This year is the 60th anniversary of the release of Casablanca. Poor old Humphrey Bogart didn’t make it into even the top 20 of Channel 4’s boringly bizarre list of the 100 greatest movie stars. Al Pacino number one? Eh, what? But then what else could one expect, I suppose, from a lot of pundits and voters who couldn’t even speak proper English.
But Casablanca has more lines than even the dumb can sort of remember than any other film ever made, even if they sort of remember them incorrectly and claim that Bogart said, ‘Play it again, Sam.’ So ingrained are certain scenes in so many consciousnesses that when people travel to the city – though not that many do – they have been known to ask directions to Rick’s Café. Only Rick’s Café never existed.
Warner Brothers, who produced the film, hired photographers and consultants who travelled to Morocco to provide realistic details for the Hollywood sets, which is why the film portrays Casablanca’s Old Medina and port so successfully. But the café itself was an invention of a scriptwriter’s imagination and existed only on a backlot.
This has always been a great disappointment to me. I never fancied myself playing the Ingrid Bergman role – most of my friends would doubtless suggest I would make a better Sydney Greenstreet – but I wouldn’t mind a go at Claude Rains’s corrupt police chief who hedges his bets, like most journalists, till the end of the story. Well, now I’m getting my chance. I mean to listen to ‘As Time Goes By’ performed in Rick’s Café in Casablanca.
For the first time in 60 years, Rick’s Café is finally opening. How come? A former US commercial councillor to Morocco, Ms Kathy Kriger, has decided to stay in Casablanca and establish the most fabled gin joint in all the world. I met the architect, a Moroccan called Hakim Benjelloun with questing panther’s eyes, who, on observing my gibbering excitement, suggested I talk to Kriger.
Strangely, she told me that the idea germinated after 11 September. ‘I decided I had to stay because it was such a critical time and things were changing.’ Perhaps Kriger hoped to present a more romantic picture of America and she approached the Governor of Casablanca with the idea of building Rick’s Café. ‘He was delighted and thought it should go in the Old Medina like the one portrayed in the film. In that way we could capture the real atmosphere of the era in which Casablanca was filmed.’
Kriger sent out flyers asking for money and, after 30 foreigners and ten Moroccans invested, bought a house of tiled and exotic enchantment opposite the old port. Her intention is to recreate exactly the celluloid appearance of the café, down to the long bar and the round tables with their beaded lamps and the ginormous sign. Tucker will be served, but there will be no private casino, at least not yet, anyway.
The opening is to be in the early autumn. ‘But what about Sam, the black pianist?’ I asked. ‘Oh, we have our Sam. His name is Lenny Bluett. He’s six foot five inches and black. He’s in his eighties but looks decades younger.’
The twist to all this is that Bluett’s mother was Humphrey Bogart’s cook. Bogart, indeed, insisted Lenny audition for the part of Sam in the film but the studio executives considered the boy too young to play a cynical middle-aged pianist. He must have thought he’d never get his chance to open Rick’s Café with ‘As Time Goes By’. But Lenny Bluett may have to watch out as I have every intention of crooning there myself, though not in my role as Louis the policeman.
Who is to be Rick, however? ‘I am,’ announced Kathy, who intends to live above the café in a flat. ‘Casablanca was made because a female script hunter for Warners came across this play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s. She said Rick captured the essence of the time. I hope to, as well. But I am not a transvestite.’