September 11 , 2004
When Irving Thalberg died in 1936, the Marx Brothers were left at the mercy of a film studio that truly didn’t care about them. You can see the collapsing quality of those final three MGM pictures – At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store – for yourself, as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are stuck with poor scripts and mediocre directors. It’s heartbreaking for fans to watch, to see these masterful comedy anarchists essentially reduced to bit roles in second-hand B-movies.
After 1939’s The Big Store, the Brothers finally called it a day. Thankfully, they made something of a comeback in 1946 with A Night in Casablanca. This is a very enjoyable picture that plays very much like a reunion tour of a favorite band from yesteryear. It tends to be overlooked in the Marx canon, which is a little unfair, because it does deserve your attention.
We’ll gloss over the exposition over the plot, which thankfully is over fairly quickly, and we’ll forget about the poor romantic lead, which becomes almost completely forgotten by the time Groucho shows up. Let’s just enjoy watching these aging greats bounce around and wreak havoc once more, for old times’ sake.
A Night in Casablanca is essentially a reunion of classic hits (“Don’t worry,” quips Groucho, “this isn’t the first time I’ve been in a closet.”), and our joy comes from watching our favorite comedians crack wise and mug for the camera. This is the proper farewell that they were denied in The Big Store. It's impressive that these brothers, pushing 60 years of age and certainly looking it, can still move at the crackerjack pace of their younger days.
This film plays very much like a collection of greatest hits, and what’s here is spot-on: Groucho’s barrage of wisecracks, Chico at the piano, Harpo munching on a teacup. The jokes come at a fast clip, full of that old spark, and there are a good number of punch lines that you’ll want to memorize and try out on blind dates.
The script was written by Joseph Fields and Rolands Kibbee, who certainly were Marx fans, and the director, Archie Mayo, was a veteran of studio comedies. They clearly enjoyed themselves, and it shows. The plot, again, is meaningless, inviolving antics at the Hotel Casablanca (yes, that one) and stolen Nazi loot. Thankfully, the serious bits, which are honestly dull, are more in the background than the average MGM Marx movie.
It should be noted that Sig Ruman plays a great comic foil as a Nazi on the run, just as he was great in Night at the Opera and Day at the Races. Lisette Verea does a decent job as his accomplice, trying to seduce Groucho, but, let's be honest, she's no Thelma Todd or Margaret Dumont. She's basically there as a romantic magnet for Groucho's put-downs and one-liners.
I suppose I should say something cliched, like pointing out that this is the Marxes' best movie since Irving Thalberg died. But isn't that a bit obvious? We never expect old entertainers to excite us with new material, but spark our nostalgia for the good ol' days. The cheap price of the DVD pretty much makes this a given purchase, but just be sure to grab Night at the Opera first.