A Night in Casablanca

A Night in CasablancaSynopsis: Groucho, Chico, Harpo… uh-oh! It’s the Nazis vs. the nutsies when the legendary Marx Brothers foil Axis criminals during A Night in Casablanca. As the manager of a hotel swirling in intrigue, Groucho is up to his fake moustache in joyful if unfulfilled lechery. Chico – heywatzamatter – becomes Groucho’s bodyguard by self-decree. Harpo, pantomime’s clown prince, says more in whistles and gestures than most comics say in pages of dialogue. When this 1946 film began production, Warner Bros. threatened suit, saying the title infringed up on the studio’s famed Casablanca. Groucho fired back: “You probably have the rights to use the name Warner but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers before you were.”

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A Night in Casablanca 6.75

eyelights: a return of the more anarchic elements of the Marx Brothers.
eyesores: its many script contrivances and forced humor. its lack of vitality. its poor editing.

“If a customer asks you for a three-minute egg, give it to him in two minutes. If he asks you for a two-minute egg, give it to him in one minute. If he asks you for a one-minute egg, give him the chicken and let him work it out for himself!”

After the tremendous successes of ‘A Night at the Opera‘ and ‘A Day at the Races‘, the Marx Brothers’ continued with a series of gradually less popular films – culminating with 1941’s ‘The Big Score’, which was intended to be their swan song. However, facing growing financial difficulties due to some gambling debts, Chico later persuaded his two other brothers to return to the silver screen for one more outing.

This reunion produced 1946’s ‘A Night in Casablanca’.

Originally intended to be a spoof of the Warner Bros. box office hit ‘Casablanca’, the script was eventually changed, taking us instead to the Casablanca Hotel, whose recent managers have been murdered. Now incapable of hiring reputable new management, the hotel’s owners have no choice but to hire the questionable Ronald Kornblow (Groucho).

What no one knows is that the murderer resides at the hotel: Heinrich Stubel, an escaped German war criminal, is staying there until he can get his hands on some treasure hidden there. Groucho, with the help of Corbaccio (Chico), the local camel taxi owner, and Rusty (Harpo), one of the hotel’s valets, will help find the treasure and bring Stubel to justice.

Although it was a success, the plot of ‘A Night in Casablanca’ is rather formulaic, and the humour frequently feels like it’s been pilfered from better Marx Bros. movies. In other words, it feels like a watered-down version of better fare. The two things that make this picture stand out are Harpo’s greater role and the post-WWII vilification of Germans.

While I was not at all surprised to see how caricatured the German villain was (he becomes hilariously bloodthirsty as he watches his sidekick duel with Harpo), it was a surprise to me to find that Harpo played a greater part than not just Chico, but Groucho as well. There were four films between this and ‘…at the Races’, but Groucho was the star then.

What happened?

It changed things up some, but it was quite a breath of fresh air – I especially appreciated this since Groucho hadn’t been as stellar in the most recent pictures as he had been in the early days. What I found interesting about Harpo in this film is that he seemed to have lost his innocence: his face was now etched with a bitter look, forced with joviality.

His routine is still goofy, however, and this time it harks back to the earlier films, making his character eat a telephone or a tea cup and also putting his leg in a woman’s hand. Most of his routines were rather contrived, unfortunately, including the duel, or the shoe-shining with his head and hands at once, or sucking up a toupee with a vacuum.

But he is essential to the plot development in that, by pure coincidence, he happens to stumble upon the treasure: after leaving an elevator that’s stuck between floors, he finds a concealed compartment in the elevator shaft. Naturally, he spends a while there, leaving Groucho waiting for help as he plays a conveniently placed harp and so forth.

It’s Chico this time who leaves less of a mark, although he is consistently present in the picture and also gets his customary musical solo. However, he and Harpo have a mildly amusing bit filling the dance floor with tables and chairs to make money. It wasn’t so much that the gag itself was funny, more so that the situation grew more absurd as they carried on.

But they also had this embarrassingly long routine which had Harpo miming to Chico that the villain was trying to kill off Groucho. It wasn’t at all funny and the clues were kind of lame. So much wasted time. Perversely, even though they both know who the murderess will be, they don’t tell her potential victim – they merely tell Kornblow that his life is in danger.

Yep, writing at its finest.

The best routine of the lot is a lengthy one where the villain is packing his suitcases and the three Marxes mess around with his stuff to kill time while the girl gets Pierre (why, we don’t know – the cops would have been more useful). It’s a pointless sequence, but it’s well-coordinated and it was fun to watch their anarchic energy return to some degree.

But the main feeling one gets while watching ‘A Night in Casablanca’ is that it’s entertaining, but not stellar: it’s not half-bad, but it’s been done before and much better – and not just by the Marxes themselves. While the brothers would reunite in 1949’s ‘Love Happy’, ‘A Night in Casablanca’ would be the last proper Marx Brothers film.

It’s an unfortunate swan song for these legends: there’s not much that’s original here and what little there is may not be enough to satisfy anyone but their die-hard fans. It’s good, but not great.

Date of viewing: June 24, 2015

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