Resuscitating The Marx Bros: A Night in Casablanca
Today is the anniversary of the release of the Marx Brothers’ comedy A Night in Casablanca (1946).
A Night in Casablanca is the Marx Brothers’ come-back movie, made five years after their supposed retirement. It was made, as the refrain goes, “Because Chico needed the money.” It was the penultimate film for director Archie Mayo, who’d begun directing silent comedy shorts at L-KO 30 years earlier. The film was partially self-financed and released through United Artists, affording the team more artistic freedom than they had enjoyed for years.
I find it a very interesting movie, and the Marx Brothers’ best overall I think since A Night at the Opera. The most interesting aspect is that they are “doing” themselves…as Shakespeare did in The Tempest, as the Beatles do on Abbey Road, the artists revisit elements of past glory at a later stage. The title of course evokes A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Groucho’s role as a hotel manager echoes The Cocoanuts. The international intrigue recalls Duck Soup. Sig Ruman is back from several of their earlier MGM comedies. And (more of a drawback) the more physical, chase-style climax is reminiscent of their more recent film Go West , substituting an airplane for a train.
Ironically, I think the film is more successful than any of their MGM efforts (including Opera) at seeming to have a real, interesting plot, one with some actual stakes. Though it purports to parody Warner Brothers’ hit Casablanca, compared with their Paramount romps this is slim parody indeed; it plays more like an actual spy movie. Groucho comes off best—he has more funny lines than any of their films since A Night at the Opera, and he seems to go at it with more energy. This film would be the last one in which he wore his famous greasepaint mustache and old fashioned round, wire eyeglass frames. Chico perhaps comes off the worst. We are far away from vaudeville now…the reason for having his character in the story is flimsier than ever, particularly one whose Italian accent is way out of practice. The choice of The Beer Barrel Polka for his piano solo seems like deliberate self-parody. Harpo looks ancient, though he has some good bits, especially his entrance gag, where it turns out he is literally holding up a building.
While the three would appear in films again, A Night in Casablanca would be the last time the three Marx Brothers appeared in a movie together as a fully integrated team. One is so very grateful that it wasn’t The Big Store that we are apt cut it slack for lots of flaws it shares with its MGM predecessors, such as a slower pace and reduced frequency of gags. At this stage anyway, those had been features of Marx Brothers comedies for over a decade, so it doesn’t make sense to single it out on that score. It’s a respectable swan song.
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.