A Night in Casablanca (1946)
Directed by: Archie Mayo.
Written by: Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee.
Starring: Groucho Marx (Kornblow), Harpo Marx (Rusty), Chico Marx (Corbaccio), Charles Drake (Pierre), Lois Collier (Annette), Sig Ruman (Pfferman), Lisette Verea (Bea), Lewis L. Russell (Governor), Dan Seymour (Prefect of Police), Frederick Giermann (Kurt), Harro Mellor (Emile).
The difference between good Marx brothers and mediocre Marx brothers (I’m not sure there’s such a thing as bad Marx brothers) is how little the plot gets in the way of the brothers and their antics, and how quickly they keep the gags coming. The less time spent on plot, the less time spent on characters who aren’t played by Groucho, Harp or Chico, the better. Their 1946 film, A Night in Casablanca, was their first film after a five year “retirement” – and the second last, the three brothers would make together. It is not one of their best films to be sure, but it’s also far from bad. Even mediocre Marx brothers is still pretty damn funny.
The plot of the film is a little too busy. After three managers of the Hotel Casablanca are murdered, Groucho’s Kornblow, who managed a hotel in the middle of nowhere, is hired for the job. What he doesn’t know is that a former Nazi, disguising himself as a Frenchman named Pfferman (Sig Ruman) is killing the managers, because in the hotel there is hidden Nazi treasure, he and his cohorts – want to get. Harpo plays Rusty, who is an assistant to Pfferman, but basically shows up wherever the movie needs his silent comedy stylings, and Chico is Corbaccio, who runs a camel taxi service – and eventually is dragged into things as well. There are other characters as well (too many) – including a French pilot (Charles Drake) who knows the treasure is in Casablanca, but doesn’t know where – and no one believes him, his fiancé (Lois Collier), who works at the hotel, and Bea (Listette Verea), who is posing as Pfferman’s fiancé, and tries to lure Kornblow – again and again – to his death by seducing him.
The plot is too complicated for a Marx brother film – not because it is difficult to follow in anyway, but because it takes so much time to unravel, and requires so much time in the company of Pfferman and his cohorts explaining their plans, that the Marx brothers are off-screen. The movie works best, of course, when it jettisons the plot and goes from comedic set pieces. The film has two wonderful musical set-pieces as well – one featuring Chico on the piano, another featuring Harpo on the harp, which have nothing to do with the plot, and really stop the movie dead in its tracks for minutes on end, and are still among the best things in the movie. An extended comedic set piece having the three movies trying to stop Pfferman from packing his stuff to make his escape – hiding in his room, and unpacking and basically sabotaging him, with him knowing, which brings some of the old Marx brother magic back.
Some of the other set-pieces – including the extended climax aboard a plane – are a mixed bag, and have good moments, but also drag a little. Groucho’s series of one-liners feel a little tired more often than not this time around – as if he may be trying just a little too hard to be funny (although, his uttering “The master race” at a key moment is hilarious – and there are plenty of good moments – visual gags, etc. throughout the film.
If A Night in Casablanca disappoints somewhat, it’s because after five years away from the screen together, you’d think the trio would have something more up their sleeve then they do. It’s not that the brothers didn’t make some mediocre films even during their 1930s heyday – they certainly did – but when you’re making a film a year, that’s to be expected. A Night in Casablanca is far from a bad film – it’s only 85 minutes long, and still has a fairly good joke-to-laugh ratio. Then again, these brothers are responsible for some of the best comedies of all time, and this isn’t one of those either – so I guess the question is on what curve do you want to grade the film.