Who’s sorry now

The Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca (airs on TCM this Tuesday night) is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece.  But as longtime readers of mine know, I don’t believe that movies have to be masterpieces to be interesting and worthy of respect—and as dilapidated as this 1946 outing for the Marxes is, it owns a warm and welcoming spot deep in my heart.

My personal history with A Night in Casablanca dates back in many ways to well before I saw the movie.  Let me explain: my parents were the proud owners of the 1968 soundtrack album The Marx Brothers: Original Voice Tracks from Their Greatest Movies, in which narrator Gary Owens introduced selected routines from their Paramount films.  It was a decidedly weird sort of experience, because the inherent anarchy and non-sequiter absurdism of their comedy made even less sense when taken entirely out of context and rendered solely as a vocal track.

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I grew up listening to that album, studying and memorizing it, long before I’d ever seen any of the movies in question.  Eventually, when I entered my teenage years, I started getting opportunities to see some of the films.  This was in the early days of home video, when buying movies was almost entirely out of the question, so I was limited to what titles my local video store chose to stock for rent, and which ones came on TV.

And so it came to pass that the third Marx Brothers movie I ever saw was A Night in Casablanca.  I was already a fan—thanks to that soundtrack album and a dog-eared copy of Joe Adamson’s essential book.  I recorded the broadcast from my local PBS station, and it along with Animal Crackers (shown that same week) were the only Marx Brothers movies I had on video.

Mind you, I was under no illusions.  I knew it was lesser Marx, but beggars can’t be choosers, so it had to do.  I watched it repeatedly, until I had it committed to memory, and then I kept watching it—because it was what I had.

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And the thing is, that’s why the movie exists in the first place.

In 1946, there were Marx Brothers fans—first generation fans, who’d fallen in love with these guys not through disembodied voices but by seeing their movies or their stage shows.  And like me, these fans in the forties were hungry.  Theatrical reissues of old movies are rare—the industry really isn’t set up that way.  So to slake those fans’ hunger, new movies had to be made.

Now, of course, those new movies didn’t have to be crappy, like A Night in Casablanca admittedly was.  But the Paramount films, now so beloved, had not been commercial hits.  Much of that was the fault of Paramount in the 1930s being an abominably-run business that barely functioned at all.  A proper movie studio could have promoted the likes of Horsefeathers and Duck Soup better, made more money from them.  But then again, a proper movie studio that knew what it was doing wouldn’t have made those movies in the first place.

That was the paradox of Paramount: its institutional incompetence made it a haven for the most unruly and anarchic of comedians.  The kinds of movies made there in the 1930s could never have been made anywhere else—but at the same time, that institutional incompetence prevented those wild and woolly films from finding their audiences.

So it came to pass that the Marx Brothers left Paramount for MGM—where they would be paid better and where their films would be promoted properly.  Also, where strong producers would expect them to conform to more acceptable and traditional notions of what constitutes a motion picture.

The MGM philosophy was  to make coherent, stable motion pictures with clearly identifiable heroes and villains, and logical cause-and-effect storytelling, into which the anarchy of the Marxes would be injected.  In early efforts like A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races this idea proved very successful, and it was soon ensconced as a formula.

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Most Marx Brothers fans will cite this as an unfortunate transition—when the glorious idiosyncracy of the Paramount films was abandoned in favor of convention.  But let’s give MGM due respect: that just because the Marx Brothers acted crazy didn’t mean the whole movie had to be crazy too.  It should have been possible to make movies that conformed to conventional audience expectations, but which also had an anarchic spirit roaming within them—

And in fact, during the late 1930s and 40s, Hollywood was successfully doing this very thing.

Films like Nothing Sacred, Trouble in Paradise, Theodora Goes Wild, and Bringing Up Baby managed the delicate balance of being aggressive, aesthetically daring, unruly, and socially confrontational while also being completely accessible and popular.  Screwball comedy was a venue that successfully combined wild slapstick, absurdism, and anti-social attitudes while also functioning as mainstream comedies starring popular movie stars.  There was room in the world of screwball for the likes of the Marxes.

Already in Monkey Business, the Marx Brothers flirted with screwball concepts—suddenly here Groucho’s foil wasn’t the humorless Margaret Dumont, but rather the independently minded Thelma Todd.  In Monkey Business, Thelma Todd is in on the joke, genuinely likes Groucho for who he is, and it’s her actions that drive the plot.

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This was a signpost for a road not taken—After one more outing with Todd in Horsefeathers it was back to Dumont, and Groucho never worked with a supporting actress of Todd’s capabilities again.  Nevertheless, one could imagine an alternate universe of Marx Brothers comedies in the late 30s and 40s where MGM paired the Marx Brothers up with, say, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, or Myrna Loy.

That of course didn’t happen, and so we go things like A Night in Casablanca—which rehashes a lot of familiar Marxian bits.  Groucho’s a hotel manager—again!  Harpo’s the valet to a brutal bully—again!  Here’s the charades-gag—again!  No wonder I liked it—this was the motion picture equivalent of a greatest hits album.

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The movie had been planned as a direct parody of Casblanca.  Which was a bad idea on several fronts.  It’s easy to misunderstand what this would have meant in the 1940s, because we live in an age where entire movie franchises have been built around parodies, and many careers are founded on being parodists.  But in the 1940s, the concept of movie parodies was still new, and there wasn’t a clear legal precedent establishing whether such a thing was permissible.

Abbott and Costello got away with making movie parodies, but they were Universal properties lampooning other Universal properties on behalf of a corporate mandate to cross-sell existing Universal properties.  There wasn’t really a clear precedent for one big media company to go make a movie explicitly referencing another big media company’s creation, without having received licensed authorization ahead of time.

So, Warner Brothers sent an inquiry to the Marx Brothers production team asking what they had in mind with A Night in Casablanca.  It was an imminently reasonable question.  And we all know how Groucho Marx responds to imminently reasonable questions.

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The torrent of abuse that Groucho sent back to Warner Brothers on this point has been well documented—Groucho even published his letters in book form, but he made their content publicly known even in 1946, where they served as valuable publicity for the movie.

Dear Warner Bros.,

Apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers. However, it was only a few days after our announcement appeared that we received your long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name Casablanca.

It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, your great-great-grandfather, while looking for a shortcut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock (which he later turned in for a 100 shares of common), named it Casablanca.

I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.

You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without permission. What about “Warner Brothers”? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. We were touring the sticks as the Marx Brothers when Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor’s eye, and even before there had been other brothers – the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?. (This was originally “Brothers, Can You Spare a Dime?” but this was spreading a dime pretty thin, so they threw out one brother, gave all the money to the other one, and whittled it down to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”)

Now Jack, how about you? Do you maintain that yours is an original name? Well it’s not. It was used long before you were born. Offhand, I can think of two Jacks – Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk, and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.

As for you, Harry, you probably sign your checks sure in the belief that you are the first Harry of all time and that all other Harrys are impostors. I can think of two Harrys that preceded you. There was Lighthouse Harry of Revolutionary fame and a Harry Appelbaum who lived on the corner of 93rd Street and Lexington Avenue.

The press ate the story up, and presented it as if Warner Brothers had threatened legal action against a rival movie company for so much as daring to use the word “Casablanca,” and Groucho had bravely stood up against such corporate nonsense.  And of course anyone who saw the finished movie saw that it had no tangible connection to the Humphrey Bogart classic, and anyone who would think of suing over such a situation must be a thoughtless corporate numbskull to begin with.

And the myth endures.  I encountered this story three times in my educational career—once in an undergraduate course on film history and twice in graduate school in classes that “taught” it as an example of legal issues in intellectual property disputes.  In every one of these instances, the story was told that Warner had threatened legal action over the use of the title Casablanca.  In fact what caught Warner’s eye was the possibility of a direct parody (which wouldn’t have litigable in today’s world but might well have been in 1946), and they didn’t threaten anything.  If Jack Warner had legal action on his mind, he would have directed his letter to someone other than the unpredictable Mr. Marx.

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So what are we left with?  The most memorable aspect of A Night in Casablanca is an untrue anecdote about an alternate, unmade version of the film—one more way in which this movie seemed destined to be something it isn’t.  I’m glad it wasn’t a Casablanca parody, I’m not glad it wasn’t a well-crafted screwball comedy that found a way to mix Marxian havoc with a strong female lead, but at the very least it exists at all—and the world is improved by every extra bit of Marx Brothers we can get.

20 Responses Who’s sorry now
Posted By swac44 : March 2, 2013 9:55 am

I caught this by chance years ago on PBS, in-between watching all the classic Marxes, but before seeing later ones like The Big Store and Go West, and I was surprised by how well it holds up, considering how I was bracing myself for the worst. Chico seems to fare the worst as time goes by, bit-by-bit, you can feel his interest in putting on the hat and doing the accent steadily fading, but Groucho and Harpo remain sports and are more than enough for me to revisit this title every few years.

I suppose the punchline to the whole Warner Bros. joke is that now WB owns the film, a rare occasion where Groucho doesn’t get the last laugh.

Posted By swac44 : March 2, 2013 9:55 am

I caught this by chance years ago on PBS, in-between watching all the classic Marxes, but before seeing later ones like The Big Store and Go West, and I was surprised by how well it holds up, considering how I was bracing myself for the worst. Chico seems to fare the worst as time goes by, bit-by-bit, you can feel his interest in putting on the hat and doing the accent steadily fading, but Groucho and Harpo remain sports and are more than enough for me to revisit this title every few years.

I suppose the punchline to the whole Warner Bros. joke is that now WB owns the film, a rare occasion where Groucho doesn’t get the last laugh.

Posted By changeling69 : March 2, 2013 10:01 am

I got to know the antics of the Marx bros later in life, but I quickly understood where 90% od slapstick comedy of yesterday and today comes from:)

Posted By changeling69 : March 2, 2013 10:01 am

I got to know the antics of the Marx bros later in life, but I quickly understood where 90% od slapstick comedy of yesterday and today comes from:)

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : March 2, 2013 11:25 am

Your opening paragraph could have been penned by myself, with the exception of replacing A NIGHT IN CASABLACA with THE BIG STORE, one of the first Marx films that I ever saw (at 3 in the morning no less, way back in 1978!!!). As a matter of fact, I just had my own memories of that long ago Late, Late Show night (on New York’s WCBS channel 2) published a few months ago; I was one of those sad people who was forced to get his Marx fix in the middle of the night whenever they cared to show up on television (this was before VHS boys!). No matter, the bottom line is that I love all the Marx films from THE COCOANUTS to LOVE HAPPY — good and bad, inspired and uninspired. After all, since there are only 13 of them, a real Marx fan can’t afford to be picky. Thanks for another great piece Mr. Kalat (and for awakening the old memories — A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA always ran on WOR channel 9 back then, sometimes as convienient as 11pm!!!).

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : March 2, 2013 11:25 am

Your opening paragraph could have been penned by myself, with the exception of replacing A NIGHT IN CASABLACA with THE BIG STORE, one of the first Marx films that I ever saw (at 3 in the morning no less, way back in 1978!!!). As a matter of fact, I just had my own memories of that long ago Late, Late Show night (on New York’s WCBS channel 2) published a few months ago; I was one of those sad people who was forced to get his Marx fix in the middle of the night whenever they cared to show up on television (this was before VHS boys!). No matter, the bottom line is that I love all the Marx films from THE COCOANUTS to LOVE HAPPY — good and bad, inspired and uninspired. After all, since there are only 13 of them, a real Marx fan can’t afford to be picky. Thanks for another great piece Mr. Kalat (and for awakening the old memories — A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA always ran on WOR channel 9 back then, sometimes as convienient as 11pm!!!).

Posted By MedusaMorlock : March 2, 2013 11:59 am

Wonderful post! Even lesser Marx is good for some genuine great laughs, and as Jeffrey Ford says in his comment, when you’ve only got a dozen or so movies to choose from, each one is precious and valued in its own way.

Thanks for including that delightful moment with Todd and Groucho — she clearly was tuned in to the hilarious sexy appeal he had and what a pair they made!

I hadn’t realized the very nature of Paramount that allowed such interesting films to be made. We had the whole early Paramount movies at KTLA in L.A. when I programmed there, with so many incredible films for late night but we also had a classic and family franchise on weekend afternoons where I scheduled many of these classics to pretty good response.

Thanks again for highlighting timeless comedy!

Posted By MedusaMorlock : March 2, 2013 11:59 am

Wonderful post! Even lesser Marx is good for some genuine great laughs, and as Jeffrey Ford says in his comment, when you’ve only got a dozen or so movies to choose from, each one is precious and valued in its own way.

Thanks for including that delightful moment with Todd and Groucho — she clearly was tuned in to the hilarious sexy appeal he had and what a pair they made!

I hadn’t realized the very nature of Paramount that allowed such interesting films to be made. We had the whole early Paramount movies at KTLA in L.A. when I programmed there, with so many incredible films for late night but we also had a classic and family franchise on weekend afternoons where I scheduled many of these classics to pretty good response.

Thanks again for highlighting timeless comedy!

Posted By robbushblog : March 2, 2013 12:08 pm

I feel this way about James Bond movies. One day I will get around to seeing A Night in Casablanca.

Posted By robbushblog : March 2, 2013 12:08 pm

I feel this way about James Bond movies. One day I will get around to seeing A Night in Casablanca.

Posted By Doug : March 2, 2013 12:13 pm

I guess, regarding “A night In Casablanca” that for once the parodist won, instead of parodist lost.

Posted By Doug : March 2, 2013 12:13 pm

I guess, regarding “A night In Casablanca” that for once the parodist won, instead of parodist lost.

Posted By Hal : March 2, 2013 3:45 pm

I have always ranked A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA as the best of the post-1937 Marx Brothers films. I’m glad it exists too. Hell, I’m glad LOVE HAPPY exists, for the occasional moments of inspiration there.

Posted By Hal : March 2, 2013 3:45 pm

I have always ranked A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA as the best of the post-1937 Marx Brothers films. I’m glad it exists too. Hell, I’m glad LOVE HAPPY exists, for the occasional moments of inspiration there.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 2, 2013 8:21 pm

despite the inspired anarchy of their earlier films,i doubt there’s any Marx Brothers film without at least a half dozen laugh out loud moment,even if you’ve seen it a dozen times…of course Night At The Opera is my absolute favorite,despite the fact it was a formulaic picture with the wrap around story of Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle…i still laugh until tears at some of the sequences,even though the irreverence was watered down by musical numbers,it made it shine all that more brightly,and the brothers made some money and prestige

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 2, 2013 8:21 pm

despite the inspired anarchy of their earlier films,i doubt there’s any Marx Brothers film without at least a half dozen laugh out loud moment,even if you’ve seen it a dozen times…of course Night At The Opera is my absolute favorite,despite the fact it was a formulaic picture with the wrap around story of Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle…i still laugh until tears at some of the sequences,even though the irreverence was watered down by musical numbers,it made it shine all that more brightly,and the brothers made some money and prestige

Posted By Doug : March 3, 2013 12:55 am

“Duck Soup” is my favorite, followed closely by “A Night At The Opera” which I really should watch again-its been too long.
The stock market crash of 1929 wiped the brothers out, except for Chico who kept his money safe with bookies. I think that that crash is the reason the boys kept plugging along, making movies even when the quality of the writing and productions fell. If not for 1929, if they had remained wealthy, we probably never would have had their great later works to enjoy. Beauty from ashes indeed.

Posted By Doug : March 3, 2013 12:55 am

“Duck Soup” is my favorite, followed closely by “A Night At The Opera” which I really should watch again-its been too long.
The stock market crash of 1929 wiped the brothers out, except for Chico who kept his money safe with bookies. I think that that crash is the reason the boys kept plugging along, making movies even when the quality of the writing and productions fell. If not for 1929, if they had remained wealthy, we probably never would have had their great later works to enjoy. Beauty from ashes indeed.

Posted By moviepas : March 3, 2013 5:22 am

Pity those Paramount flms are not complete due to various censorship cuts for reissue screenings. MCA did not get outtakes or cut footage when they bought the pre-1948 Paramount talkies.

A Night at the Opera is said to survive in the state archives in Budapest/Hungary in a version somewhat different than the Warner Bros material. Need to see it first.

Posted By moviepas : March 3, 2013 5:22 am

Pity those Paramount flms are not complete due to various censorship cuts for reissue screenings. MCA did not get outtakes or cut footage when they bought the pre-1948 Paramount talkies.

A Night at the Opera is said to survive in the state archives in Budapest/Hungary in a version somewhat different than the Warner Bros material. Need to see it first.

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