“I don’t even trust me”
Even though I have never seen a Marx Brothers film, it’s pretty plain that A Night in Casablanca was a cash grab. Released five years after The Big Store (which at the time was billed as their final work), Chico had ultimately cajoled Groucho and Harpo to get back together with him for two more movies to pay off his gambling debts. They agreed, United Artists produced, and Groucho took it upon himself to use the media for added interest by pretending Warner Bros. was litigating them over the use of “Casablanca”. This is an intriguing tidbit considering how one would imagine a Marx Brothers reunion enough of a reason to check it out. Maybe they knew themselves that the material itself wasn’t going to sell tickets.
That’s not saying Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee‘s script isn’t entertaining. It simply would have been a lot better as a short. The runtime is only 85-minutes and yet 75% feels like filler. From an extended piano solo by Chico’s Corbaccio to a harp interlude by Harpo’s Rusty (both phenomenal mind you), the action is constantly halted as though we need a breather. Sorry, but their comedic bits aren’t fast-paced or funny enough to need any reprieves. And with a plot as thin as just waiting to see whether a former Nazi in disguise (Sig Ruman‘s Count Pfferman) will regain control of stolen treasure he’s hidden inside the Casablanca Hotel, there’s little to care about besides the many hit-or-miss gags often coming without true relevance.
I only hope that the many random asides were callbacks to previous films I never saw. For example: Groucho’s Mr. Kornblow verbally accosting a Mr. Smythe (Paul Harvey) because he assumes him a “clerk” rather than manager. Was Kornblow’s guess of “Smith” as a name merely prophetic for the joke? Or does this name come up often in Marx Brothers canon? If not the latter than it proves a real waste of time considering its position almost halfway through. Mr. Smythe never returns and I don’t recall his name referenced in preparation before his arrival. Groucho had already sufficiently set-up his character as the sarcastic, impatient, and cruel man throwing barbs at pertinent characters. One more “cute” instance with a nobody was hardly necessary.
Originally written as a true Casablanca spoof before changing gears to send-up the genre instead, I wonder if the first choice would have been better since I really couldn’t care about the original mystery presented. The main fault is that Rusty, Corbaccio, and Kornblow are periphery players. They have no stake in the game; they merely work for and against those who do. We’re supposed to pull for young Pierre (Charles Drake), an American hero who crash-landed those Nazi jewels so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. You’d think we’d watch him search since he’s facing a court martial if he cannot prove the treasure existed, but nope. He disappears in lieu of us watching Kornblow crash and burn opposite Lisette Verea‘s heartthrob Beatrice Rheiner.
Pierre and his girlfriend Annette (Lois Collier) are the only two smart enough to notice clues—Lewis L. Russell‘s Governor and Dan Seymour‘s Prefect of Police are boobs—but the film doesn’t care that the rest are idiots. Director Archie Mayo is instead tasked to paint them in a sympathetic light during the brief minutes they’re onscreen so we at least believe that Rusty and Corbaccio would help them. That’s what those two screw-ups do despite going about it the worst way (to a handful of authentic laughs). They like Pierre and Annette so we do too. Unfortunately, while I found that I would enjoy Pierre and Annette’s love conquering all with backs against the wall, I wouldn’t have been devastated if it didn’t.
I also didn’t care if Pfferman and his stooges (including Bea as lover and accomplice) got their just deserts. As long as they stayed upright for more physical gags with the Brothers I was happy. That’s their main purpose: to be patsies. We need Ruman to have a good gruff grumble and sigh when his plans to kill Groucho are thwarted by logistical reasons. We need him to be cartoonish enough to believe he’s going insane during an extended sequence packing his clothes while the Brothers unpack them behind him and out of sight. Pfferman is less a villain than stooge, the Brothers less heroes than juvenile delinquents who can’t pass up the opportunity to play a gag on his unsuspecting grump. They each play their role perfectly.
Maybe Marx Brothers humor just isn’t my cup of tea considering I wanted more. I appreciate the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aspect of watching these sideshows engaging in Pfferman’s murder plots and Pierre’s quest for justice, but to what end should I care about them? The only answer I can think up with is for jokes. Groucho’s shtick can get grating with maybe one out of three quips landing and Chico’s straight man relies on the success of whomever he’s opposite to excel. Luckily the latter’s Corbaccio mostly acts shares time with Harpo because Rusty is by far the film’s best part. His gleeful innocence and childlike impetuousness are endearing and his whistling charades act attempting conversation is delightful. Sadly everything else is only so-so.