Skip to main content

This food doesn’t look any more poisoned than any other hotel food.

A Night in Casablanca
(1946)

(SPOILERS) After a run of films of waning quality – and a five-year gap – the Marx Brothers delivered a very pleasant surprise with this remarkably respectable bounce back, so good, it can happily be mentioned in the same breath as their first two MGM pictures. True, this isn’t on a par with the unbridled anarchy we saw in the Paramount pictures, but there are enough proficient set pieces and sustained routines to confirm A Night in Casablanca’s status as seriously underrated.

Kornblow: After all, I’m a man and you’re a woman… and I can’t think of a better argument.

The key to this seems to be that they rehearsed major scenes during a pre-filming tour. That, and the picture was a self-financed effort, only released through UA. Writers Joseph Fields (the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes musical), Roland Kibbee (later of The Bob Newhart Show) and an uncredited Frank Tashlin (who would get a full credit on swansong Love Happy) do something slightly different, in conjunction with director Archie Mayo, presenting a movie scenario that the brothers just happen to step into and then mould to their will. In some scenes (notably between the romantic leads in a night club) you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a bona fide film noir.

Mr Smythe: Sir, this lady is my wife. You should be ashamed.
Kornblow: If this lady is your wife, YOU should be ashamed.

The myth behind the movie is that Warner Bros threatened a lawsuit for using “Casablanca” in the title, the truth being that they didn’t, and that an originally intended direct spoof of that film was nixed at an early stage. There is a “Round up all likely suspects” line, however, which appears to have been overdubbed from the Casablanca version to avoid legal reprisals. The actual plot as has a Nazi war criminal looking to secure war loot (art treasures, including a Rembrandt) hidden in the Hotel Casablanca via the rather tenuous method of killing successive managers in order to be appointed manager himself. The latest of whom is Groucho’s relatively restrainedly (in name) Ronald Kornblow (it’s the lack of the initial, I think).

Beatrice (Groucho has climbed into the space where she’s hiding): What are you doing in here?
Kornblow: I have new respect for the count. He certainly knows how to pack a trunk.

On the downside, there’s no Margaret Dumont, but the considerable up is that the Nazi war criminal, sporting various follicular appliances as a disguise, in particular a free-ranging toupee, is played by Sig Ruman, star villain of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. His Heinrich Stubel (or Count Pfefferman, as he is purporting to be) is duly the butt of a series of insults and routines, the most magnificent of which is a protracted packing sequence in which Kornblow, accompanied by Harpo (as Rusty) and Chico (as Corbaccio) – with shady lady Beatrice (Lisette Verea) also hiding out having changed sides when she finds she is being ditched – frustrates his attempts to put anything in any case or trunk or remove it from drawers or cupboards for that matter. Ruman’s gradually evolving perplexed state is priceless.

Kornblow: I remember when this was all dancefloor.

It takes a while to meet Chico and Groucho, adding to the sense at the outset that this is a “proper” film. Indeed, the sight gag “Say, what do you think you’re doing? Holding up the building?” directed at Harpo looks impressively expensive (in contrast to the later. entirely make-do elevator crash, when Harpo cuts the wires to free a trapped Groucho). Harpo and Chico naturally get their own musical interludes, but a sign of their control is perhaps that we see Harpo putting his leg in a woman’s hand for the first time in forever (she flicks ash into his open shoe) and then honks her away. Not quite the Harpo of Paramount days, but unrulier than he’s been in a long while. He also manages to “insult” Beatrice by appearing with an even longer cigar holder than she has, and then blowing bubbles through it (another bit of business involving Verea finds her and Groucho “seductively” blowing smoke at each other; she corpses when he engulfs her in a cloud of cigar smoke). He also wins at roulette, despite Groucho warning him off (“You sure you want to go through with this? Remember what happened in 1929”).

Beatrice: Oh, come on now. You wouldn’t say no to a lady.
Kornblow: I don’t know, why not? They always say no to me.

At one point, Chico and Harpo, in order to come up with some money for romantic lead Charles Drake – as Lieutenant Delmar, who has his reputation to clear; he’s as eminently forgettable as his love interest Annette (Lois Collier) – fill the hotel dancefloor with tables and chairs to provide for additional paying guests, leaving Groucho and Beatrice with ever-diminishing space to sashay. Another sequence finds Groucho’s meal scoffed by bodyguards Harpo and Chico, on the grounds that it may be poisoned (Harpo doing a seal impression) – “Wouldn’t it be great if they ate each other?” concludes Groucho.

Kornblow: You know, I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the whole world.
Beatrice: Do you really?
Kornblow: No, but I don’t mind lying if it’ll get me somewhere.

Groucho delivers a succession of great lines, even if it’s perhaps true that he isnt offered a classic grandstanding scene of insulting someone or pulling the wool over their eyes. He gets out of buying champagne (“Buy this lady a cheese sandwich and charge it to her”), expresses reluctance at the strictures of his job (“I see. You want a manager that doesn’t steal money. Good day, gentlemen”) and finds Chico’s warnings a bind (“I don’t mind being killed, but I resent hearing about it by a character whose head comes to a point”).

Kornblow (he and Beatrice are blowing smoke at each other): This is like living in Pittsburgh – if you can call that living.

The picture does rather devolve into a pedestrian chase climax, following the highpoint of the packing scene, but even then, there’s the diversion of Harpo pulling insane faces as he flies a plane (and repeatedly hits the actual pilot on the head). And, in perhaps the clearest nod to their roots, the final shot has the trio pursuing Beatrice following her wistful glance at the united lovers (“If a thing like that could only happen to me”).



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.