Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Night in Casablanca


This movie was originally intended to be a spoof of Casablanca, which was already a classic. Groucho’s character was named Humphrey Bogus. But Warner Brothers threatened to go to court over the use of the word Casablanca, which they seemed to think they owned the rights to. So Groucho mounted a letter-writing campaign in The Saturday Evening Post. He pointed out that he and his siblings had the rights to the word “brothers” before the Warners did. Further, the current Warners hit Night and Day was an infringement of the Marx Brothers movies A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. After all the bad publicity Warners backed down. What a great story!

And it’s mostly bullshit. Warners did inquire into the contents of the script and plot, but they never threatened to sue. It was all a publicity stunt by Groucho, that comic genius. And I imagine he had a great deal of fun. In the end, the script evolved away from a straight spoof of one movie and became a spoof of the whole cloak-and-dagger genre. One line of dialogue was changed, it is said. A police chief says “round up all likely suspects.” What his lips are saying is “round up the usual suspects,” that classic line from Claude Rains as the corrupt Casablanca police chief. I wished they had kept the line, and screw possible legal trouble with Warners.

Another story, probably true, is that Harpo was offered $50,000 to shout one word: “Murder!” He smiled and shook his head. Bravo, Harpo! Stay true to your art of silence! This was also the movie that introduced the hit song “Who’s Sorry Now?”

As a Marx Brothers movie, it ranks somewhere just above the middle of their work, in my opinion. Groucho doesn’t appear until 12 minutes into the movie, while they establish the “plot.” Nobody but the Marxes themselves understood that plot was the least important thing in a Marx Brothers flick. Bring on the boys, and let ‘em loose! It has no sequence of their true genius, like the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, or the total anarchy of Duck Soup. The best it gets is a damn good scene where the bad guy is trying to pack his many trunks and the boys are sneaking around right under his nose, unpacking and putting everything away. He thinks he’s going insane.

Harpo lives in a different reality from the rest of us. There’s a good scene where he is pantomiming something very complicated to Chico. And, of course, as always he stumbles on a harp somewhere and sits down to play, in this case the Second Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt. It bears repeating that he was very good at that odd instrument. It also contains one of the all-time best sight gags in a movie. Harpo is standing in a busy street, one hand leaning up against a building. A cop asks him what he’s doing, holding up the building? Harpo nods happily. The cop grabs him and pulls him away, and the building collapses. And it’s a big building, maybe three stories high. That must have been a hard scene to set up.