Background: From vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, the Marx Brothers were on of prewar America’s premier comedy acts. By 1946, however, they had been out of the movie for five years; the brothers only reunited for this film to pay off Chico’s gambling debts.
A Night in Casablanca is more remembered for a publicity stunt than for the film itself. After Warner Brothers allegedly threatened the Marxes with legal action over the word “Casablanca” in the title, Groucho responded that they had advertised themselves as “Brothers” long before Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner.
Plot Introduction: Shortly after World War II, Nazi officer Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman) escapes to North Africa with a cache in stolen art. Hiding out in the Hotel Casablanca, Stubel kills three consecutive hotel managers in order too keep a secret. This creates a job opportunity for Ronald Kornblow (Groucho), an unsuspecting hotelier who quickly becomes Stubel’s next target. Valet Rusty (Harpo) overhears this plot and teams up with Kornblow and shifty camel driver/part-time bodyguard Corbaccio (Chico) to bring the Nazi to justice. A few comedy bits and musical interludes later, the trio faces off with Stubel in a rear-projection action sequence involving a plane racing down a runway.
My Thoughts: The above plot summary was actually hard to write because Marx Brothers movies are never about plot: what story there is only exists to link comedy routines, sight gags, and musical numbers together. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo will adopt silly character names but inevitably play themselves. Even though the boys (especially Groucho with his receding hairline) are getting a bit long in the tooth, A Night in Casablanca is cut from the same cloth as their previous efforts. (The penultimate Marx Brothers movie is also the penultimate film of director Archie Mayo; I’ll be taking a look at his last in a few weeks.)
At times, this works very well. My favorite scene involves Chico attempting to figure out Harpo’s incredibly convoluted charades. Groucho’s older brothers remain fantastic musicians, providing two more highlights with their piano and harp playing. (I’m fascinated by Chico’s flashy vaudeville-style performance on the keys.) Sig Ruman (who I remember playing a somewhat similar role in 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be) makes for a fun, over-the-top villain: if you ever find yourself in the 1940’s, never trust a German with a dueling scar.
Although I have a few qualms with Nazism and Marxist zaniness in the same film, A Night in Casablanca mostly works on a conceptual level as well. I like the idea of setting the Marx Brothers loose in the land of golden age Hollywood exoticism. The best films in the brothers’ ouvre are always about them turning orderly worlds upside down – high society in Animal Crackers (1930), international diplomacy in Duck Soup (1933), the theater in A Night at the Opera (1935.) Unleashing them in the romanticized North Africa of Casablanca or Pépé le Moko seems like a worthy continuation of this theme.
Unfortunately, A Night in Casablanca feels tired much of the time. All the comedic element – Harpo’s slapstick, Groucho’s one-liners, Chico’s ridiculous puns – are there, but none feel as sharp as before. The manic energy of classic Marx just isn’t there: Groucho throws out many zingers but very few of them actually land. Everyone’s just going through the motions.
Although released by United Artists, the film has many of the same problems that reviewers identify in the late Paramount Marx Brother films; I’ve already mentioned the thin story (script by Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee.) This film is very short (85 minutes), but it devotes a good quarter of its running time to mostly irrelevant subplots, like a pair of bumbling Casablanca cops in fezzes and pith helmets. Just like the Paramount films, A Night in Casablanca attempts to counterbalance the trio’s craziness with a pair of young lovers, in this case American-accented French pilot Pierre and his girlfriend Anette. This story goes nowhere. I know it’s a concession to Middle America, but the impulse is wrong: I watch Marx Brothers movies for the Marx Brothers, period.
I really like Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, but their second-to-last film just isn’t up to par.
Ps. Until the end credits, I thought that Chico’s character was called “carpaccio,” which would be very much in the tradition of silly Marx Brothers names.