CASABLANCA, Morocco -- Seven decades after the premiere of the film classic Casablanca, the Moroccan port city remains firmly associated in many people’s minds with the movie, even though Rick’s Cafe Americain, where much of the story took place, was a pure creation of Hollywood.
Casablanca, a story of love and intrigue during World War II, premiered Nov. 26, 1942. Today, the city is a vibrant, noisy metropolis of 4 million people and Morocco’s commercial capital, nothing like the wartime colonial outpost depicted in the iconic movie, which starred Humphrey Bogart as Rick. But a trip through the city’s swanky lounges and dive bars can still evoke the spirit of the cafe from the movie. There’s even a real-life Rick’s Cafe here, founded by an American expat.
In the film, Rick’s Cafe Americain, an expansive space spanned by low arches, had it all: a casino, singers, full brass band and round tables where guests hunched conspiratorially, drinking and talking about resisting the Nazis or getting exit visas to flee to America.
Outside the cafe’s paneled doors, the movie depicted Hollywood’s “Middle East” with generic dusty streets and markets. Characters talked about “rotting” away in Casablanca, described as being in the middle of a desert. In fact, Casablanca in 1942 was a jewel of the French colonial empire, famous for luscious art-deco and neo-classic architecture.
“During the 1940s, Casablanca was a laboratory for European architects,” said Adel Saadani, who works to raise awareness of the city’s neglected heritage. “There was space and there was money and there was a carte blanche for architects to experiment with designs they couldn’t do in Europe.”
Those buildings still stand, though some are a bit worse for the wear. Casablanca’s downtown still looks like a European city in the 1950s with an “oriental” twist. The downtown is centered around the arched colonnades of Mohammed V street, lined by stately art deco wonders. Cars are banned from the street in preparation for a tramway opening this month.
For decades after the war, said Saadani, Casablanca was filled with jazz clubs and cabarets that hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker. The movie’s pianist, Sam, would have fit right in.
But the last jazz club closed in 1984 amid conservatism and a turn away from Western music. Downtown bars and once-tony spots fell into disfavor. At the same time, rural migrants flooded in looking for jobs. Cheap, ugly, unregulated high rises sprung up as the city mushroomed. The upper classes moved to new developments on the edges of town and along the Atlantic beaches.
Tourists passing through the city looking for Rick’s in those years were often disappointed by traffic-choked streets and the glass and concrete tower blocs of a modern city. But in recent years, more nightspots have opened, including, in 2004, Rick’s Cafe.
“I was amazed in my four years here that no one ever thought of establishing a Rick’s Cafe,” recalled its owner, Kathy Kriger. Her previous career as a diplomat in Casablanca’s U.S. consulate gave her the connections she needed to open the restaurant amid Morocco’s red tape and bureaucracy. Every time her project stalled, she called in favors from the capital, Rabat, pulling strings just like Bogart did in the movie.