A Night in Casablanca – A Marx Brothers Retrospective

Chico Marx, Groucho Marx, and Harpo Marx in A Night in Casablanca. Courtesy of Shout! Factory.

A Night in Casablanca sees the Marx Brothers inching closer to the end of the road of performing as a trio on the big screen.

“Round up all the likely suspects.” – Prefect of Police (Dan Seymour)

What’s interesting about this film is that it’s known more for Groucho’s legendary letters surrounding its creation. Word had it that Warner Bros. threatened to sue over the film’s title. Casablanca had only come out a few years earlier. The brothers may have capitalized on the name but the plot itself is a classic Marx Brothers send-up of spy/intrigue dramas. The studio’s legal department threatened to sue, forcing Groucho to respond in a way that only he could. However, Warner Bros. planned to sue when the film was going to be an outright parody of Casablanca. The film, as we know, evolved to be a send-up of the genre instead. But as it turned out, this was a publicity stunt by the Marx Brothers to draw attention to the film! Brilliant. Sheer brilliance!

A Night in Casablanca takes place shortly after World War II where three consecutive managers of the Hotel Casablanca have been murdered. Lieutenant Pierre Delbar (Charles Drake) theorizes what may have happened when he tells his war stories to the police. The Nazis forced him to fly stolen treasures to South America but he crashed the plane in Casablanca instead. The hotel had been under Nazi control at the time, leading Pierre to think that the deaths are tied to the treasure.

A Nazi criminal, Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman) disguises himself as Count Max Pfefferman with plans to reclaim stolen art treasures hidden inside the hotel. Ronald Kornblow (Groucho Marx) happens to announce his arrival as the newest hotel manager. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, right. Stubel plans to get away with murder once more. He’ll have to go through Kornblow’s newest bodyguard, Corbaccio (Chico Marx). Stubel’s own valet, Rusty (Harpo Marx), is even working against him! Anyway, the Nazi sends Beatrice Reiner (Lisette Verea) to romance Kornblow in attempt after attempt at killing the new manager. She eventually turns against Max.

There a few scenes here and there that had me laughing quite a bit. Alas, it just isn’t the same as their Paramount films or earlier MGM films overseen by Irving Thalberg. The fact of the matter is that their best days as a trio were behind them. That’s not to say the film isn’t funny but it simply doesn’t live up to their earlier standards. The gag that had me howling was when Kornblow, Corbaccio, and Rusty, rushed over to the hotel, meet Beatrice, and then break into Heinrich Stubel’s hotel room, only to drive him mad by unpacking his bags. When a Marx Brothers gag works, it works!

I meant to watch the film back in November when I was running the Marx Brothers retrospective timed to the Duck Soup anniversary. Unfortunately, time got away from me during awards season. But anyway, I picked the film up when I was at the library the other day. Two more Marx Brothers movies were DVR’d overnight when they aired during the TCM marathon. I’ll have those reviews up shortly after viewing.

This was my second viewing of the film but my first since watching several Marx Brothers movies back in summer 2007. Not that I’ve watched Love Happy yet but this was initially planned to be their final film together. After all, they hadn’t done a film together since The Big Store in 1941. It would be another few years before they did the Harpo-focused Love Happy. While that may be the last film they did together as the Marx Brothers, this really feels like the last film meant as a Marx Brothers vehicle. All three would appear in The Story of Mankind but not in the same scene, nor as a primary vehicle for the brothers.

A Night in Casablanca has its moments–when it works, it works–but its a far cry from their best work at Paramount or MGM.

DIRECTOR: Archie Mayo
SCREENWRITERS: Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee
CAST: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Charles Drake, Lois Collier, Lisette Verea, Sig Ruman, Lewis Russell, Dan Seymour

United Artists released A Night in Casablanca in theaters on May 10, 1946. Grade: 3/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.