A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA is a film more famous for the correspondence it allegedly provoked (there's a possibility that the entire thing was a publicity stunt) between Groucho Marx and the Warner Brothers' legal department (WB stated they had a claim on 'Casablanca'; Groucho countered with a claim on 'Brothers') than for any of the gags it contained. I think this is a pity as, while it certainly can't compare to the Marx Brothers at their height, it isn't an awful film. In fact, taken on its own merits, it's quite good.
The first thing that struck me when I put on this DVD (this was the first time I'd seen the film) was how much older the Marx Brothers themselves looked, particularly Harpo. His character was always a sort of ageless clown and seeing wrinkles sort of spoilt the illusion for me. On the other hand, Groucho actually looks more in character at this age. It gives him easier access to his "dirty old man" routine, which he played perfectly.
Despite the title (and apparently the original intentions of the filmmakers), the movie doesn't have much to do with the more famous film with a similar name. The action centers in and around a hotel rather than a nightclub (Groucho is now the manager after the last few died under mysterious circumstances). The search is for treasure instead of travel papers. And, of course, instead of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the romantic couple, we have bland Zeppo-replacement and bland Zeppo-replacement's bland girlfriend. Well, we can't have everything.
While most of the secondary cast is uninspired, it is nice to see Sig Ruman and his eye-popping indignation back again after his stints in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES. His over-the-top, sputtering reactions almost make up for the lack of Margaret Dumont. In the sequence where he's trying to pack his suitcases and trunks while the Marx Brothers invisibly impede his progress, he helps turn a great scene into a classic one.
The joke writing in this movie is quite strong compared to some of the other MGM Marx features. In particular, Groucho's one-liners are at full strength; I have this movie on in the background while I type up this review, and I'm catching hilarious little jokes and double entendres that I missed the first time around. And while some of the gags have the hint of unoriginality about them, there's enough that's fresh. Sure, the scene of Harpo pantomiming that Groucho was about to be blackmailed by a femme fatale had already been done in A DAY AT THE RACES, but they wisely don't use the same lines to fuel the jokes (although strangely they do use the same music: both Groucho seduction scenes feature Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube"). The same is true for the crowded dance-floor sequence that mimics the crowded stateroom scene from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Same premise, but different funny jokes.
The DVD extras are nothing special. I suppose someone must be enjoying the vintage cartoons that they're putting on these Marx Brothers DVDs, but that person isn't me. The extras aren't important anyway; unfortunately, they don't add anything to the experience. Picture and sound quality are both excellent for a film of this age.
This movie may come from the less celebrated portion of the Brothers' career, but to my surprise I really enjoyed it. No film can go wrong that features a scene of Harpo Marx grinning madly at the controls of an airplane. If you go in expecting DUCK SOUP, then you might be disappointed. But if you take it for what it is rather than what it isn't, you'll find a film that's funnier than most.