Friday, April 8, 2016

Film Review: A Night In Casablanca

"A Night In Casablanca"  *** (out of ****)

The Marx Brothers try to make it a night to remember in the comedy "A Night In Casablanca" (1946).

By 1946, when "A Night In Casablanca" was released, the Marx Brothers were no longer at the height of their fame. Their later comedies are often considered "lesser efforts". The movies are not quite as influential or inspiring as their "early, funny" movies released by Paramount in the 1930s which included "Duck Soup" (1933) and "Horse Feathers" (1932).

Of course by 1946 the three remaining brothers in the act (originally there were four) were older. American movie fans are ageist (whether they would like to admit it or not) and tend to believe with age comes a loss of talent. The public, usually, is not kind when it comes to comedians as they grow older. You will hear sheep (movie critics) and some in the general public take cheap shots and make mean spirited comments when discussing the later works of comedy legends such as Bob Hope, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Jack Benny.

The public generally feels the comics have lost their timing, their "schtick" is "old" and "tired". It lacks inspiration and the jokes are merely repeats from early routines. Plus, as mean as it may sound, audiences just don't want to watch a movie with old people.

Keeping all of this in mind "A Night In Casablanca" has a lot going against it, before you've even seen it. The Marx Brothers appeared in 13 movies. "A Night In Casablanca" was their second to last movie. Yes, all three brothers look old. Yes, they are still doing their same schtick. But don't you dare say "A Night In Casablanca" is not funny! Is it the funniest movie the Marx Brothers appeared in? No. But it certainly doesn't deserve to be ignored and forgotten.

Given the movie's title, it is clear it was intended to be a spoof of "Casablanca" (1942). Both movies show a Casablanca filled with intrigue, spies, Nazis, murder and have gambling at a casino. However when Warner Brothers (the studio that released "Casablanca") expressed concern over the movie's title and possible fear of copyright infringement the story was changed.

We are in "modern day" Casablanca, meaning immediate post-World War II, at the Hotel Casablanca where the last three hotel managers have been murdered in a period of six months. What is the hotel to do? Who would possibly want to manage the hotel now knowing what has happened previously? Enter Ronald Kornblow (Groucho Marx), the prior manager of a hotel so far off in the middle of the desert he would never know about the Hotel Casablanca's problem.

Soon we meet young Lieutenant Delmar (Charles Drake) who believes he knows why the managers have been murdered. During the war the lieutenant was kidnapped by Nazis who had a stolen treasure. After crash landing in Casablanca the lieutenant thinks the treasure must be somewhere in the hotel and the Nazis are looking for a way to search the hotel without raising suspicion. Unfortunately the local authorities do not believe him.

Of course the lieutenant is right. There is a Nazi staying at the hotel, going by the name Count Pfferman (Sig Ruman) who is trying to devise a plan which would make him the new hotel manager. His plan is to have Ronald murdered as well with the help of a femme fatale, Beatrice (Lisette Verea) another Nazi spy.

Admittedly "A Night In Casablanca" moves a little slower than "Duck Soup" or "Animal Crackers" (1930) however the highlight of the movie is Groucho Marx. Groucho may not be able to deliver his one-liners at the same rapid machine gun speed he once did but he never lost his ability to tell a joke. He can always make me laugh, even in his older years, whether it was on his game show, "You Bet Your Life" or in interviews with talk show host Dick Cavett. Groucho always maintained his wit.

This is not to suggest the other brothers; Chico and Harpo are not funny. Harpo in particular is able to engage in his usual slapstick hi-jinks. One distinctly funny scene has him fighting a duel with an expert swordsman. Harpo is able to outsmart the swordsman by not taking the fight serious. One moment he pauses the fight to play craps, dresses like a baseball umpire and eats an apple while fighting off his opponent.

Another scene involves all three characters as Chico and Harpo, acting as bodyguards, taste test Ronald's food, for fear it might be poisoned. In reality the two men are merely hungry and unable to buy dinner. At one point Harpo even eats a candle stick while Ronald passes on the opportunity to also eat it, claiming it will give him heartburn.

Also, "A Night In Casablanca" contains two staples of Marx Brothers comedies. We get to hear Chico plays the piano and Harpo play the harp. Chico plays what he calls "the second movement of the Beer Barrel Polka". He begins the piece by quoting the second Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt. This is the second movie in which Chico plays the Beer Barrel Polka. The first movie was "At the Circus" (1939). Meanwhile Harpo plays the second Hungarian Rhapsody.

But it is Groucho and his one-liners that steal "A Night In Casablanca" and make it worth watching. On Ronald's first day on the job he informs the staff they must improve their service and become more efficient. Ronald explains to his chef if a guest orders a three minute egg, prepare it in two minutes. If a guest orders a two minute egg, prepare it in one minute. If a one minute egg is ordered, give the guest a chicken and let them figure it out.

When a middle-aged man and his wife enter the hotel, Ronald refuses to give them a room after the man says he has no luggage. This raises Ronald's suspicion as he informs the couple he will need to see a marriage certificate. The man is outraged and retorts Ronald should be ashamed of himself. The woman is his wife. Ronald replies "if this lady is your wife, you should be ashamed."

My favorite exchange and maybe my favorite Groucho Marx one-liner is when Beatrice first meets Ronald and he informs her she is the most beautiful woman he has seen. Beatrice, in a flirty voice, responds "really"? Without missing a beat Ronald says, "No. But I don't mind lying if it will get me somewhere." It definitely has a sexual connotation to it and is a naughty remark but compared to what we see and hear in movies today the remark is downright charming and witty.

Since there is no Margaret Dumont, who played romantic foil for Groucho in several earlier comedies, to play off of, the Beatrice character serves this purpose for the movie. She and Ronald try to arrange a rendezvous, but Corbaccio (Chico Marx), still acting as a bodyguard, doesn't want to leave Beatrice and Ronald alone. This infuriates Ronald as he and Beatrice keep switching rooms with Corbaccio not far behind.

"A Night In Casablanca", one could argue is on auto-pilot. The brothers are simply doing what they always do. They are just going through old material. That's balderdash! The brothers are funny in this movie. At best, one can say the movie lacks a "lunacy" which their earliest movies had but to suggest the boys are getting by merely by performing old material, they are just going through the motions, is nonsense. Each brother is giving the material their all, staying true to the characters they created.

My general rule of thumb for what makes a good comedy is simple. If a movie makes me laugh I'll recommend it. "A Night In Casablanca" makes me laugh. Every scenario and dialogue exchange I revealed I find funny. These moments are highlights. I don't believe "A Night In Casablanca" is a "lesser" movie. It is a good Marx Brother movie with laughs. Fans of the comedy team will find everything they expect to find in one of their movies including humor.

The movie was directed by Archie Mayo, who also directed the Jack Benny comedy "Charley's Aunt" (1941) and the dramatic Bette Davis / Leslie Howard movie "The Petrified Forest" (1936), which also featured a young Humphrey Bogart. "A Night In Casablanca" was also Mr. Mayo's second to last movie. The script was co-written by Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee.  This is the first movie Mr. Kibbee is credited as writing whereas Mr. Fields co-wrote the Bob Hope comedy "Louisiana Purchase" (1941).

I will admit "A Night In Casablanca" should not be someone's introduction into the world of the Marx Brothers' comedy but I would say after you have seen their early Paramount movies watch this one.