Monsieur, ou est “Rick’s Café” s’il vous plait ???
When setting a novel or a TV show or a film in a particular city, writers sometime create an exact location for events. That location then takes on a life of its own and becomes famous. Therefore, when visiting that city, it’s very natural to want to visit that location. Huge numbers of visitors to London try to visit 221B Baker Street, the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes. Another example is the Cheers pub, location of the long running TV series of that name. When I was in Boston, I unsuccessfully attempted to visit it. It’s so easy to forget that these locations exist only in the imagination of a successful writer.
Half a century ago, I was determined to visit Rick’s Café, a location used in one of the most popular films of all time. Rick’s Café is an upscale night club and gambling den in Casablanca. The film of that name won the 1943 Academy Award for best picture. The part of Rick, the night club owner, was played by Humphrey Bogart as a tough guy with a kind heart underneath it all. In the film, Nazi Germany had not occupied Casablanca but had left it under French Vichy control. Yet the atmosphere in the film was full of fear. When I had an opportunity of visiting Casablanca in 1963, Rick’s Café was the place that I wanted to see. One heard much more about Casablanca then. In addition to the film, Casablanca was the site of the 1943 meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill at which the policy of unconditional surrender was agreed upon. This was the first time that an American president had left American soil in wartime. The new policy left no room for World War II to end by negotiation, so Casablanca witnessed a momentous decision.
I was a passenger on a French liner called “The Marshal Foch” as it made its way from Nigeria to Italy, stopping at the major ports in North and West Africa. This ship was named after the supreme commander of the allied forces in World War I. It was Marshal Foch, who accepted the German surrender on November 11 1918. He hated the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, saying that it was a recipe for another war 20 years later. He died in 1929, so he never was able to boast about being exactly correct in his timeline. However, he was buried next to Napoleon in Les Invalides in Paris, so perhaps that compensated.
Everything about the ship was aggressively French, from the permanent smell of Gaulois cigarettes, to French accordian music everywhere, to the fact that nobody among crew or passengers would admit to knowing a single word of English. As the ship made its stately progress into the port of Casablanca, I saw a fine French city with wide straight boulevards and big buildings which would not have been out of place in Paris. I wanted to see Morocco and a North African Arab community, but that was not what I found. The place was just as French as the ship on which I was a passenger. After the French occupied Casablanca in 1907, they simply created a French city. Morocco regained its independence in 1956 but, six years later at the time of my visit, Casablanca was still irredeemably French. I asked to see Rick’s Café, but they denied it existed. They tell me that Casablanca looks very different now. In the 1990s, King Hassan II of Morocco built a huge mosque and named it after himself.
It dominates the city because it possesses the tallest minaret in the world which, at 650 feet, is quite something. Visitors to Casablanca can now go there, instead of making a fruitless search for Rick’s Café. Bob