Strangely Beautiful

From A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA. Harpo waits for his big scene to begin. While, in the background, shadows from a gizmo known as a kookaloris (or cucaloris, cookaloris, cookalorus) suggest a vaguely North African mileu. And the outsize urns add something important too.

A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA is good fun, obviously not great like A NIGHT AT THE OPERA or God knows DUCK SOUP, but very agreeable. It’s also the movie that had Warner Bros threatening to sue over the use of the word “Casablanca,” leading Groucho to threaten a countersuit over Warners’ use of the word “brothers.” There are some good visual gags, some by gagman Frank Tashlin, so there’s a particularly cartoony feel to Harpo’s schtick, and some good verbal stuff too:

Groucho: “I’m crazy about her: I’ve completely lost my head!”

Chico: “Well, put your hat on your neck and get out!”

Also Sig Rumann, progressively deprived of hair, beard and moustache. The beard ends up on Groucho, transforming him into  a dead ringer for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, although the cigar also recalls Castro.

36 Responses to “Strangely Beautiful”

  1. The decision to dye Harpo’s hair though! As Joe Adamson says, “the effect is to make him look more like an old man and less like a gremlin, if that’s your idea of better.” It’s also from Adamson that we learn most of the best sight gags were the uncredited work of Frank Tashlin.

  2. Arthur S. Says:

    Harpo is my favourite Marx brother and a predecessor to the almost mute in Beckett’s ”En attendant Godot”. Leo McCarey, who directed ”Duck Soup” said that he liked working with Harpo Marx the best of the brothers(who he says were never to be found at the same place at the same time). Groucho of course is in a class of his own. Lenin would have been better off with Groucho Marx than Karl, to revive a stale old joke.

    By the way Groucho has a cameo in Tashlin’s WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER as the deux-ex-machina who marries Jayne Mansfield thereby giving her true love.

  3. Pretty good Van the Man tribute Band:

  4. Or, as they say in France, Arthur, Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho.

  5. Special kudos too to Lisette Verea, who spars brilliantly with Groucho in what seems to have been her only Hollywood film. In Austria, the film was even known as “Eine Nacht mit Beatrice”!

  6. “You want-a sardines? I a-smother you in sardines !”

  7. It may not have had the production values of an MGM, but it certainly was funnier/more entertaining than most of their MGM films.

  8. Oh, and according to my 1955 ASC guide, it’s spelled “cuckoloris”.

  9. Joe Adamson’s book is by far the best book on the Brothers (he even has the balls to put in his own comedy bits, and they pretty much work) but I recall that he didn’t think much of A Night in Casablanca. Nevertheless, I agree with the consensus view that it’s better than all but the first two of their MGM films (and in some ways easier to watch than the bloated A Day At the Races). Another plus is that the studio-required young-lovers subplot gets dispensed with as quickly as possible. The picture also stands up as a whole, unlike At the Circus, whose only moment of glory is “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” or Go West, whose only good bits are the opening and near-closing scenes (I’m convinced Buster Keaton devised the train/house gag during his gagman-for-hire period at the studio).

  10. No official spelling seems to exist for cookawhatsit, since it’s kind of an unofficial word for a semi-official object. I guess the first ones were totally improvised and so the spelling was never fully formalized.

    I know Keaton wrote gags for the Marxes but I’m not sure on which film/s. Would’ve certainly been MGM though, and the train climax of Go West (which even recycles a Keaton title) seems like a good fit.

    One of the best things about ANIC is how Harpo rediscovers his Lord of Misrule status at the end: rather than trying to help the situation, he repeatedly coshes the plane’s pilot and takes the controls himself with demonic kamikaze glee. Refreshing after all the movies where the Marxes had to be tethered to a plot requiring them to act nobly.

  11. Groucho + pseudo-Van makes this a banner Shadowplay day for me, though if there’s a connection I don’t get it.

    I never love Groucho more than when he’s doing one of his graceful-goofball dances a la “Lydia,” kicking up his heels like a donkey.

  12. That’s the one reason I like A Night In Casablanca, it brings the brothers back to a semblance of anarchy, very little of which was evident at MGM. I prefer it to A Day At The Races although Day has some great moments.

    I’m pretty sure that Go West has gags written by Keaton, and even if he didn’t write them, the film stole at least one. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, I’d probably recognize more now.

  13. When Lisette invites Groucho to rhumba, Fiona got very excited. She loves Groucho’s moves.

    I think there’s still lots of anarchy in Races, the trouble is there lots of everything else too, so the chaos is fighting to be heard. But some of the medical stuff is superb.

    Harpo does look the most aged here, for whatever reason. Maybe because his two famous brothers always seemed older than they actually were. One doesn’t want clowns from this era to age, which is part of why I’ll always avoid Laurel & Hardy’s last film.

  14. Prrof that “this isn’t the first time I’ve hid in a closet” (or shown those moves):

  15. Christopher Says:

    A Night at Casablanca really stands apart from all the later Marx’s films..Tashlin was a good match for the Marx Bros..I remember when this film premiered on TV for the first time in the early 70s..It was a fairly big “ado”..Harpo was suddenly most famous for the “whataya think yer doin’..holding up the Wall?”scene..Animal Crackers was out of limbo and making the rounds in major theatres about this time too..
    Thats a great pic of Harpo up there..kinda scary..surreal..Theres a Madm’n in my bedroom!

  16. Yet Tashlin had more to do with Love Happy, and that one’s pretty bad. There are hints of a desire to do pathos with Harpo here, but they happily abandon that terrible idea. But it comes back in LH. I don’t really like Tashlin’s use of pathos with Jerry Lewis, either. You could say Chaplin has a lot to answer for, but I don’t really want to blame Charlie…

  17. A tale of Groucho circa Watergate:

  18. I have yet to see the whole of “A Day at the Races,” and frankly I have no desire to do so, but it *does* contain Ivie Anderson … and you’d better not badmouth Ivie Anderson!

  19. Oh, it’s bad enough to see Air-Raid Wardens. Stan looks aged and ill, and that was only 1943. If they’d only retired after A Chump at Oxford. Nobody has a perfect career, I guess.

  20. Katya: great piece, thanks!

    Chris, A Day at the Races is well worth seeing, if you like the Marxes at all. For all its flaws it has plenty of prime nonsense. “The last time I saw a head like that it was floating in a bottle of formaldehyde.” Usually it’s the patronizing of the ethnic characters that gets put down the most.

    Maybe the problem isn’t that there are no second acts in American lives, but that there SHOULDN’T be.

  21. re: Keaton’s gag work for the brothers. It’s been confirmed that Buster worked on At the Circus. Keaton considered the experience his all-time career-low, especially after Groucho told him “we don’t need any help from a has-been.” There’s also a picture of Keaton on the set with Groucho and Chico, but I can’t find it online.
    However, Circus is the only Marx Brothers film we know for sure that Buster worked on. The rest is speculation. Kevin Brownlow’s documentary “So Funny It Hurts” suggests that Keaton reused some gags from Spite Marriage for A Night at the Opera, and as earlier noted, the ending of Go West is straight out of the Keaton playbook. Buster’s gag-work for Red Skelton is nevertheless better documented than his experiences with the Marxes. (Skelton himself was a rather grotesque figure, but that’s another story.)

  22. Rather ironic for Groucho to have made that crack, I thought. He and his brothers were finished at MGM only a couple of years later, whereas Buster was getting more work, up to getting a part in In The Good Old Summertime. The brothers always needed writers, insulting one wasn’t exactly bright, considering the best visual gags in their next movie came from that has-been, Keaton. Groucho may have been pals with Sid Perelman, but Sid wasn’t interested in writing for the Marxes anymore.

    Skelton, grotesque? The devil you say.

  23. Christopher Says:

    slapstick comedy faded out in the 1920s and talking pictures sealed its doom..verbal comedy and wisecracks were the order of the day..The Marx bros. probablly resented having to exert themselves to physical comedy when all they had to do before at Paramount was move about the studio at leisure and say what they want..

  24. I don’t know that’s so much the case – Groucho sounded a lot more witty with someone else writing the words, and physical gags (no matter how subtle) were still pretty important – W.C. Fields did a lot of them and so did Laurel and Hardy, for example. Harpo couldn’t do without them. Verbal gags were more important, but there are many instances of physical gags even in “prestige” comedies – the fly fishing scene from Libeled Lady is only one of many.

  25. Groucho was genuinely sharp, but he never wrote his own lines for movies and you can see the difference. And the kind of wit he used in real life and TV appearances was derived from the movie and stage writing. But he could be genuinely unpleasant, as the remark to Keaton shows. Maybe Keaton annoyed him by letting his displeasure with the brothers’ unprofessional behaviour be known?

    “You were lucky if you could get three Marx brothers in a room at once. Abbot and Costello would turn up at the studio and say ‘What’s the scene?’ Didn’t matter to them. Well, that used to get my goat, because when WE made pictures, by God we ate, slept and dreamt ’em.”

    Perelman wrote lots of articles on silent films which are funny but pretty sniffy and condescending to the medium. He might have regarded Keaton as a has-been, too.

    Maybe the only director in the 30s and 40s with a serious gift for visual comedy was George Stevens (but I’m probably forgetting someone). The others used the medium-shots that worked for verbal comedy and applied them to slapstick, which hurts the clarity and the required sense of distance. It took Tashlin and Tati to restore the right sense of shot size, something Lester, who knew his Keaton by heart, also managed.

    For whatever reason, Fields managed to make his visual gags read beautifully, and maybe Eddie Cline deserves some of the credit there.

    Keaton thought Skelton was a great visual comic, and wished he’d do more silent stuff. I just wish Skelton would shut up, period.

  26. Re: The question of Groucho’s wit, there is of course his great “You Bet Your Life” ad-lib (from memory so maybe a but wrong).
    GROUCHO: And do you have any children?
    WOMAN: I have nine.
    GROUCHO: Nine?!
    WOMAN: I love my husband very much.
    GROUCHO: I love my cigar, but even I take it out once in a while.

  27. There are screeds of those great bits, never transmitted, collected in various books. And his talk show appearances, as seen on YouTube, usually contain some snappy moments.
    Richard Lester directed him in an ad once. Groucho had to chase a girl down a hotel corridor, have the door shut in his face, say a line, light a cigar, say another line, and exit.
    Groucho began by saying he only did this kind of shit once, so Lester better catch it on camera.
    Action! Groucho enters, too late and from the wrong side. Can’t find his cigar. Gets the first line wrong. Can’t get his lighter to work. Gets the second line wrong. Exits in the wrong direction.
    To Lester: “Well, kid, I suppose you’re going to try to improve on perfection?”

  28. Skelton wasn’t as bad on television, IIRC (I was very young when his show ran), but I agree with you, in most films it’s really hard to tolerate him. He has a weird quality of being both sentimental and obnoxious at the same time.

    Groucho’s wit was more caustic and less sharp than what the writers gave him, if his letters are indicative. He did well on You Bet Your Life, his style of quips was suited for that format.

    Fields I’m more apt to credit his own abilities, but Cline may have shown him what would play with the film audience. Fields’ shorts show this pretty well. The Dentist seems to go too far with his misanthropic persona for the ’30s film audience (he’s mean to almost everyone in that), but a short like The Pharmacist had all the earmarks of his later films.

  29. Mark Evanier has some suitably grotesque anecdotes about Skelton at

    My favorite relates to Skelton’s TV show:

    ‘One time, Skelton told Jack Paar on The Tonight Show, “I don’t need writers. I just get on stage and God tells me what to do.”
    The next morning, Red received his script for the next taping. It consisted of one hundred blank sheets and a note that said, “Dear Red — Please have God fill in the pages. (Signed) Your Writers.’

  30. > Maybe the only director in the 30s
    > and 40s with a serious gift for visual
    > comedy was George Stevens (but
    > I’m probably forgetting someone)

    The first two names to come to mind are Gregory LaCava and Leo McCarey.

  31. I knew there’d be somebody! Although when I think of them it’s mainly verbal stuff. But the mirror sequence in Duck Soup allows McCarey into the pantheon all by itself.

    Incidentally, the DVD of that has sound effects I swear were never part of it originally. I loved the eerie silence of it when I saw it on TV as a kid.

  32. I wouldn’t be surprised by added sound effects. The Criterion of Fields’ shorts has The Dentist with cartoony sound effects that no PD version ever had, and from the sound of them, they date from the ’50s.

  33. Christopher Says:

    Feilds’s physical comedy was perfected on stage at a pace that would transfer well to talking picture film speed..Laurel and Hardy,George Stevens,Leo McCary all worked at Hal Roach at a time when film speeds had changed in the late 20s and perfected a kind of physical comedy..sometimes surreal type,that also worked well with sound film..

  34. McCarey’s Harold Lloyd talkie, The Milky Way, is excellent.

    The FX in Duck Soup are very quiet, as if they just felt the silence was oppressive and needed some very gentle relief. Which is dead wrong. It’s POSSIBLE that those effects were lurking amid all the audio hiss, but I really don’t hear them on my VHS.

  35. Christopher Says:

    I’ve never seen Duck Soup where the sound wasn’t dead quiet in the mirror for a quiet thud or shimmy here and there…

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