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Play it again, Sam, and again, and again

Moroccan bars try to cash in on Rick's Cafe from "Casablanca."

Actor and singer Dooley Wilson on the piano as Humphrey Bogart looks on in a scene from "Casablanca," directed by Michael Curtiz, 1942. (Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

CASABLANCA, Morocco — On a dingy side street, the smiling landlord pronounced with historical certainty that one need look no further. The real inspiration for Rick’s Cafe in the classic film "Casablanca" stands before you.

“Yes,” said Abdeslamy Labiad, 70, gesturing to an oval sign above an arched doorway. “It’s the same bar.”

The sign was plastic, and smeared with bird scat. It said, “Rex Cabaret.”

Several saloons in this North African country have laid claim to the legacy of the great World War II movie romance, each with varying degrees of plausibility. Steered by locals or guidebooks promising the authentic Rick’s, tourists flock to one after the other. Sorting out which bar best imitates the real thing is complicated by the fact that, by all reliable accounts, no original existed in the first place.

Hearing this notion leaves Mr. Labiad — a fit, genial man who ran Rex Cabaret himself until 1980 — decidedly nonplussed. As does the small matter of the sign’s spelling.

“Yes, OK,” he allowed. Since the 1940s, “the big sign and the door — that’s been changed.”

The 1942 movie "Casablanca" was a Hollywood confection of the highest order. Filmed entirely on a sound stage, it contained zero location shots or actors of Moroccan descent. The airplane in the final sequence was a half-size wooden mockup; the studio cast midgets as mechanics to preserve the illusion of size. And the Moroccan saloon at the heart of the story is about as rooted in reality as the lounge aboard the Starship Enterprise.

According to Aljean Harmetz’s exhaustive book, “Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca,” the film began its life as a play written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. In 1938, Burnett became committed to the anti-Nazi cause after a trip spent aiding Jewish relatives in occupied Vienna. Before coming home, Burnett passed an evening in a nightclub with a polyglot clientele where a black man played piano. There, he reportedly turned to his wife and said, “What a setting for a play.”

The nightclub was in the south of France.