Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 10)

Go West has again been postponed. I don’t know why the studio doesn’t come right out and say they’re afraid to make it.” — Groucho in a letter to his son Arthur

The Marx Brothers’ most recent movie, At the Circus, had lost money at the box office, so there was a lot riding on their next one. Go West was described pre-emptively by Groucho as “another turkey.” There were a lot of delays and head-scratching as MGM tried to figure out how to make the turkey profitable. With their usual lack of imagination and love of the formulaic, MGM decided the best bet was to repeat the exact same recipe as At the Circus, and just hope audiences would respond better. Same hack director (Eddie Buzzell). Same inexpensive rookie writer (Irving Brecher, still honing his craft). Same theft of the plot from another movie. Only instead of ripping themselves off (At the Circus was essentially the same story as A Day at the Races), the next Marx Brothers movie would steal the plot from Laurel & Hardy’s Way Out West

Eddie Buzzell

Go West, as an idea at least, had been kicking around for a while, begun in conjunction with A Day at the Races when Irving Thalberg was still in charge of the Marx Brothers’ output. Like several Marx Brothers movies (and probably many other comedies of the time), the process began with the title and worked from there. The first draft of Go West was written by old Marx friends Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, and submitted on August 19, 1936. Thalberg was dead less than a month later, and the project was shelved. When it was revived in late 1939, the Kalmar & Ruby script (basically “A Day at the Rodeo”) was dumped, and Brecher was back to just a title. He decided to make it a period piece, set in the actual Old West. John Carroll and Diana Lewis were cast as the yet-again entirely unmemorable romantic leads, and Opera’s Walter Woolf King returned as the bad guy. Margaret Dumont sat this one out. The production supervisor was Louis B. Mayer’s nephew Jack Cummings.

“Our picture is becoming a garbage can for the studio,” wrote Groucho to Arthur Sheekman. “[Diana Lewis] is no Helen Hayes, [and] happens, by an odd coincidence, to be William Powell’s wife. The unit manager is Cummings’s cousin, and his assistant is a son of Bill Goetz, who happens to be Mayer’s son-in-law. So you see the only ones in the picture who are not related to anyone except to each other are the Marx Brothers.”

Jack Cummings set the budget and signed off on the various departments’ choices, and then proceeded to do not much else, except approve of the one good idea applied to Go West’s pre-production process. It was another repeat — taking the key comedy routines on tour and playing them to audiences to gauge how well they worked and where (and how long) the laughs were. Scenes from Go West played in Joliet, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, and L.A. from April 28 through May 27, 1940. Shooting Go West occurred from July to October of 1940. (As we’ve seen, such lengthy shooting schedules were by no means uncommon at MGM, even for a 90-minute comedy.)

Groucho’s character, S. Quentin Quale (a play on “San Quentin quail,” which was a slang term for underage jailbait) randomly meets up with Chico and Harpo, playing brothers Joe and Rusty Panello (finally a decent name for Harpo’s character — don’t get used to it) in a train station, where they attempt to out-fleece each other over ten dollars. The plot revolves around a land deed in the Panellos’ possession that was formerly worthless, but suddenly becomes valuable when a railroad company wants to put a line through the property.

There is another attempt to replicate the Night at the Opera stateroom scene (this time in a crowded stagecoach), and a frenetic chase on and around a moving train, which a lot of the old Marx Brothers books tout as a highlight of their filmography, but isn’t incredibly impressive to modern eyes. Technically well-staged for its time (there’s a lot of processed rear projection mixed in with a little location work in scenic Tuolumne County), its worst crime is it just isn’t all that funny. The best the sequence can do is have Harpo act as a human coupling between a pair of train cars, his limbs stretching like Silly Putty in a very cartoonish fashion. The whole thing is not exactly Il Trovatore getting destroyed or Freedonia going to war (or even the Huxley vs. Darwin football game). 

Irving Brecher was getting better. He had gone on the tour with them, and the Brothers had grown to trust him. (The one moment of drama people remember from the production was Buzzell walking off the set in a huff when one of the Brothers went not to him but to Brecher one too many times for feedback on their performance.) Although nothing is on the Kaufman-Ryskind or Kalmar-Ruby level, the dialogue has a sprightly crackle all the way through, an element missing from the last two or three Marx movies. The touring clearly worked, and Brecher’s Best Screenplay Oscar nomination (for Meet Me in St. Louis) was only four years away. Although he once again received sole screenplay credit, Brecher’s work was said to be augmented by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, and Dore Schary. The result was a fairly passable piece of 1940 comedy. (Yes, damning with faint praise, but we take what we can get from 40s-era Marx material.)

I’ll never be a fan of mid-century movie songs, but here they are at least integrated into the story well and don’t stop the whole thing dead in its tracks. In fact, I’ll say that Go West’s songs are among the strongest in the Marx Brothers’ oeuvre, ranging from legitimately entertaining (the dancehall girl’s “You Can’t Argue With Love”) to low-key pleasant (the romantic couple’s duet “Ridin’ the Range”).

It seems no old comedy film can exist without some kind of racially offensive sequence, and Go West’s handling of interactions with Native Americans is fairly typical for the era. But it at least acknowledges the poor treatment Native Americans received at the hands of the white man (“Who put your head on the nickel, and then took the nickel away?”) and doesn’t quite make the modern viewer want to claw up the carpet and crawl under it the way Races and Circus does in similar situations.

And they’ve managed to dial in Groucho’s wig a little better. It’s frequently under a hat, but when it isn’t, at least it no longer looks like Groucho has the gutted carcass of a Scottish Terrier strapped to his head the way he did in At the Circus. (According to Groucho, there was an attempt to work with his natural hair in the lengthy run-up to shooting the film. “My theatrical career has dwindled to being fitted once a week for a pair of early-American pants and having my hair dyed every three weeks. This is a fine comedown for man who used to be the Toast of Broadway.”) Sadly, Groucho’s character is once again a flailing, cowardly object of ridicule, which seems to be Buzzell’s and Brecher’s preferred mode in which to present him (he was slightly worse in Circus).

Go West hit theaters on December 6, 1940, and failed to recoup its production costs — their third movie in a row to flop. The writing was on the wall. With one film left on their contract, the Brothers began planning for the next stage of their careers. Harpo was the only one seriously considering full retirement. He had made some good investments, and was anticipating expanding his family with more adoptions. But Chico always needed the money, and Groucho always needed the applause, so Chico began setting up a tour with a jazz band, and Groucho figured he might make his living in the thriving medium of radio. (Around this time he put together a pilot for a family situation comedy with Irving Brecher, but it didn’t sell until three years later, under the title The Life of Riley, with the role intended for Groucho played by the warmer and less acerbic William Bendix.)

But first there was that one final, pesky movie left to do for MGM.

The Marx Brothers genuinely believed that The Big Store would be their last motion picture as a team — and what a sad limp across the finish line it was. I would call The Big Store the worst Marx Brothers movie, but Room Service is already down there to break its fall. At least they retired Groucho’s atrocious wig and let him appear with his real (dyed) hair.

There was once a time when a Marx Brothers “plot” was just a flimsy framework on which to hang brilliant comedy. Since their initial signing with MGM, their plots had increased in prominence, and with The Big Store, it’s all finally come full circle. The Big Store is all plot, and the comedy is the afterthought. The story is partially borrowed from a Nat Perrin-penned episode of the Marxes’ old radio show Shyster, Flywheel, and Shyster. 

I’m just going to plug in Wikipedia’s plot summary here, because that symbolically reflects the care that was put into the actual production: “Department-store owner Hiram Phelps has died, leaving half-ownership in the store to his nephew, singer Tommy Rogers [Tony Martin]. The other half is owned by Hiram’s sister and Tommy’s aunt Martha Phelps [Margaret Dumont]. Rogers has no interest in running a department store, so he plans to sell his interest in the store and use the money to build a music conservatory. Mr. Grover [Douglass Dumbrille], the store manager, plots to kill Rogers before he can sell his half of the business, marry the wealthy Martha and then likely kill her, becoming sole owner of the store. Martha is suspicious, worried about Tommy’s safety if anyone should suspect her of engaging in foul play to take over the store. Against Grover’s wishes, she hires private detective Wolf J. Flywheel [Groucho] as a floorwalker and Tommy’s bodyguard. Tommy is in love with store employee Joan Sutton [Virginia Grey] and Flywheel romances Martha. Flywheel, Ravelli [Chico as Tommy’s employee] and Wacky [Harpo as Flywheel’s assistant] eventually expose Grover and save Tommy.

Yes, a rather bland department store manager is also a casual would-be double murderer, because why the hell not, and yes, Harpo’s character name is “Wacky,” and the nadir of Harpo names is reached. I love the Marx Brothers, but I actively hated the hour and a half I burned sitting through The Big Store for the first time in many years.

Director Eddie Buzzell and writer Irving Brecher were not on this project, and no one wanted to bother with a pre-filming tour for something that was being done solely to complete a contract. Production supervisor Louis K. Sidney, a veteran of the distribution side of the movie business as opposed to the creative side, brought in the writing team of Sid Kuller and Ray Golden (along with someone called Hal Fimberg) to knock out a screenplay using Perrin’s Flywheel episode as a jumping-off point. The original title was Bargain Basement, but it was felt that title was an easy target to comment on the quality of the film, so they switched it to Step This Way. No one liked that either, so they just went with the generic The Big Store. 

The Ritz Brothers

Kuller & Golden were known at that time as writers for another sibling comedy team, the Ritz Brothers. What little Ritz Brothers stuff I’ve seen is definitely low-rent, with a kind of dumb charm that plays well to a nightclub full of drunks. There’s a reason everyone remembers the Marx Brothers, and only a handful of hardcore (and/or very elderly) comedy aficianados remember the Ritz Brothers, whose default mode of comedy was bugging out their eyes and doing double-takes. Sidney hiring Kuller & Golden was the equivalent of bringing in writers from Home Improvement to write an episode of Seinfeld. Both are technically television situation comedies, but…come on, really? (Around this time, Groucho’s daughter Miriam told her father she had enjoyed the latest Ritz Brothers movie. Groucho’s response was to tell her to go ask the Ritz Brothers for that new bicycle she wanted.)

Charles Reisner was in the director’s chair this time. Unlike Norman McLeod or Leo McCarey (or even Sam Wood), a look at Reisner’s non-Marx filmography indicates he specialized in making films that were entirely forgettable. The most interesting things that could be said about him were that 1) he had acted alongside Chaplin in two films, and 2) he had the official director’s credit on Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. The latter was an honorary position, as everyone knew Keaton was in total charge of all his silent films, no matter who the credited director was. (Also, his son, Dean Reisner, was a former child actor who went by the name of “Dinky Dean,” and was briefly married to the original horror hostess Vampira.) But even if Reisner were a comedy visionary, there was very little that could be done with The Big Store’s limp dishrag of a script. 

Tony Martin

The film’s hero, Tommy Rogers, was played by Tony Martin. Martin was a fairly major singing star at the time, and was brought in as part of L.K. Sidney’s plan to ensure the movie would turn a profit, unlike the previous three pictures. Martin was given equal billing with the Marx Brothers, and his part is suitably substantial. It wouldn’t be all that unfair to call this a Tony Martin movie that featured the Marx Brothers. The oily crooner is not really much of an actor, however, and his big set piece number, “Tenement Symphony” (about how cute and quirky poor immigrants are), is the musical equivalent of a dumpster fire. Groucho’s song, “Sing While You Sell,” is also a catastrophe, and features a solo turn by Virginia O’Brien, whose whole, entire schtick was — get this — singing a song with a frozen, blank expression on her face, like a zombie deer in headlights. I’m not kidding, that was her act and she milked it for literally decades. Remember that the next time an old person complains about the state of entertainment these days.

Go West’s closing train chase seemed to make the powers that be at MGM think that a lackluster comedy could be rescued by an exciting climax. Well, even if that were true, Reisner botched it here. A chase through the department store on roller skates, bicycles (and a unicycle), elevators, and mail chutes is all done with ham-fisted trick photography, obvious stunt doubles, and is absolutely slathered with lame “comedic” sound effects. 

The Big Store was Margaret Dumont’s final film with the Marx Brothers, and she is as understated here as she was over-the-top in A Day at the Races. She would continue to appear in musicals and comedies for a few more years, playing her standard character and working with the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and Danny Kaye, but as even she acknowledged, she could never appear on screen without the audience expecting Groucho to turn up somewhere. 

The nicest thing I can say about The Big Store is Chico and Harpo’s musical sequences are very enjoyable. We get a great piano duet from them, harkening back to the Home Again days in vaudeville, and Harpo’s harp solo (performed in front of two mirrors, allowing two Harpos to provide accompaniment) is one of his best.

In April of 1941, the Marx Brothers used the trailer for The Big Store to officially announce their retirement as a team, along with an article in Variety. “I don’t drink and I don’t play the races and I can afford to quit now while the quitting is good,” said Groucho. “I haven’t got that old zip, that old sparkle in the eye. And when you get to feeling like that, it’s not fair to the people who pay their good money to see you…By getting out now, we’re just anticipating public demand, and by a very short margin.” 

True to L.K. Sidney’s word, when The Big Store came out on June 20, 1941, it did indeed turn a profit — a whopping $33,000 went into MGM’s coffers. The presence of Tony Martin probably really did put it over the top.

Chico & daughter Maxine

Chico’s marriage to Betty had come to its inevitable end. Most people who knew them were surprised it had lasted as long as it did, what with Chico’s compulsive gambling, flagrant womanizing, and total lack of responsibility. The final straw for Betty was catching him with one of their 22-year-old daughter’s friends. For a while, they lived in separate parts of the same house on Elm Drive in Beverly Hills, but eventually Chico moved out. (The house was wisely in Betty’s name.) They were a year short of their twenty-fifth anniversary. “I gave him a year off for bad behavior,” Betty joked. The separation was permanent, but Betty remained fond of Chico, as everyone seemed to, and an actual legal divorce would not occur for many years.

Late July 1941. The end of the Marx Brothers Era was marked by Harpo’s surprise appearance onstage in New Hope, Pennsylvania, playing a character (“Banjo”) based on himself in George S. Kaufman’s hit Broadway comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner. Harpo opened his mouth, and spoke lines in front of an audience for the first time since 1914. (Or was it? Both Robert Bader and Steve Stoliar have evidence that on very rare occasions, from the late vaudeville days to the Go West tour, Harpo would burst into a lengthy, pretentously-worded monologue, evidently just for the shock value on the audience.)

Alexander Woollcott, Fay Wray, and Harpo in The Yellow Jacket, August 1941

Harpo returned to silence the very next week, performing in the North Shore Players’ production of The Yellow Jacket, a Chinese-themed fantasy drama co-starring critic-turned-actor Alexander Woollcott and Fay Wray. Harpo played the enigmatic, cigarette-puffing Property Man, and admitted in his memoirs he didn’t understand the play at all, and was thoroughly bored sticking to routine and being Not-Harpo as the stock company performed a week-long run in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He “Harpo’d” up the part more and more until Woollcott gave him a stern dressing down about respecting the material (not the first time a Marx Brother has received that particular lecture).

Ruth Marx in divorce court, 1942

With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, everything changed. The country was at war. One of Groucho’s personal wars came to a close when his long-estranged wife Ruth finally moved out of the family home just after Christmas. As she got into her car, Groucho stuck out his hand and said, “Well, it was nice knowing you, and if you’re ever in the neighborhood again, drop in.” Ruth was granted a divorce in July 1942.

America’s entry into World War II did nothing to halt Chico’s plans to tour with a sixteen-piece band. “Chico Marx and His Orchestra” opened their tour in Brooklyn on January 15, 1942. The show was mostly musical (with solo turns from featured vocalist Siggy Lane and trumpeter Bobby Clark), and partly comedic. Chico was in character and costume, making wisecracks and observations on the show in his Italian accent, and doing a fifteen-minute solo piano sequence.

The show toured relentlessly through 1942, and released two recordings, setting a hectic pattern that would continue for years. Reviews were mixed but business was decent…still, Chico missed his brothers. “Every fifteen seconds I’d think I was hearing Harpo blowing that automobile horn, and every other fifteen seconds I’d wish he was.” 

Except when sidelined by wartime fuel rationing, Chico kept his act on the road through the end of the decade (with newcomer Mel Torme joining up as drummer and occasional vocalist), but as usual, failed to keep a dollar in his pocket for very long. He was at least smart enough to agree to have his MGM money earned as part of the team turned over directly to Groucho and Harpo, who kept it in a trust for him. (Although at a particularly low moment, he did threaten to sue it out of them.) This was the only reason he still lived in Beverly Hills instead of on a park bench somewhere.

Groucho had a new book on the shelves (Many Happy Returns, a collection of satirical essays about the IRS), but it wasn’t selling particularly well. He joined several other celebrities on an all-star revue tour, the “Hollywood Victory Caravan,” to sell war bonds. When it wrapped up in May of 1942, Groucho sat back and waited for offers of a radio show or a solo film role to start rolling in. They did not. He had to content himself with occasional guest appearances on Rudy Vallee’s radio show.

Newly single, he rambled around his big house on Hillcrest Drive with only teenage Miriam and German shepherds Duke and Shep for company (son Arthur had just joined the Coast Guard). He and protege Norman Krasna had begun writing a play the year before, and now he returned to it because he had literally nothing else to do. He soon sold the memory-filled Hillcrest house and moved into smaller digs in Westwood. He whiled away his evenings reading, playing guitar, listening to his Gilbert & Sullivan records, and the occasional date. (None of them won the approval of Miriam, who referred to one of her father’s blonde paramours as “Harpo in drag.”). The one thing that got him in front of an audience was volunteering to tour military bases and hospitals, which he did frequently until the end of the war, as did Harpo. (It was not a reunion — they toured separately.)

Newly single and newly unemployed, Groucho in 1942

During this low time, Gummo, who had built a reputation as one of the most reliable agents in the business, decided to put some effort into getting his brother some offers

Gummo Marx was now officially agent and manager for Groucho Marx, and within a few years he would take on, individually, Harpo and Chico as well. (As a team, the Brothers had always been repped by the William Morris Agency, but they often had little to do since the Brothers had a talent for making their own deals.) He proved his worth by getting a deal for Groucho from Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery, who agreed to sponsor a radio variety show, Blue Ribbon Town, with Groucho as host beginning in March 1943. One of the regulars on Blue Ribbon Town was the diminutive Leo Gorcey, one of the “Dead End Kids,” a collective of young actors specializing in playing street hoodlums in various melodramas. They would eventually evolve into a comedy team called “The Bowery Boys” later in the 1940s, and Gorcey cut his comedy teeth on Groucho’s show, spewing malapropisms in his “little tough guy” persona.

Groucho and Miriam

Miriam often accompanied her father on broadcast nights, and as she killed time backstage, she bonded with Gorcey’s young wife, Kay, only four years her senior. As their friendship deepened, Kay revealed that Gorcey was a vicious drunk who beat her regularly. Miriam insisted that Groucho make their house a safe refuge for Kay as she started divorce proceedings. The arrangement did not go precisely as Miriam planned, as she began noticing the guest bed was always neatly made in the morning. It dawned on her that Kay had begun sharing Groucho’s bed. 

When Harpo wasn’t performing for the troops, he was busy painting, or practicing harp, or discovering the joys of golf. He was also expanding his family through adoption. Joining son Bill in 1943 was Alexander (named for Woollcott, who had passed away earlier that same year), and James and Minnie followed in 1944. He had nothing of any substance on his professional agenda, and he liked it that way. (Zeppo and his wife Marion followed Harpo’s example and adopted two sons, Thomas in 1944, and Timothy in 1945.)

Zeppo, Marion, and Tommy, 1944

Groucho and Veronica Lake dance for the troops

Groucho undid all of Gummo’s hard work and was fired from Blue Ribbon Town in June of 1944. Reasons are murky, but it allegedly stemmed from Groucho telling the young son of company president Fred Pabst to “fuck off” during a billiards game. (Groucho’s version of the story is that he got fired for getting another member of the Pabst family drunk — on Miller High Life.) Hosting duties were taken over by none other than singer Kenny Baker, who if you recall was one of the many stains that marred At the Circus. The show soldiered on for another two months, and was canceled. Chico’s gambling debts were piling higher, and owed to increasingly dangerous individuals. The touring grind was also starting to affect his health. Making movies was seeming more and more like an easy racket.

So it certainly seemed like the time was right for a Marx Brothers reunion. Legend has it that it was done solely to provide Chico a payday to prevent his legs from being broken, but what Harpo called “retirement” Groucho called “unemployment,” and he was pretty eager to reach for that greasepaint again. And “retired” or not, the agreeable Harpo was not too difficult to coax off of the golf course.

From time to time over the past four years, a few producers had made overtures to the Brothers for a film reunion, and when David Loew (son of one of MGM’s founders) came knocking in early 1945, they accepted his offer. No major studio was willing to commit, so this would be a fully independent production. The Marx Brothers put up a good chunk of their own money, and the title they came up with — A Night in Casablanca — both hearkened back to their Thalberg MGM pictures, and parodied Warner Brothers’ popular wartime drama Casablanca from three years earlier. (The “exchange” of letters between Groucho and — supposedly — the Warner Brothers legal department over the use of the name “Casablanca” became very well-known, but it was revealed to be a total put-on to gain publicity for the Marx film.)

Loew hired playwright Joseph Fields to pen the first draft. Groucho found Fields’ work distinctly underwhelming, and invoked his status as co-producer to bring in more writers — radio veterans Howard Harris, Sidney Zalinka, and Roland Kibbee — to punch things up. Also on board was animator Frank Tashlin to help work out Harpo’s silent bits. Once the material was in decent shape, the tradition of taking key scenes on tour was revived. This time, they would take their show to army bases as well as traditional theaters. (Peace had been achieved in Europe and was only weeks away in Japan, and the troops were restless and starved for entertainment.) The tour was delayed due to Groucho’s wedding and honeymoon. He married Kay Gorcey on July 21, 1945. He was 54. She was just shy of 22. 

Scenes from A Night in Casablanca played in San Diego and Oakland, California that August. August 27, 1945 at the T & D Theatre in Oakland marked the last time the Marx Brothers appeared together live on stage, ending a theatrical career that went back to 1908. 

Rehearsals began in mid-September at General Service Studio. (After passing through many hands over the years, including Desilu, Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, and Dreamworks, the studio is now known as Sunset Las Palmas Studios, and was home for several years to most of the Disney Channel programs.) Cameras started rolling in early October, under the direction of Archie Mayo.

Archie Mayo

Mayo was a veteran of dozens of films of all genres…but very little comedy. No one thought this was necessarily a strike against him. He used to live up the street from Groucho, after all, and Groucho figured a good neighbor would make a good director, or at least a director who could get along with everyone. “He’s no genius, but he’s far better than Buzzell,” said Groucho, which was his version of praise. The production, which lasted through early December, went smoothly but the Brothers were no longer acclimated to the long hours and physical action of a comedy film shoot.

Harpo’s kids visit the set

Movie making was not as cushy as they remembered. They were all well into their fifties, and their energy lagged. In an on-set interview in November, Harpo remarked “It’s just too much work.” In the same interview, Groucho said “The only reason I’m making this picture is because in five years I’d forgotten how miserable it could be.” But they were hopeful about the movie itself. “The picture may turn out surprisingly well,” Groucho wrote to his daughter. “The last reel is a wild chase, apparently a basic requisite for a comedy. I think it’s quite ingenious and pretty exciting.” (Is this the same Groucho?) 

Groucho plays Ronald Kornblow, the latest in a long series of managers of the Hotel Casablanca, located in — you guessed it — Casablanca. The hotel’s managers have a habit of dying mysteriously, and we discover it’s due to Heinrich Stueubel (Sig Ruman), an ex-Nazi who has hidden away a lot of stolen war loot in the hotel and is trying to reaquire it by becoming manager himself. His plan is uncovered by his valet, Rusty (Harpo, riding some more beatings at the hands of the villain) and Carpaccio (Chico) who owns a camel-based taxi service. They become Kornblow’s self-appointed bodyguards. After a lot of comedic mayhem (in a return to form, much of it was totally irrelevant to the plot), Stuebel is apprehended by the Brothers and our young hero Pierre (Charles Drake, with even less to do in this role than usual) after the aforementioned chase at an airfield.

Wind machines and rear projection create the exciting climax

The best part about A Night in Casablanca is Groucho. He has his swagger back, and fires off some choice lines and a few of the best insults of his screen career, largely thanks to his radio-trained writers. (Sickest burn: “Sir, this lady is my wife! You ought to be ashamed.” “If this lady is your wife, you ought to be ashamed.”) No, he’s not as rapid-fire as he once was, his silly non-sequiturs are mostly replaced by cynical venom (which I’m fine with), and his loping prowl may have lost a step, but he’s once again a pleasure to watch. Harpo is on his game as well. In fact, the only one who comes off as a little slow and wheezy is Chico, who was also the only one who would happily continue making Marx Brothers movies if he could. The rich MGM “quality” is replaced by a more workman-like, “medium budget” atmosphere. 

The stunt doubles chase down the airplane

Groucho was back to his old cranky self after he saw the early previews, which didn’t seem to justify his optimism while shooting it. He turned all his ire on Mayo. “We worked so long and hard on this…to see reams of it emasculated by that fat idiot, well it was heart-rending…I am sure it will be better than The Big Store.” He was right on that last point, but the film was far from a disaster. Yes, Mayo’s direction was a little creaky (he retired the next year), but really, the film’s primary flaw was the fact that it’s just not “classic” Marx Brothers. I would say that it’s just as good as, if not a little better, than most comedies of the late 1940s (and way better than their last four films). However, “just as good” and/or “a little better” isn’t enough when it comes to the Marx Brothers. We want them to blow everyone out of the water.

The happy ending for A Night in Casablanca was that audiences were glad to see them back on the screen, and it did make money when it was released through United Artists on May 10, 1946. Quite a bit, in fact. Some sources say it was technically their highest-grossing film of all. The Brothers were at least able to pocket a nice payday for their efforts.

But it wasn’t enough to make them want to do it again. Late in the shoot, at the end of a ten-hour day, hanging off a ladder between an airplane and a fuel truck on a drafty soundstage in front of a rear-projection screen while waiting for the lighting to be adjusted, Groucho turned to Harpo and asked if he was tired of it all. Harpo just said “Yes.”

Before A Night in Casablanca had even finished shooting, the Marx Brothers re-retired. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & TV, History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s