Let’s dispense with one myth right away: the Marx Brothers did not make A Night in Casablanca to pay off Chico’s gambling debts. Though Chico always needed the money, Groucho and Harpo were itching for a big-screen comeback to erase the memory of their underwhelming MGM farewell film, The Big Store (1941).
Enter David L. Loew and the profit potential of independent production, which was appealing enough to end the brothers’ self-imposed cinematic retirement. The Marxes and Loew joined forces to create Loma Vista Productions, with United Artists handling the distribution chores on their low-budget venture.
Released in May 1946 to mixed reviews but solid box office, A Night in Casablanca would prove a fitting finale to the team’s movie career. Perhaps their best effort since A Night at the Opera (1935), this postwar escapade features the trio in splendid form while recapturing some of the rough-edged spontaneity of their early Paramount comedies.
Before its DVD debut in 2004, A Night in Casablanca had an elusive history on the videocassette market — briefly issued by Independent United Distributors in 1983, followed by a GoodTimes budget release in 1990. Castle Hill Productions (the copyright owner) finally rectified matters by teaming with Warner Home Video to give the film a long-overdue remastered version in excellent quality.
However, there is a comic irony associated with Warner Home Video’s involvement. In 1945, Warner Bros. expressed concern over the storyline of A Night in Casablanca, fearing that the Marxian farce would emulate the studio’s legendary 1942 drama. Groucho fired off a letter to Warner that has since become a classic. In 1997, Groucho’s letter was read during the Library of Congress’ bicentennial celebration:
“Apparently, there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers. . . . You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about Warner Brothers? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. . . . This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you it’s not meant to. I love Warners. Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers.”
After Groucho explained the plot in a few bizarre follow-up letters, the Marxes heard no more from the Warner legal department. “It might have been better if we filmed the letters to Warner Brothers and left the picture we made in the can,” Groucho later remarked.
In truth, the Warner correspondence was a publicity stunt, which Groucho happily admitted in a private letter: “I wish they would sue, but as it is, we’ve had reams in the paper.” Nevertheless, the Marxes avoided a direct parody of the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic — except for the “round up all likely suspects” line (spoken by none other than Casablanca cast member Dan Seymour) and Harpo’s lively turn at the roulette wheel.
What makes A Night in Casablanca a standout among the later Marx efforts is the re-emergence of Harpo’s anarchistic brilliance, which was toned down after Duck Soup (1933). Thanks to uncredited contributions from Frank Tashlin, Harpo dominates the proceedings from the start with the famous sight gag involving a collapsed building. After playing second fiddle to Groucho and Chico in the MGM films, the horn-honking pantomimist enjoys a long-overdue free reign. In fact, Groucho and Chico do not appear until 10 minutes into the picture.
Directed by Archie Mayo — a Warner craftsman best known for The Petrified Forest (1936) and Black Legion (1937) — A Night in Casablanca dispenses with the MGM musical gloss and syrupy romance in favor of a more free-wheeling approach. Set largely within the confines of the Hotel Casablanca, Groucho plays the iconoclastic manager and Chico is appropriately cast as a taxi-camel driver. Harpo initially appears as a disobedient valet to Heinrich Stubel (wonderfully played by character actor Sig Ruman — returning as a Marx foil for the first time since 1937′s A Day at the Races), an escaped Nazi who has stashed a valuable treasure in the hotel.
Amid this B-grade plot are several wild scenes and some memorable Groucho dialogue (“Never mind the staff. Assemble the guests. I’ll tell them what I expect of them”). Placing the Marxes in a postwar setting may seem unusual, yet their shenanigans inside the Hotel Casablanca are a refreshing throwback to their first film, The Cocoanuts (1929). In many ways, Groucho, Harpo and Chico have come full circle.
The frenetic (if somewhat belabored) climax finds the brothers on board a Nazi plane, with Harpo knocking out the pilot and taking over the controls with devilish glee. However, art historian and critic Erwin Panofsky found a deeper meaning to this sequence when A Night in Casablanca was first released: “The disproportion between the smallness of [Harpo’s] effort and the magnitude of disaster is a magnificent and terrifying symbol of man’s behavior in the atomic age.” No doubt Chico would have responded to this social commentary by playing the “Beer Barrel Polka.”
Loew had little doubt that A Night in Casablanca would make money, but no one expected the picture to become one of 1946’s surprise hits. Moviegoers and devoted fans welcomed back the Marxes with $2.7 million in worldwide ticket sales — resulting in the highest grosser of their career.
Despite renewed box-office success, the trio retired once again from the silver screen. “We decided we were coming down the stretch and that it was high time we quit while we were still partially alive,” Groucho wrote in his 1959 autobiography. (For all intents and purposes, 1949’s Love Happy was a Harpo Marx vehicle, with Chico in support and Groucho as narrator and guest star. The three never share a single scene together.)
Though not without its faults, A Night in Casablanca is a better film than its critical reputation would suggest. And how do the Marx Brothers bid farewell as a full-fledged team? They chase beautiful Lisette Verea through the streets of Casablanca — an appropriate finale for these anti-establishment pioneers.