A Night in Casablanca

(1946) *** Unrated
85 min. United Artists. Director: Archie Mayo. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Lisette Verea, Charles Drake, Lois Collier, Sig Ruman (II), Groucho Marx, Chico Marx (II), Harpo Marx (II).

In the greater Marx Brothers canon, A Night in Casablanca is a relatively minor effort, but after a slow, expository start, the film slowly, steadily makes a case for itself as a fine comic adventure. Warner Brothers famously declared war on Groucho over the use of "Casablanca" in the title; in a series of letters, Groucho retorted with logic ("What about 'Warner Brothers'? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were") and, eventually, full-bore absurdity. Asked more than once to detail the plot, Groucho eventually replied that he would play "Bordello, the sweetheart of Humphrey Bogart" (irony alert: Warner now distributes this United Artists film).

The real plot of A Night in Casablanca is narrowly more sensible, revolving as it does around a Nazi-treasure MacGuffin. Count Pfferman (née Heinrich Stubel), an incognito Nazi with designs on the Hotel Casblanca, hides a tell-tale scalp scar beneath a precious toupee. In order to plunder the Nazi treasure hidden on the hotel grounds, Stubel has been offing the hotel managers and attempting to insinuate himself as a replacement (as the police chief puts it, "Round up all likely suspects"). Marx stalwart Sig Ruman (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races) gives Stubel a crisp neuroticism, punctuated frequently by the exhortation "Du schweinhund!"

On the other end of that shouting is Harpo Marx as Rusty, Stubel's personal valet. Chico Marx plays Corbaccio, who trades in the camel business for the bodyguard business when Groucho Marx's hotel manager Ronald Kornblow arrives to take over the Hotel Casablanca. Aside from the evil Count, Kornblow must make up his mind about femme fatale Beatrice Rheiner (Lisette Verea), a hotel guest who cozies up to both the Count and Kornblow. The less said about bland ingenues Charles Drake and Lois Collier, the better.

A Night at Casablanca suffers from poor scoring, some flat direction, and a sometimes cheap look, but its deficiencies melt away as the action quickens. The one-time hit "Who's Sorry Now?" (with lyrics by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby) injects a bit of music, but it's a weak-tea prelude to the more important contributions of pianist Chico (an idiosyncratic take on "The Beer Barrel Polka") and harpist Harpo, whose lovely version of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 plays out incongruously in a shadowy crawlspace.

Groucho still gives as good as he gets, ready with innuendo and non sequiturs. Referring to Verea, he purrs, "If I go, that's the way I want to go." Harpo has some wonderfully weird prop comedy, and reinvents with Chico his whistly charades act from A Day at the Races. A late-arriving comic highlight finds all three brothers farcically conspiring to undo the escaping Count's packing. The unconvincing and uncharacteristic action climax mostly disappoints, since it relies so little on the brothers' talents. Though not as consistently funny or fast-paced as other Marx outings, A Night in Casablanca produces plenty of jubilant comic moments all the same.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1 Full Screen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono

Street date: 5/4/2004

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner delivers a clean soundtrack and print of A Night in Casbalanca, the transfer marred only by one minute of frame jitter at the 53-minute mark. In the absence of a commentary, documentary, outtake, or even a trailer, an insert or text essay would have been welcome to put the film in context.

Instead, the disc includes a couple of contemporary short subjects. The first--an eight-minute Robert McKimson Looney Tune named "Acrobatty Bunny" (1946)--pits Groucho's offspring Bugs Bunny against Nero, an ornery circus lion. This isn't one of Bugs's best, but like the feature, "Acrobatty Bunny" is endearing all the same.

The second bonus feature is the gag-driven, twelve-minute short subject "So You Think You're a Nervous Wreck," one in the Joe McDoakes series starring George O'Hanlon. Younger viewers may know O'Hanlon as the voice of George Jetson, but his Walter Mitty-ish turn as the alternately mousy and growly McDoakes (always "behind the eight ball" and stalked by a talkative narrator) makes for pretty funny stuff. (If you enjoy this one, Warner's 2-disc The Treasure of Sierra Madre set includes the McDoakes short "So You Want To Be a Detective.")

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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