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A Night in Casablanca

For true blue fans, there are no "bad" Marx Brothers movies. For James Agee, truly blue, 1946's A Night in Casablanca was worth a look because, while it's minor Marx, "the worst they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of." Legend has it that the Marxes made A Night in Casablanca because Chico, an inveterate gambler, was in dire financial straits and under threat from gangsters. Chico did need the cash, though Groucho was also itching for another go and Harpo was an easy sell once his two brothers signed on. This independent production (released through United Artists) trotted out the boys five years after their wretched MGM "farewell" film, The Big Store. It doesn't say much to remark that A Night in Casablanca is the funnier film, or even that it's better than any of the titles the Marxes made for MGM after A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races ('37). In fact, come 1946 with post-war audiences packing movie theaters by the relieved millions, it was A Night in Casablanca that ultimately became the Brothers' most financially successful picture, a startling factoid for those of us who don't think of this one first (or second, or third....) when we think of the Marx Brothers and smile. Today its material is as tired and past its prime as Groucho, Chico, and especially Harpo (age 58) look in it, but devotees panning for nuggets of Marxist gold will find genuine, albeit familiar, laughs.

Stashed in a secret room somewhere in the Hotel Casablanca is a fortune in jewels and art treasures stolen by the Nazis. Not coincidentally, someone is killing off the hotel's managers one after another. The culprit is escaped Nazi war criminal Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman). Passing himself off as Count Pfefferman, his scheme is to take over the hotel himself and snatch the loot. Enter Groucho as the latest new manager, Ronald Kornblow (as descriptive a name as any in this case), who must keep himself alive at least long enough to nab the flashy dame and fire off vollies of his patented wisecracks. Chico is Corbacchio, president of the Yellow Camel taxi service, who sets himself up as Kornblow's bodyguard. Harpo is Stubel's abused valet, Rusty. Together the three must foil Stubel's evil plan and save the world from generations of movies that use Nazis as stock villains. (Okay, so a 50% success rate isn't bad.)

The screenplay's original purpose, to send up Casablanca and other Warner/Bogart movies via characters such as "Humphrey Bogus" and "Lowen Behold," was ejected early in development. So rather than a spoof, ANIC aims to be a conventional Marx Brothers farce, and it bears a welcome resemblance to the Brothers' Paramount heyday, before their increasingly strained MGM fare. The hotel setting harks back to their first film, 1929's The Cocoanuts, and there are bits reworked from A Day at the Races and others. As usual there's a romance subplot — here it's between loyal Annette (Lois Collier) and French pilot Pierre (Charles Drake) — and as usual it's just so much wheezy filler. (Marx Brothers movies and porn films alike encourage the use of fast-forward buttons for similar ends.) Other than the entertainingly choleric Sig Ruman, no one's at the top of his game. Point some of that blame at the cumbersome screenplay and lackluster director Archie Mayo, a.k.a. "that fat idiot" to Groucho, who said Mayo "emasculated" the picture.

But if you overlook the stale directing, the sluggish first reel, the bits that don't work, the arthritic pacing, and the action-hero climax that goes thud, you'll find that ANIC shows the aging trio in pretty good form. Proving that he never lost his edge are Groucho's verbal crackshots ("Join me!" "Why, are you coming apart?") at the expense at everyone, especially his hotel patrons. (Smythe: "Sir, this woman is my wife! You should be ashamed!" Groucho: "If that woman is your wife you should be ashamed.") His roving tryst with a slinky femme fatale (Lisette Verea) demonstrates that at any age those lecherous eyebrows should not be attempted by us mere amateurs. Chico's enjoyable piano solo ("the second movement of the Beer Barrel Polka") is all shooting the keys and other Chicoisms that never grow old. And we get some exquisite moments from Harpo. His venerable elf can still deliver a funny "charades" duo with Chico, blow bubbles through a pair of eye glasses, strum a somberly pleasurable harp solo, duel with the villain in a fine swordfight scene, exude childlike glee in the pilot's seat of an airplane out of control, and offer his perfect answer to a cop's snarky question, "What do you think you're doing, holding up the building?" When the three operate together in a scene — the luggage-packing gag in Stubel's hotel room comes to mind — we see that they may be a little less snappy, but they've still got the old touch.

Fortunately, there's just one song break, Verea's debut of "Who's Sorry Now?" We note only in passing that the song proved greater staying power than the movie. A Night in Casablanca was the final title to showcase all three Marx Brothers together in shared scenes. From here they moved on to individual projects, such as Groucho's Copacabana the following year.

*          *          *

Warner Brothers' dandy DVD edition of A Night in Casablanca gives us a shipshape black-and-white print that's clean and blemish-free with a good transfer. Almost an hour in there's a moment of jittery framing, and two quick snippets of film stock taken from some second-choice source, but otherwise it all looks terrific. The DD 1.0 monaural audio is also good despite some typical mild hiss and a pop now and then.

The only extras are two 1946 "evening at the movies" shorts — Robert McKimson's Looney Tune "Acrobatty Bunny" (the one with Bugs Bunny on the circus high-wire), and "So You Think You're a Nervous Wreck" from the long-running Joe McDoakes series by George O'Hanlon, who later became the voice of George Jetson. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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