Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1946)

12. A Night in Casablanca

“The Big Store” was meant to be the Marx Brothers' final cinematic offering. Yet, five years later, the three would reunite for “A Night in Casablanca.” I had always assumed that the film came about because some producer had the ill-conceived idea of reuniting a successful comedy team, long after they had given up the ghosts. Apparantly, however, the Marx Brothers themselves were the driving force behind “A Night in Casablanca.” The three produced the film, developing and sharpening the material with a road show before filming began. Why would the Marxes return to theater screens after saying they were done? Supposedly, the movie was made primarily to help Chico pay off his gambling debts. I don't know if this is true but, if it is, it says a lot about “A Night in Casablanca.”

As the title indicates, the film is indeed set in the Morocan city of Casablanca. Following World War II, an escaped Nazi officer is hiding out in the country, at the Hotel Casablanca. He hopes to reclaim the stolen Nazi treasure left inside the hotel. He's killed three managers to hide his identity. The latest manager, a largely incompetent oddball named Ronald Kornblow, is not so easy to deal with. Soon, Kornblow is paired up with a self-proclaimed and a mischievous (and silent) valet. They quickly become a thorn in the Nazi's side.

“A Night in Casablanca” is probably best known today for something that has nothing to do with the film itself. An urban legend, partially perpetrated by Groucho himself, says that the producers of “Casablanca” threatened the movie with a lawsuit unless they changed the name. This story is absolutely not true. However, it is clear that “A Night in Casablanca” was partially inspired by the legend Bogart/Bergman classic. But only in the loosest sense. Aside from its setting and its story involving Nazi officers, “A Night in Casablanca” has nothing to do with the other film. It can not be considered a parody. If anything, it was cashing in on the more popular film's title.

There's not too much interesting about “A Night in Casablanca,” except for one minor details. In his autobiography, Harpo would write about traveling through Europe in the years before World War II and being disturbed by the rising antisemitism he witnessed. What does that have to do with “A Night in Casablanca?” Like the majority of the trio's films, the plot features the mischievous brothers messing with various squares and stuffed shirts. Except, this time, the square just happens to be a former Nazi. Aside from one line from Groucho, a sarcastic reference to “the master race,” the film never acknowledges that it's about three Jews pestering a Nazi officer. Yet it certainly adds an interesting layer to the proceedings.

Groucho does produce some laughs here. One of his funniest lines is easily missed. It occurs near the film's end, when he turns to Harpo and says he “doesn't want to hear another word” from him. Haha. Though noticeably lacking in energy, Groucho still gives it his all. He cracks jokes about chewing gum to a camel. He harasses a cook by complaining about eggs. One of his funnier little lines occur when a complaining caller asks about his “trunks.” One of his best scenes has him flirting and joking with the film's femme fatale, making fun of her cigarette holder and cracking wise about lost and find.

Harpo is the first Marx Brother we see in “A Night in Casablanca.” He's introduced leaning against a building which collapses once he steps away. He does get some big laughs early on. The scenes of him messing with the bad guy, including sucking his toupee into a vacuum cleaner and messing with his jacket, are early highlights. That energy collapses during a long and largely lifeless scene, where he gets into a sword fight. There's a scene where he pantomimes taking a phone call from Salt Lake City by throwing salt at the receiver. Some of Harpo's bit recall gags in earlier movies. Such as when he starts eating candles and tea cups. Or when he combines the old leg-grabbing gag with a cigarette-eating shoe. It's not top-tier stuff but is worth a chuckle or two.

Once again, Chico gets the short end of the stick. He's mostly reduced following his Brothers around, rarely contributing too many jokes of his. His funniest stand-alone line involves a gag around the name of his camel taxi service. This leads to an amusing conversation with Groucho, about the difference between Chico's daytime and nighttime business, that almost makes it seem like the magic is back. Recalling a scene in “A Day at the Races,” there's a scene where Harpo has to explain a plot detail to Chico through pantomime. It's funny at first but definitely goes on way too long. Chico is also at the center of another gag that's funny at first but goes on too long. The trio are hiding from the villain in his room, hiding in suits, trunks, and closest, always just avoiding detection.

Being produced by the Brothers themselves, “A Night in Casablanca” mostly pushes the boring romantic leads to the side. Charles Drake, as the heroic Lt. Delmar, strikes one as a mildly compelling matinee idol type. Lois Collier is pretty as the female lead but isn't given much more to do besides that. The villainous subplot gets more attention. Sig Ruman, as the hiding Nazi, is likable hammy. He certainly digs into his ridiculous accent. Lisette Verea, as the femme fatale, probably gives my favorite performance in the film. She vamps nicely and has a rapport with Groucho during their scenes together.

Unlike most of the Marx Brothers' films, “A Night in Casablanca” is not really a musical. There's only one proper song. The lounge singer performs a rendition of “Who's Sorry Now?,” a song from 1923 that made its cinematic debut here. You might recognize the song, as it has been covered by many different performers, with Connie Francis' 1958 version being the most successful. Aside from that, “A Night in Casablanca” is pretty low on songs. Chico has his standard piano sequence. It's pretty fun, as he soon has the whole band intimated his movements. Harpo, after uncovering the hidden treasure, finds a harp to play. This scene is less memorable.

As has become all too common place now with the Marxes, “A Night in Casablanca” wraps up with another excessively wacky finale. This one begins with the bad guys escaping on an airplane. The heroes leap aboard, climbing across on a ladder. There's exaggerated fighting and shuffling on the plane. Soon, the plane gets airborne before crashing into the wall of a prison. Even that isn't quite the ending of “A Night in Casablanca.” Once again, there's very few laughs to be had in this extended climax, the movie collasping into some especially desperate physical comedy, far too wacky to be enjoyed.

Ultimately, “A Night in Casablanca” doesn't quite justify its own existence. As a parody of “Casablanca,” it could not be more half-assed. As a Marx Brothers reunion movie, it doesn't really distinguish itself from the Brothers' increasingly weak MGM output. Just as a comedy, it's pretty lacking in laughs, only getting a handful of chuckles that quickly fade from memory. I don't know how successful “A Night in Casablanca” was at the box office but hopefully it at least served its purpose of paying off Chico's gambling debts. Otherwise, the movie really didn't need to exist at all. [Grade: C]

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