Judge Patrick Bromley once spent an afternoon in Casa Grande watching an Ingrid Bergman film festival, if that counts for anything.
Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Marx Brothers, published February 2nd, 2010, is also available.
Groucho: "Tunis? There are some beautiful women in Tunis."
A Night in Casablanca, one of the final cinematic outings for the legendary Marx Brothers, finds its way onto DVD courtesy of Warner Bros. as part of their recent Marx Bros. Collection. Made in 1946, almost twenty years after the Marx Brothers made their first feature, The Cocoanuts, the boys are showing sure signs of wear as they deliver their trademark Marx-ism. Is the film the comedic equal of its cinematic brethren? No. Is it still funny? Sure.
Facts of the Case
The Marx Brothers—Groucho, Chico, and Harpo—find themselves tangled up with some unsavory characters, an assassination plot, and Nazi treasure while working at a hotel in Casablanca. Expect much cigar chomping and horn honking.
There is no denying that the Marx Brothers are funny—there's a reason they're the stuff of comedy legend. For me, it's mostly Groucho; one-liner for one-liner, he's simply the best there is. While A Night in Casablanca does manage to give Groucho a few choice moments, it fails to truly capitalize on his mad genius. As far as I'm concerned, any second he's not on screen is a second wasted.
What A Night in Casablanca doesn't seem to comprehend is that plot in a Marx Brothers movie is completely immaterial—they don't need a story, they need a situation. For instance, Duck Soup, probably their most famous and celebrated film: take a bankrupt, fictional country (Freedonia), and put Groucho Marx in charge. Done! When people talk about the "comic anarchy" of the Marx Brothers, they're talking about Duck Soup. It takes a simple premise and hurls as much energy and as many gags as will stick, and the resulting chaos is a comic masterpiece. A Night in Casablanca, on the other hand, relies far too heavily on its convoluted plot. Long stretches will lapse with hardly any laughs, in the interest of advancing the "story," which is not only uninteresting but a complete waste of time. No one comes to a Marx Brothers' movie looking for plot.
Part of the problem is that the Brothers don't even team up until halfway through the film. While a great deal of the Marx Brothers genius involves Groucho (now and always my favorite) interacting with a public not in on the joke, Chico and Harpo are all but left out to dry without each other to play off. Unlike Groucho, who can be funny with anyone, the other two function best as part of a team, with each member serving as a foils to on another—meaning it's not until forty-five minutes into the movie that two-thirds hit their stride.
Even the funniest bits—they're few and far between—go on too long and overstay their welcome. Chico's way-off guesses at Harpo's frantic trademark pantomime are funny, but only to a certain point. The routine fails to find new ways to reinvent itself, meaning the joke at the beginning is pretty much the same joke all the way through to then end. Plus, the sequence goes on about twice as long as it should; we get it and it's funny, but then we just continue to get it. When a joke is that repetitive, it's best to exercise some brevity. The same goes for the absolutely inspired sequence of physical comedy near the movie's end, as the brothers simultaneously hide from and unpack the escaping Count Pfferman. It's as though they came up with a minute of brilliance, but then decided to repeat that minute four more times. The scene has nowhere to go.
Warner Bros. has done a great job restoring the film. The print, presented here in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, has been cleaned up significantly and is mostly free of scratches or grain. The audio quality suffers a bit, as the film was originally recorded in mono, but Warner Bros. remains faithful and delivers the track accurately. The overall picture and sound quality aren't exactly superior, but I feel confident that a great deal of time and effort was put into the presentation. This is probably as good as it can get.
Sadly, A Night in Casablanca has not been given the same treatment in the extras department as some of the other more popular (and respected) films in the Marx Bros. Collection, meaning there are no documentaries or audio commentaries to be found. Without the kind of historical context those might have provided, we can't be sure if the film's shortcomings are due to increased constraints put on the Brothers by the studio, or if by that point they had simply run out of steam. The extras that are included, a Looney Tunes cartoon and a short (rather unfunny) film centering on a character named Joe McDoakes, are designed similarly to discs in last year's Warner Legends Collection. The goal with those releases (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Yankee Doodle Dandy) was to replicate a "night at the movies" by including newsreels, short films, cartoons, and old-school trailers. Though the extras on A Night in Casablanca are nowhere near as comprehensive (and don't have a 'play all' option like earlier releases, replicating the experience from start to finish), the intent is the same. It's a neat idea, and I would love to see Warner Bros. continue the trend.
Though not one of the Marx Brothers' more inspired efforts, fans and completionists would be well advised to pick up this title. After all, the worst Groucho Marx is infinitely funnier than the best Pauly Shore (a title belonging to Son in Law, for the record).
Kudos to Warner Bros. for finally putting out this long-awaited Marx Brothers flick—and doing a heck of a job with it, too. Court is adjourned.
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