A Night in Casablanca
After a run of films of waning quality – and a five-year gap – the Marx Brothers delivered a very pleasant surprise with this remarkably respectable bounce back, so good, it can happily be mentioned in the same breath as their first two MGM pictures. True, it isn’t on a par with the unbridled anarchy we saw in the Paramount days, but there are enough proficient set pieces and sustained routines to confirm A Night in Casablanca’s status as seriously underrated.
Kornblow: After all, I’m a man and you’re a woman… and I can’t think of a better argument.
The key to this seems to be that they rehearsed major scenes during a pre-filming tour. That, and the picture was a self-financed effort, only released through United Artists. Writers Joseph Fields (the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes musical), Roland Kibbee (later of The Bob Newhart Show) and an uncredited Frank Tashlin (who would get a full credit on swansong Love Happy) do something slightly different, in conjunction with director Archie Mayo, presenting a movie scenario that the brothers just happen to step into and then mould to their will. In some scenes (notably between the romantic leads in a night club) you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a bona-fide film noir.
Mr Smythe: Sir, this lady is my wife. You should be ashamed.
Kornblow: If this lady is your wife, YOU should be ashamed.
The myth behind the movie is that Warner Bros threatened a lawsuit for using “Casablanca” in the title. The truth being that they didn’t, and that an originally intended direct spoof of that film was nixed at an early stage. There is a “Round up all likely suspects” line, however, which appears to have been overdubbed from the Casablanca version to avoid legal reprisals. The actual plot as has a Nazi war criminal looking to secure war loot (art treasures, including a Rembrandt) hidden in the Hotel Casablanca via the rather tenuous method of killing successive managers in order to be appointed manager himself. The latest of whom is Groucho’s relatively restrainedly (in name) Ronald Kornblow (it’s the lack of the initial, I think).
Beatrice (Groucho has climbed into the space where she’s hiding): What are you doing in here?
Kornblow: I have new respect for the count. He certainly knows how to pack a trunk.
On the downside, there’s no Margaret Dumont, but the considerable up is that the Nazi war criminal, sporting various follicular appliances as a disguise, in particular a free-ranging toupee, is played by Sig Ruman, star villain of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. His Heinrich Stubel (or Count Pfefferman, as he is purporting to be) is duly the butt of a series of insults and routines, the most magnificent being a protracted packing sequence in which Kornblow – with shady lady Beatrice (Lisette Verea) also hiding out, having changed sides when she finds she is being ditched – has his attempts to put anything in any case or trunk, or remove it from drawers or cupboards for that matter, frustrated by Harpo (as Rusty) and Chico (as Corbaccio). Ruman’s gradually evolving perplexed state is priceless.
Kornblow: I remember when this was all dancefloor.
It takes a while to meet Chico and Groucho, adding to the sense at the outset that this is a “proper” film. Indeed, the sight gag “Say, what do you think you’re doing? Holding up the building?” directed at Harpo looks impressively expensive (in contrast to the later. entirely make-do elevator crash, when Harpo cuts the wires to free a trapped Groucho).
Harpo and Chico naturally get their own musical interludes, but a sign of their control is perhaps that we see Harpo putting his leg in a woman’s hand for the first time in forever (she flicks ash into his open shoe) and then honks her away. Not quite the Harpo of Paramount days, but unrulier than he’s been in a long while. He also manages to “insult” Beatrice by appearing with an even longer cigar holder than she has, and then blowing bubbles through it (another bit of business involving Verea finds her and Groucho “seductively” blowing smoke at each other; she corpses when he engulfs her in a cloud of cigar smoke). He also wins at roulette, despite Groucho warning him off (“You sure you want to go through with this? Remember what happened in 1929”).
Beatrice: Oh, come on now. You wouldn’t say no to a lady.
Kornblow: I don’t know, why not? They always say no to me.
At one point, Chico and Harpo, in order to come up with some money for romantic lead Charles Drake – as Lieutenant Delmar, who has his reputation to clear; he’s as eminently forgettable as his love interest Annette (Lois Collier) – fill the hotel dancefloor with tables and chairs to provide for additional paying guests, leaving Groucho and Beatrice with ever-diminishing space to sashay. Another sequence finds Groucho’s meal scoffed by bodyguards Harpo and Chico, on the grounds that it may be poisoned (Harpo doing a seal impression) – “Wouldn’t it be great if they ate each other?” concludes Groucho.
Kornblow: You know, I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the whole world.
Beatrice: Do you really?
Kornblow: No, but I don’t mind lying if it’ll get me somewhere.
Groucho delivers a succession of great lines, even if it’s perhaps true that he isn’t offered a classic grandstanding scene of insulting someone or pulling the wool over their eyes. He gets out of buying champagne (“Buy this lady a cheese sandwich and charge it to her”), expresses reluctance at the strictures of his job (“I see. You want a manager that doesn’t steal money. Good day, gentlemen”), and finds Chico’s warnings a bind (“I don’t mind being killed, but I resent hearing about it by a character whose head comes to a point”).
Kornblow (he and Beatrice are blowing smoke at each other): This is like living in Pittsburgh – if you can call that living.
The picture does rather devolve into a pedestrian chase climax, following the highpoint of the packing scene. But even then, there’s the diversion of Harpo pulling insane faces as he flies a plane (and repeatedly hits the actual pilot on the head). And, in perhaps the clearest nod to their roots, the final shot has the trio pursuing Beatrice following her wistful glance at the united lovers (“If a thing like that could only happen to me”).