November 5, 2015
A Night in Casablanca – US, 1946
You pretty much know what you’re going to get with a Marx Brothers films. First, the plot will be secondary, existing almost solely as a vehicle for the famous brothers to have an excuse to unleash their wackiness upon the world. At some point, Chico will find a piano and marvel an audience with his patented vaudevillian playing; at another, Harpo will find a harp and fill the air will romantic interludes. And of course there will be Groucho, dropping one-liners so fast that even the most diligent of viewers will find it impossible to get all of them. In other words, a Marx Brothers film can be both exhausting and exhilarating, and their 1946 film A Night in Casablanca is no exception.
What little plot there is involves a hotel in Casablanca that has had a rash of deaths recently. The victims: all managers of the same hotel. As one would expect, this does not make the job very attractive, but maybe… just maybe… someone in a secluded area of Morocco would be naïve enough to take the job. One guess who that turns out to be. Harpo, here playing a character named Rusty, shows up as the abused and underappreciated servant of a wealthy hotel patron; Chico plays an old friend of his named Corbaccio, a man who is a bit of a jack of all trades. Joining them on their merry adventure is an AWOL soldier named Pierre (Charles Drake) who is out to clear his name, the love of his life, Annette (Lois Collier), a beautiful lounge singer named Bea (Lisette Verea), and a man named Pfferman (Sig Ruman), who wants the hotel job and may also be a Nazi on the run from the law.
Pierre is looking for a lost treasure that he suspects the killer of the hotel’s managers is after and which he says can clear his name; the killer is now after unsuspecting manager Kornblow, and Rusty and Corbaccio are trying to protect Kornblow, help Pierre, and… oh, you get the picture. It’s all rather inconsequential anyway, for the plot is quickly jettisoned in favor of the kind of zany moments that made Groucho, Harpo, and Chico such legendary figures. Among my favorites involve Rusty trying to tell Cobaccio about the plot against Kornblow, Kornblow’s flirtatious interactions with Bea, a dance scene that quickly becomes crowded with tables, and a fencing duel that has to be seen to be believed. Sure, some of them will be familiar to those who have seen the trio’s earlier films, yet I was surprised how much fun they remained.
In fact, A Night in Casablanca is a better film when it is not moving the plot forward, for when the film just puts the spotlight on the delightful wackiness of the Marx Brothers, it is a beauty to behold. This is not to say that the film is not also fun when it focuses on the plot, for like A Night at the Opera, it actually has a rather promising set-up. Verea’s temptress character is quite engaging, and a scene in which she and Kornblow repeatedly switch hotel rooms is quite delightful. Rather, it’s that when the film focuses on the plot, we’re given occasion to reflect on all of its plot holes and on just how many of its storylines are in fact red herrings. And then there’s the ending. After establishing such an appropriate pace, one that allows the famous trio the time to work their magic, the film ends with twenty minutes of rushed gags and moments of all too amazing coincidences that yield increasingly diminishing returns. It’s as if director Archie Mayo suddenly realized that he only had that much time to work with and then began rushing the action. It was a bit of a letdown, but not nearly enough of one to spoil the positive vibe the film had given me. Simply put, A Night in Casablanca is one very fun film. (on DVD)