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, the detached cynic who finally chooses political involvement, nicely represents the attitude of many Americans before (and even after) Pearl Harbor. The American public in the 1940s, notes Isenberg, tended to prefer isolationism, but films like Casablanca helped sell the appeal of  a principled commitment to solving the world’s larger problems. Jack and Harry Warner, themselves from a Jewish immigrant background, boldly used their films in this period to address the specter of Nazism in Europe. One irony: though Casablanca highlights the desperation of the refugees, the specific threat to Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe is never mentioned. 

 Isenberg also traces the popularity of Casablanca into the Sixties, when scores of young campus activists identified with Humphrey Bogart’s iconic blend of idealism and cynical cool. That’s why Bogart-as-Rick posters were so visible in college dorm rooms in my day, and why theatres like the Brattle near Harvard University played Casablanca as part of an end-of-term ritual for many years. Now, as the Syrian refugee crisis makes headlines, the public’s appreciation for Casablanca seems to have waned not at all.  It turns out that Senator Elizabeth Warren, of all people, watches the film each New Year’s Eve, seeing in it much relevance to our nation of immigrants. “Each time I watch it,” she writes, “Casablanca gives me hope.”

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