Posted by David Kalat on March 2, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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