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A Night in Casablanca

Claim:   Warner Bros. threatened to sue the Marx Brothers over the title of the comedy group's film, A Night in Casablanca.

FALSE

Origins:   When Groucho, Chico, and Harpo emerged from semi-retirement in 1945 to create the last real Marx Brothers movie, a spoof of spy/intrigue dramas titled A Night in Casablanca (all three subsequently appeared in 1950's Love Happy, but that film was primarily a Harpo Marx vehicle in which his brothers had supporting roles rather than a Groucho true Marx Brothers film), the stage was set for one of the twentieth century's most celebrated epistolary exchanges. The ensuing fusillade of letters between a fractious Groucho and the befuddled legal department at Warner Bros. has since become a classic of the personal correspondence genre, but the battlefield wasn't quite as level as legend would have it.

What the public heard was that the Marx Brothers' film was to be called A Night in Casablanca, and that the humorless heads of Warner Bros., aghast at the thought that one of their fine films (the 1942 Humphrey Bogart classic, Casablanca) might somehow be associated with a lowbrow, similarly-titled Marx Brothers vehicle, decided to launch a pre-emptive strike by claiming ownership of the word 'Casablanca' (for movie title purposes, at least), and threatening to sue the Marxes if they persisted in using it. What the public saw was a series of letters in which a typically sarcastic, freely associating Groucho deftly skewered the Warners' alleged pretentiousness and arrogance, the first missive of which read (in part):
Dear Warner Brothers:

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 ago after our announcement appeared that we received your long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name Casablanca.

You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about "Warner Brothers"? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about 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 us 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 — there was Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk," and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.
What the public didn't hear was that in its original conception, A Night in Casablanca was intended to be a send-up of Warners' Casablanca, complete with characters bearing names such as "Humphrey Bogus." Warner Bros., having gotten wind of the Marx Brothers' plan, was legitimately concerned that a spoof of one of its films, featuring characters with names similar to those who appeared in the original, and bearing a similar title, might indeed confuse the public or otherwise infringe Warners' intellectual rights. Accordingly, its legal department made some rumbling noises and demanded to know the details about the story line of the Marxes' upcoming film, which prompted some even more bizarre responses from Groucho:
Dear Warners:

There isn't much I can tell you about the story. In it I play a Doctor of Divinity who ministers to the natives and, as a sideline, hawks can openers and pea jackets to the savages along the gold Coast of Africa.

When I first meet Chico, he is working in a saloon, selling sponges to barflies who are unable to carry their liquor. Harpo is an Arabian caddie who lives in a small Grecian urn on the outskirts of the city.
 

Dear Brothers:

Since I last wrote you, I regret to say there have been some changes in the plot of our new picture, "A Night in Casablanca." In the new version I play Bordello, the sweetheart of Humphrey Bogart. Harpo and Chico are itinerant rug peddlers who are weary of laying rugs and enter a monastery just for a lark. This is a good joke on them, as there hasn't been a lark in the place for fifteen years.
The public also didn't hear that the claim Warner Bros. was threatening to sue the Marx Brothers simply for using the word 'Casablanca' was purely a publicity stunt concocted by the Marxes themselves, who leaked the story to select columnists as a means of generating controversy and garnering some newspaper coverage for their film. When the Marxes' family physician, Dr. Samuel Salinger, wrote to Groucho and mentioned he'd heard Warner Bros. was barring them from using the title A Night in Casablanca, Groucho replied to him thusly:
We spread the story that Warners objected to this title purely for publicity reasons. They may eventually actually object to it, although I don't think so. Not being the giant legal mind that you are, I wouldn't venture a decisive opinion but my hunch is that any court would throw out such a case as an absurd one. It seems to me that no one can forbid one from using the name of a city. There have been a number of pictures with Paris, Burma, Tokyo, etc. etc. used in the title. At any rate, the publicity has been wonderful on it and it was a happy idea. I wish they would sue, but as it is, we've had reams in the paper.
What eventually happened was not that Warner Bros. sued the Marxes, but that it finally gave up in exasperation before being able to glean any details about A Night in Casablanca, and the matter was dropped when the Marx Brothers movie turned into a general spoof of Casablanca-like films rather than a parody of Casablanca itself. By then, however, the Marxes had succeeded in making Warner Bros. look like humorless fools while generating plenty of free publicity for their own film, and the fact that the controversy was a deliberately manufactured one will undoubtedly always remain a secondary detail.

Last updated:   24 November 2011

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Sources:

    Kanfer, Stephen.   Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx.
    New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.   ISBN 0-375-40218-7   (pp. 279-283).

    Marx, Groucho.   Groucho Letters.
    New York: Fireside Books, 1967.   ISBN 0-671-63963-3   (pp. 13-18).