The inspiration for Rick’s Café Américain in the film Casablanca
For the city of the film is cosmopolitan: full of spies, double agents, adventurers and soldiers. Casablanca at that time was an industrial port, more concerned with commerce than espionage. In contrast, Tangier International Zone, though occupied by Franco’s Spain since 1940, continued to be a crucial transit point for the refugees streaming in from Nazi-occupied Europe.
Between 1926 and 1956, when Morocco achieved independence, the country was divided into three different parts: Spanish Morocco, French Morocco, and the International Zone of Tangier. The International Zone was governed by a body called the Committee of Control, which consisted of the consuls of Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Many people are in no doubt that this international city was the film-maker’s inspiration. “Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz in 1942, was inspired by the international ambience of Tangier,” writes Rachid Tafersiti, the president of the Boughaz Association, which preserves the heritage of Tangier, in L’Image de la Ville entre Cinema et Urbanisme.
Gambling, for example, while illegal in Morocco as in virtually every Muslim country, was known to take place in various dens and nightclubs in Tangier in the 1930s and ‘40s. In Casablanca, a stricter, more formal city, there is no evidence that it was either encouraged or indulged. Captain Renault would never have been able to close down the casino in the film, nor collect his winnings, because there would have been no tables on which to place a bet. Eventually, the first officially sanctioned casino opened in Tangier in the 1950s.
It is fairly clear therefore that Tangier International Zone, a place almost unlike any other in the world, was the milieu of the film. But what about the bar where the main action takes place? Everything we see of the bar at the beginning of the film, from its neon sign reading Rick’s Café Américain, to the elaborate carved wooden doors and tiled floors, potted palms, arches, screens and hanging lamps, with a piano playing in the corner and a roulette table in another room, was the imagination of a Hollywood set designer.
Former American diplomat Kathy Kriger, who has recently copied the set in her Rick’s Café in an old mansion between the medina and the seafront in Casablanca, admits her own place is a recreation. However, in her book Rick’s Café, she does not give an alternative location that inspired the screenwriters.
This may well be because the inspiration was elsewhere, 333 kilometres along the coast, in the same city that created the mood of the film. Tangier boasts a number of potential locations. First, there is Madame Porte’s Salon de Thé, which served what writer Alec Waugh considered the best gin martini in the world. However, that was only established in 1954, 12 years after the film was released.
Another candidate is the Caid’s Bar at the Minzah Hotel. The Minzah is the most enduring luxury hotel in Tangier, where most of the visiting VIPs chose to stay. A case can also be made for Dean’s Bar, which is close to the medina, the old Arab quarter. Robin Maugham described it in his North African Notebook, published in 1948:
“At Dean’s Bar gather the bogus barons and furtive bankers, the tipsy journalists and sober Jewish businessmen, the young diplomats and glamorous spies, the slender French and Moroccan girls, the English self-styled Colonels and their friends, the foreign agents – the highly-coloured collection of fake and genuine, cruel and kind, which forms the international society of Tangier.”
According to the couple who wrote the original play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, on which the film was based, their own model bar was in the south of France. But three other screenwriters worked on their text and changed and updated it considerably.
And there is another candidate, more compelling than all of the above: the bar at the Cinema Vox. The Vox opened its doors in 1935, and its bar quickly became well known as a place one could muster away from peering eyes, ideal for spies and the underworld. According to Paul Fairclough, a journalist at The Guardian, one of England’s leading newspapers, this was the definitive inspiration for Rick’s Café:
“Morocco’s Vox in Tangier was Africa’s biggest when it opened in 1935, with 2,000 seats and a retractable roof. As Tangier was in Spanish territory, the theatre’s wartime bar heaved with spies, refugees and underworld hoods, securing its place in cinematic history as the inspiration for Rick’s Café in Casablanca,” wrote Fairclough in The Guardian in April 2011.
Cinema Vox quickly became one of Tangier’s most popular cinemas, a meeting place for locals and expatriates alike. Larbi Yacoubi, an actor and costume designer, recalls that: “Tangier was a nest of spies, in the Petit Socco you could never know who you were really sitting next to”. Indeed it can be said that everybody came to the Cinema Vox, even if you couldn’t be too sure of his or her identity or allegiance.
“In a cinema like the Vox, you could rent a box, it functioned like a theatre. The Vox is bricked up today, it was in the Petit Socco, near the hotel Fuentes – you can still see the sign,” says Rachid Tafersiti.
The cinema Vox building, complete with the bar as the model for Rick’s Café, is about to be rebuilt, with a barman ready to serve gin martinis for the first time for more than 50 years, and a piano player tickling the ivories.
Having located the bar, and given the overwhelming argument in favour of Tangier being the inspiration for the setting, why then did Warner Brothers not just name the film Tangier? There are a number of reasons. The first is that Casablanca was modelled on a 1938 hit film called Algiers. Hedy Lamarr, its star, was originally billed to play Ilsa, the part that Ingrid Bergman turned into her own. With Lamarr in the role, the producers did not want to draw too obvious a comparison between the two films.
More importantly, there were fears that if the title sounded too similar to the earlier title, Algiers and Tangier, American audiences might assume that they had already seen the film and not bother going to the new one. Written in the American style, as Tangiers with an ‘s’ at the end, the confusion between Algiers and Tangiers becomes ever more tangible.
There is one final reason that surely is undeniable, especially to an English speaker’s ear: Casablanca is one of those words that just sounds good. The city’s original name was Anfa. This was changed to Casa Branca when the Portuguese took control. It only became Casablanca when the Spanish assumed Portugal’s empire, and the French kept the name because they liked it.
As Simona Schneider says in La Pensée de Midi: Portrait de la ville en images: “It was Tangier that inspired the famous film Casablanca, but the producers decided to change the title because the name Casablanca sounded more romantic, beter for publicity.”
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine,” as Rick says in the film. Even if it was the wrong bar, in the wrong town.
Africa's rich cinema heritage
From Boer guerrillas in 1909 at Durban’s Electric Theatre to the Vox in wartime Tangier, inspiration for Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca
The continent’s first film show was in Johannesburg in South Africa in May 1896, but Durban can claim the first permanent cinema. The Electric Theatre opened in 1909 with what purported to be newsreel of the Boer war, with scenes of Boer guerillas taking on the British, but in fact actors filmed on Hampstead Heath.
Kenya’s Theatre Royal opened in Nairobi in 1912. It attracted the African premiere of Intolerance, DW Griffith’s epic, in 1916, months after plague in the city.
Ethiopia’s first cinema arrived in the 1920s with the Club de l’Union, a notorious bar and dancehall in Addis Ababa that was soon known as Saitan Bet – House of the Devil. It is still in use, part of the less poetically-named Mega Theatre complex. Eritrea’s capital Asmara is a cinematic treasure; under Italian rule in the 1930s, 10 art deco cinemas, with names like the Roma and the Croce Rosse, were built within a few years. The intimate, low-key Cinema Dante was already there in 1910, the oldest in Asmara and one of the earliest in Africa.
Morocco’s Vox in Tangier was Africa’s biggest when it opened in 1935, with 2,000 seats and a retractable roof. As Tangier was in Spanish territory, the theatre’s wartime bar heaved with spies, refugees and underworld hoods, securing its place in cinematic history as the inspiration for Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.
Ghana’s petite Rex Cinema, opened in 1937, is Accra’s only alternative to its brash new multiplex. Its status is indeterminate, with a visitor as likely to witness a prayer meeting or a dance as a film. Chad’s government has spent £1.3m refurbishing its only cinema, the Normandy in Ndjamena, which until April had been closed for 20 years.
The 1950s building is not Africa’s oldest or largest theatre but does signal hope for renewal of Africa’s cinematic heritage.
Thursday 2 June 2011 17.24 BST
Everybody Comes to Dean’s by Francis Poole DT328.1 P6. 2009
Rick’s Café by Kathy Kriger PN1968.K3. 2012
North African Notebook by Robin Maugham DT177. M6. 1949
Ecrire sur le Cinéma Smihi, Moumen 2006 [Tangier], Slaiki Frères, 2006. 1st edition. Series: Idées clandestines
Occident, L. La Petite Illustration, Revue hebdomadaire. N.398- Cinéma: N.13.8 1928 Paris, La Petite Illustration, 1927-1931. Morocco-Cinéma, Serials
Album Cinémathique de Tangier, 2011 edition Institut de l’Ajuntament de Barcelona ISBN 978-84-9850-361-6
La Pensée de Midi 2008/1 (N° 23) Éditeur Actes Sud ISBN 9782742772957