A Night in Casablanca is a film which manages to look cheaper than Casablanca while retaining one of the actors, all of the costumes and some of the lines. To be fair they do freshen things up: in the first five minutes it’s the manager of the Hotel Casablanca, not the German couriers, who finds himself murdered and the Prefect of Police demands that “all likely suspects”, rather than the usual ones, are rounded up. The allegation that it’s a cash-in on the original Michael Curtiz movie we know and love isn’t the whole story, though. It’s also completely derivative of every other Marx Bros. movie ever made, except that it’s more than a little more vicious. That Groucho is the best thing in it is scant surprise, but of little consolation as the franchise ages before our eyes.

It could have been much worse: the original plot of the Marx Brother’s 1945 reunion movie was non-existent, a parody of the 1941 Warner Bros. classic; while little of the original script is widely available, it may be sufficient to note, as Simon Louvish does in his essential book on the brothers titled Monkey Business, that the central characters were due to be named Humphrey Bogus and Lowan Behold. Some sense prevailed and rewrites followed.

The cheapness of the idea remained, though, appropriate for a cash-in on the unlikely hit B movie of three years earlier. Groucho, noted Louvish, was uneasy about the film, not only because of the inadequacy of the script or concept. Making the movie involved breaking a strike in Hollywood, and Groucho had always championed the rights of the little man against those of the Man. The question of why this film was even made has puzzled critics over the years, giving birth to the seemingly-inaccurate by possibly slightly-true story about the need to bail out Chico‘s gambling debts. Whatever the reason, this movie is a cheap re- hash of many Marx tropes, combined with a paper-thin plot, all kickstarted by a invented row between the brothers Marx and Warner which has become far more famous than the film itself. Brief summary follows.

Hearing that the Marx Brothers were about to appropriate the title of a hot commodity, the suits at Warner Bros. registered the use of Casablanca and told the Marx bros, now producing on their own with David Loew, to cease and desist. Groucho responded with a letter he leaked, noting that the cinema audience could clearly distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo and that they had no right to the name Casablanca purely because they had used it first. The Marx Brothers, he noted, “professionally… were brothers long before you were”. the story might have passed into legend and is certainly a highlight of The Groucho Letters, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of the other side of any correspondence. There must have been some influence, though; the line uttered in the first five minutes to “round up the usual suspects” is clearly overdubbed to “all likely suspects” in the finished film, and the names, once parodic, are now markedly different, now much closer to the normal Marx nomenclature, with Rusty (Harpo), Ronald Kornblow (Groucho) and Chico barely renamed as Corbaccio.

You may plug in the rest of the details from the Marx films you know: there’s a handsome man (originally Zeppo before he got bored) and his affianced innocent who can’t get married until he, or the Brothers, clears his name, the villainous Count Strubel (here played by Sig Ruman reprising his Dr. Steinberg from A Day At The Races) and a moll (Lisette Verea) who may or may not have a heart of gold. We’re missing a dowager now that Margaret Dumont has realised that this stuff was comedy, but we have art treasures (in this case a cache of Nazi gold stashed in the hotel) and some singing (thankfully not much). The oldschool racism is politically correct this time, directed as it is at the Germans, Groucho delivering an Arnie-tastic line towards the end, as one of the villains fails in some or other task, straight to camera noting “the Master race”.

Instead of a state room pile-up we have Groucho carrying too many items as he relocates his tryst with the moll; instead of the nightgown schtick we have a prolonged packing and unpacking of Strubel’s trunks by the hidden brothers; from The Coacanuts we have every available hotel joke recycled. Chico plays piano, Harpo plays the harp. The only development, if you could call it that, is in tone.

Groucho is mean in this, and this time his meanness seems to have an edge, a belligerence towards arrogant presumption. It’s funny when his rant at a posh couple ends with the man’s declaration that “this lady is my wife–you should be ashamed of yourself” is met with Groucho’s “This lady is your wife? you should be ashamed of yourself”, but Groucho’s last word as the couple storm off is a reminder to the audience that the man brought it on by addressing the hotel’s manager as “clerk”. The iconoclasm of the early Marx films, notably Duck Soup, is here replaced by a cutting reminder to show respect where it’s due. Could this be Groucho’s pride in his success as a Jewish entertainer? Louvish makes much of Groucho’s discontent at Hollywood’s silence in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and it’s tempting to see his bile in such a context.

When Groucho is in verbal flight, whatever the tone, the film finds its delight. Early in the film (and as typical of the act he doesn’t appear until ten minutes in when the plot’s been established and he’s free from the demands of exposition) he addresses his new role as manager:

“Oh, I see the you want a manager who doesn’t steal. Good day to you, sirs”.

There’s also a cracking scene with the femme fatale twenty mins in. They banter, Groucho especially flirtatious, as she blows smoke in his face. He blows cigar smoke in hers and this exchange results in his observation that “this is just like living in Pittsburgh… If you could call that living”.

“I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world”.

“You think so”?

“No, but I don’t mind lying if it gets me somewhere”.

For me the banter is more combative, more violent, even, than the sparring with Margaret Dumont (“Your Excellency”! “You’re not so bad yourself”), but Beatrice, the moll on the receiving end in this movie, is far more turpidious than the charming, gin-soaked Dumont.

Chico is anonymous, a foil to the other two without much access to gags or even to the plot, while although Harpo is rid of the childish sentiment that I always thought dogged his characters, he has only two or three strong gags here. The opening scene, where a wall collapses when he stops leaning against it, is a classic of course, but the fencing duel or his ingestion of teacups are rarely on the tip of the tongue when Harpo’s best is discussed. Interestingly, the violence with which he is treated by his overlords and bullies is much stronger here, perhaps because they’re Nazis, but there was a more cartoonish laugh from the peanut seller in Duck Soup than the unease with which we watch him being slapped around by the Count. It’s nasty, even if the worm predictably turns.

Groucho, as his letters of the time and Stefan Kanfer‘s 2000 biography Groucho shows, was terribly disappointed in the film, but it seems he was more annoyed with its response. He blamed Archie Mayo, the director, for mutilating the film, calling him a “fat idiot” who had “emasculated” the film.

Groucho, Chico and Harpo had repeated what they thought was a winning formula in taking material on the vaudeville circuit before filming, and the audiences had liked what they saw. One might opine that I’d laugh at whatever the makers of A Night at the Opera did onstage, especially in the America of 1945, but Groucho saw in this response the worth of the material. By 1946 he claimed that “Mayo’s work was just ridiculous. He has managed to take some of the best scenes we did on the stage and wring them dry…. We are now running it in the projection room”, he wrote after a disastrous preview, “…it eventually may be alright but… some of the damage is irreparable” (quoted in Kanfer, 292). Interesting, though, is Groucho’s comment a couple of months earlier, where he claims (wrongly) that “the last reel is a wild chase… I think it’s quite ingenious and pretty exciting”. He was referring to the film, right?

The film ends with some unimaginative location footage as the brothers attempt to prevent the Nazis from taking off. The effects and stunt work are cheap and there is very little comedy of any description, unless you count Groucho breaking to tell the audience what he thinks of the dialogue: “What a stupid remark that is”. More evidence, then, of an impatient Groucho, one who perhaps didn’t believe in the thing at all. His new marriage meeting with less than universal family support, the Communist witch hunt mounting, A Night In Casablanca was not high on anyone’s agenda that year, and it’s not a particularly well-remembered movie. There are many reasons for this, and most of them are on screen.