A Night in Casablanca is one of those movies where the Marx Brothers are funny in spite of their surroundings rather than because of them. But if you’ve seen their final M-G-M movies, you’re used to that by now.
The odd thing is that the Marxes financed this movie and, Thalberg-style, took it on a brief tour before committing it to film. So you’d think it would be a lot funnier than it is. Groucho went on record long ago as blaming the director, Archie Mayo, calling him “a fat idiot” who ruined their movie. But let’s face it — he didn’t write the script. (He also didn’t write the music, for which we can blame Werner Jannsen for a terrible, tone-deaf score, probably second-worst only to that of The Big Store.)
Worst of all is going to all the trouble to name a movie A Night in Casablanca and then doing almost nothing with its satirical target. There are a few minor (almost invisible) pokes at the movie’s setting, but the crux of the plot is Groucho (his name here is Ronald Kornblow, a moniker which fully deserves his patented eye-roll) becoming the fifth manager of a Casablanca hotel — the previous four having been bumped off by an unrepentant Nazi (Sig Rumann) who wants to get hold of the valuable art treasures stashed in the hotel. What any of this has to do with Casablanca (the city or the movie) is anyone’s guess. They might as well have titled this movie The Big Hotel.
And if the Marxes had a hand in reviving the romantic-interest subplot of their Thalberg years, they should have made the characters a little more than ciphers. At least in the lesser M-G-M movies, the romantic leads had enough character for you to despise them. Here, Charles Drake is so negligible as to make Zeppo Marx look like Robert DeNiro.
But whenever they get the apathetic Casablanca stuff out of the way, the Marx Brothers still prove to be funny enough as the Marx Brothers. Much of Groucho’s material plays like it was written by a bad Groucho Marx imitator, but he still puts most of it across pretty well. (As the hysterical scene shown below proves, you should never refer to Groucho as a clerk.) Chico is still his blithely belligerent self, adding tables to a crowded dance floor to earn tips, or continually pestering Groucho.
And just as A Day at the Races was Groucho’s show, Casablanca is Harpo’s. From his clever opening gag (reportedly contributed by an uncredited Frank Tashlin), to his brief but superb send-up of the femme fatale leading lady, he does wonders with practically nothing.
Movie legend has it that Warner Bros. planned to sue the Marxes for ripping off their Casablanca motif until Groucho wrote them a series of hilarious letters (re-printed in any number of Marx Bros. books, as well as posted online here). But spoilsport movie critic Richard Roeper now claims the whole thing was a publicity stunt to gain notoriety for the Marxes’ movie. Stunt or not, read the letters — they’re funnier than much of the movie.