When Tangier Was Casablanca: Rick’s Café & Dean’s Bar


TALIM Casablanca-Cervantes export
Don't worry if you can't make out the cartoon captions.  They're in Spanish anyway.  Last night the Tangier Instituto Cervantes opened "Casablanca," an exhibit of sometimes whimsical pop art inspired by the film.

The point of this post is not creative cartoonists, but the parallels between the Casablanca depicted in the film (celebrating its "70th Anniversary") and the Tangier of the same World War II era.  And the resemblance is striking.

As owner Kathy Kriger of the exquisite "Rick's Café" in Casablanca is the first to admit, the film was shot in a Hollywood studio, and her "mythical" restaurant was recreated out of an old mansion located between Casa's seafront and medina.  Some of her customers are disappointed at hearing this, so real has the story become, thanks to the genius of Michael Curtiz, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman.

But the "real Casablanca" was perhaps in Tangier.  Think of it: 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.  Of course, there wouldn't have been the perfectly-cast Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault; Vichy's Morocco was beyond Tangier, beyond the Spanish Protectorate.

What there was in Tangier was "Dean.s Bar 1937," as the plaque still says.  Francis Poole, of the University of Delaware, has written a nice little book on the man and the bar: "Everybody Comes To Dean's."

While Spain administered the affairs of Tangier, the city was swarming with spies and informers from both sides of the conflict… Dean, like the saloon owner Rick in Casablanca, seemingly had no politics… [though] it was rumored that Dean worked for British Intelligence.

Later, Poole quotes Robin Maugham's North African Notebook:

… a focal point for the highly coloured collection of the fake and the genuine, the cruel and the kind, which forms the international society of Tangier… 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…

Sounds an awful lot like Rick's of Casablanca, no?

None of this is to detract from what is one of the best films of all time, a concise 102 minutes of suspense, humor, love, and pretty good history.  Only when it was released, it wasn't history – it was current events.

When Casablanca was first shown on Thanksgiving Day 1942, the Operation Torch landings in Casablanca and elsewhere had just happened.  America's first foray into the European Theatre of WW II was weeks old, and yesterday's Vichy French and American opponents, like Captain Renault and Rick Blaine, now had to begin that "beautiful friendship."

Though Warner Home Video has chosen 2011 and not 2012 for their 70th Anniversary release of Casablanca, next year will mark the 70th anniversary of Operation Torch.  And in Tangier, we not only have Dean's Bar to help us evoke that era, but at the American Legation, TALIM's museum will feature a recreation of a 1942-era Legation office, when American diplomats helped save Jewish lives.

As Kathy Kriger says of Rick's Café, the legend continues…

Gerald Loftus

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