Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.
This week’s Old Ass Movies celebrates the nonsense of the best American comedians of all time. Groucho, Harpo and Chico move in on Bogart’s territory by setting up camp at a hotel in Casablanca, mocking Nazis, playing with a toupee, and remembering to set their watches.
A Night in Casablanca (1946)
Directed By: Archie Mayo
Written By: Joseph Fields & Roland Kibbee
Starring: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Sig Ruman, Lisette Verea, Lois Collier, and Charles Drake
Selling someone on watching a Marx Brothers movie should be as easy as standing on the street corner offering free bacon, but A Night in Casablanca isn’t the typical Marx movie. It certainly shouldn’t be the first a newcomer should see, since that distinction goes to Duck Soup. It shouldn’t even be the second or third film. Possibly the fourth. Maybe fifth.
This almost-spoof of the famous Bogart and Bergman classic came after a five year break from the big screen for the brothers and seventeen years after their first film. That’s a lot like if Eddie Murphy’s movies were still funny. A Night in Casablanca has its missteps, but it’s pretty impressive to be batting .750.
Even though it wasn’t the last movie they ever made together, it was the last time that the Marx formula truly worked. Love Happy was released three years later as a shadow of their former glory, and for some time Groucho made movies on his own. They all made one last appearance together in 1957 for Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind, playing comedic elder statesmen (Harpo as Isaas Newton was a nice touch), but the movie definitely didn’t focus on them or their formula.
At this point, their comedy is over eighty years old, which is like two-thousand in comedy years. While the things that make us cry stay the same over the years (dogs dying, cancer, child slavery), the things that make us laugh change almost weekly. It’s a wonder that the Marx Brothers have survived this far in the cultural conversation, and it’s a testament to them truly being the best of the best.
It’s also a testament to a style of comedy that worked because it didn’t make fun of anything. For all of Groucho’s hemming and hawing, he does more to be inappropriate than to mock. Harpo drives people crazy and pulls off physical stunts. Chico manages to meet both in the middle on wordplay and insanity. Zeppo, who had parted ways long before Casablanca, played the straight man (even though he was the funniest of them all). They weren’t making strident political satire (even when they were). They weren’t making fun of time-sensitive subjects (even when they were). All they ever ended up doing, especially in A Night in Casablanca was to make fun of linear thinking and good taste.
As it turns out, making fun of logic and manners are universal.
Here, Groucho plays Kornblow, the new manager of the Hotel Casablanca and therefore the latest in line to be killed by the ruthless Nazi Heinrich Stuble (played by Sig Ruman in another bad guy role for the Brothers). The war is over, and Stuble wants to be the manager so that he can take control of some expensive artifacts hidden in the building. Sadly, the old Hitlerite can’t leave his hotel room because Rusty (played silently by Harpo) sucked Stuble’s toupee into a vacuum cleaner, and he’ll be recognized as a Nazi by a huge scar on his forehead. The triumph of the Third Reich thwarted by suction.
There are some moronic one-liners that are set up by too much effort, but there are also some moments of pure genius. Harpo shines most with his physical comedy here, despite years of Groucho taking center stage. For whatever reason (perhaps the writing) Groucho is never allowed to let loose and destroy with his quick wit. Instead, he’s relegated to tossing out some smart comments while trying to avoid being killed. Even a situation where he’s trying to get the beautiful Bea (Lisette Verea) alone in a hotel room is a chore to watch instead of what it might have been with older collaborators writing.
Chico, on the other hand, plays the same old Italian-voiced goof he always does, but doesn’t seem to be paired with Harpo enough or get as much screen time as usual. Standing in for Zeppo is Charles Drake as the random hero that has to help save the day since the bumblers can’t get their act together, and Lois Collier plays his beautiful love.
Like aging action stars, the speed just doesn’t seem there with this effort. Even so, the Marx team runs circles around other comedians. The movie is undoubtedly hampered most by Archie Mayo who was a capable filmmaker, but who plops the greatest comedians in scenes as though he’d never seen a Marx Brothers movie in his life. He was on the way out of his career as well, and his crime/romance/drama sensibilities just didn’t make for a good match.
The biggest victim is the nonsense. With the script from Joseph Fields & Roland Kibbee, there are moments where Groucho and Harpo do things that actually make sense (which just doesn’t make sense). They move the plot forward (how ridiculous is that?) by finding the hidden Nazi treasure, by rallying the police, and by engaging in an elongated fist fight to take down the scarred Stuble. It’s painful in parts – the equivalent of watching a neurosurgeon throw a pie into his patient’s face. Doctors are serious, the Marx Brothers are not, and when they are, disaster strikes.
But calling this a disaster is unfair. It’s still a supremely funny movie. It’s just not their best effort. It’s probably buried in someone’s memoirs why they switched from doing a straight forward send-up of Casablanca, but the mish-mash of different “war drama” jokes doesn’t work as well, and it makes my mind tingle to imagine getting my hands on the original script.
There are a large amount of laughs here – especially during an extended sequence where they drive Stuble crazy by packing and unpacking and re-packing all of his clothes for him – but perhaps the most fascinating thing about A Night in Casablanca is that the Marx Brothers managed to make a movie that was leagues away from being their best while still being better than most comedies out there. There’s a reason it’s lasted as long as it has, and after fans dig into Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera, they should absolutely give this one a shot knowing that the last hoorah for most comedians isn’t as loud as their first.