Groucho Marx’s Correspondence With Warner Brothers
Legend has it that Warner Brothers threatened to sue the Marx Brothers over the use of the word “Casablanca” in their forthcoming film A Night In Casablanca. In reality, they never threatened to sue, but Warner really did inquire about the film to find out whether or not their copyrights were being violated. Groucho Marx later admitted to exaggerating the story with his reply as a publicity stunt.
Warner wrote back, pushing for plot details about the film, but Groucho’s responses continued to be crazy and jocular, and eventually Warner gave up.
The full text of Groucho’s first letter, excerpts of his subsequent replies, and his later confession, are reprinted below.
The Original Letter
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 after our announcement appeared that we received your long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name Casablanca.
It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, your great-great-grandfather, while looking for a shortcut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock (which he later turned in for a hundred shares of common), named it Casablanca.
I just donâ€™t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I donâ€™t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.
You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without permission. What about â€œWarner Brothersâ€? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name 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 inventorâ€™s eye, and even before there had been other brothersâ€”the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; and â€œBrother, Can You Spare a Dime?â€ (This was originally â€œBrothers, Can You Spare a Dime?â€ 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 â€œBrother, Can You Spare a Dime?â€)
Now Jack, how about you? Do you maintain that yours is an original name? Well itâ€™s not. It was used long before you were born. Offhand, I can think of two Jacksâ€”Jack of â€œJack and the Beanstalk,â€ and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.
As for you, Harry, you probably sign your checks sure in the belief that you are the first Harry of all time and that all other Harrys are impostors. I can think of two Harrys that preceded you. There was Lighthouse Harry of Revolutionary fame and a Harry Appelbaum who lived on the corner of 93rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Unfortunately, Appelbaum wasnâ€™t too well-known. The last I heard of him, he was selling neckties at Weber and Heilbroner.
Now about the Burbank studio. I believe this is what you brothers call your place. Old man Burbank is gone. Perhaps you remember him. He was a great man in a garden. His wife often said Luther had ten green thumbs. What a witty woman she must have been! Burbank was the wizard who crossed all those fruits and vegetables until he had the poor plants in such confused and jittery condition that they could never decide whether to enter the dining room on the meat platter or the dessert dish.
This is pure conjecture, of course, but who knowsâ€”perhaps Burbankâ€™s survivors arenâ€™t too happy with the fact that a plant that grinds out pictures on a quota settled in their town, appropriated Burbankâ€™s name and uses it as a front for their films. It is even possible that the Burbank family is prouder of the potato produced by the old man than they are of the fact that your studio emerged â€œCasablancaâ€ or even â€œGold Diggers of 1931.â€
This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you itâ€™s not meant to. I love Warners. Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers. It is even possible that I am doing you an injustice and that you, yourselves, know nothing about this dog-in-the-Wanger attitude. It wouldnâ€™t surprise me at all to discover that the heads of your legal department are unaware of this absurd dispute, for I am acquainted with many of them and they are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits and a love of their fellow man that out-Saroyans Saroyan.
I have a hunch that his attempt to prevent us from using the title is the brainchild of some ferret-faced shyster, serving a brief apprenticeship in your legal department. I know the type wellâ€”hot out of law school, hungry for success, and too ambitious to follow the natural laws of promotion. This bar sinister probably needled your attorneys, most of whom are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits, etc., into attempting to enjoin us. Well, he wonâ€™t get away with it! Weâ€™ll fight him to the highest court! No pasty-faced legal adventurer is going to cause bad blood between the Warners and the Marxes. We are all brothers under the skin, and weâ€™ll remain friends till the last reel of â€œA Night in Casablancaâ€ goes tumbling over the spool.
Excerpt From a Subsequent Letter
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.
Excerpt From Another Subsequent Letter
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.
Groucho Marx’s Later Confession
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.