Marx Brothers Letter Analysis

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The Warner Brothers’ seminal film Casablanca, starring cultural icon Humphrey Bogart, was released in 1942 and went on to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. Four years later, the Marx Brothers, an American vaudeville act, released the farcical A Night in Casablanca. Though the only ostensible similarity between these two films are the word “Casablanca”, the two studios that produced them found themselves entangled in a labyrinthine controversy over this single word, as Warner Brothers believed the titles to be too similar and subsequently forbade the Marx Brothers from including the word “Casablanca”. In his letter to the Warner Brothers, Groucho Marx’s satirical style helps him leverage his argument in favor of the Marx Brothers being allowed to use “Casablanca” in their film title.

Marx introduces his letter with a sarcastic expression of misunderstanding as he begins to enumerate the logical fallacies of the Warner Bros’ argument. The very first line of the letter opens with the scornful statement that “apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city,” which serves to compare the pretentious claims on the part of the Warner Bros. to the imperialistic actions of crusaders that subjugated entire territories on the notion that it was theirs for the taking. This statement highlights and mocks the Warner Bros.’ likely belief that, since no film prior to theirs had been set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca and had used that as their title, they have exclusive rights to the name. Marx then goes on to derisively make his aforementioned misunderstanding known when he states that he “had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers,” and claims that he only came to the realization that was so when he “received a long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name”. In this manner, Marx gives a strong introduction for the main topic and purpose of his letter and mockingly points out a gaping hole in the Warner Bros.’ argument: what gave the Warner Bros. rights to the name Casablanca, so much that they feel they have the jurisdiction to make a legal claim to it? Marx ridicules this exact notion in the next paragraph by depicting Ferdinand Balboa Warner, conveniently the name of a real explorer, “[stumbling] on the shores of Africa and… [naming] it Casablanca”. Here, Marx facetiously conjures up an image of the Warner Bros.’ ancestor staking an imperialistic claim to the literal city of Casablanca, and further compares the company’s actions to those of a medieval explorer. Through his clever use of sarcasm, Marx blows holes through the Warner Bros.’ argument to strengthen his own stance.

Marx continues on in his letter by turning the tables on the Warner Bros. by using their own reasoning against them in a teasing manner to question their claim to their own names. In traditionally absurdist Marx Brothers fashion, he remarks that “[they] were touring the sticks as the Marx Brothers when Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor’s eye,” referring to the Warner Bros.’ patented process for adding sound to film. This toyingly suggests that the Warner Bros. have no right to use the name “Brothers” since the Marxes have already beaten them to it, which parodies the claim that the Warner Bros. have beaten the Marx Brothers to the name Casablanca and thus have no right to it. Marx continues with this jibe by listing more historical brothers, such as “the Smith Brothers [and] the Brothers Karamazov”, and throws in a couple of puns with his mention of “Dan Brouthers, an outfielder with Detroit, and ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime’”. While the first two are actual brothers, the last two are riffs on varying interpretations of the word “brothers” and their outward impertinence to the argument can be seen as Marx overtly taunting the irrationality of the Warner Bros.’ claim. Marx then directs his attention to the Warner Brothers themselves and takes a jocose stab at their own names; for Jack Warner, he cites “Jack of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and Jack the Ripper” as two earlier examples of famous Jacks. As for Harry Warner, he makes reference to “Lighthorse Harry”, an early American Patriot and notable revolutionary, and “Harry Appelbaum… [who] wasn’t too well- known [and sold] neckties at Weber and Heilbroner”. These contrasting examples of both noteworthy and obscure Jacks and Harrys serve to make the argument more personal; while Marx opens the letter by addressing the Warner Brothers, he now speaks to each brother directly. This shift makes the discourse of the letter more one-on-one and levels the field between them, which appeals to the personal bond between the Marx Brothers and the Warner Brothers and helps convince Warner Bros. to drop the case. Throughout the main body of his letter, Marx turns the Warner Brothers’ own backwards reasoning against them to mock their rights to their own names.

Marx’s ongoing, sardonic examination of the Warner Bros.’ naming rights culminates with his questioning the legitimacy of their Burbank studio’s title. Marx accuses Warner Bros. of having “appropriated Burbank’s name and [using] it as a front for their films,” alluding to the botanist Luther Burbank that invented the Idaho potato, even though Burbank, California was named for the dentist David Burbank. The word “appropriated” highlights the continued notion of the Warner Bros. as an imperialistic caricature that seizes anything they perceive to be of value for their own use. This contrasts with the previous line of reasoning that simply used an earlier example of a name as refutation of the Warner Bros.’ claim to it, and instead makes a direct reference to their framed expropriation of this botanist’s name to smear the company’s reputation. Marx then goes on to suggest that “the Burbank family is prouder of the potato produced by the old man than they are of the fact that [Warner Bros.] emerged ‘Casablanca’ or even ‘Gold Diggers of 1931,’” which mockingly compares the value of two of Warner Bros.’ most successful films to that of a root vegetable. By doing this, Marx openly denigrates the Warner Bros.’ status as one of the foremost film companies of the century in a final joust at the Brothers for their actions. In a strong finish of his attack on the Warner Brothers, Marx taunts the validity of their studio’s names with some misplaced historical context.

After laying out his argument against the Warner Brothers’ legal action for the rights to the word “Casablanca” and resting his case, Marx softens his tone to strengthen his claim that Warner Bros. should drop their suit. He employs a double pun when he suggests the Warner Bros. may “know nothing about this dog-in-the-Wanger attitude”, which refers to the Dog-in- the-Manger fable about a dog that refused to eat grain in a manger but forbade the other animals from eating it either, as well as to Walter Wanger, a film producer that worked with the Marx Brothers. The fable Marx mentions is used to speak of one who spitefully prevents others from having something for which they have no use, and demonstrates the fact that Warner Bros. have no real rationale behind their desire to hold claim over usage of the word “Casablanca”, and that it would be beneficial to others, namely the Marx Brothers, if they would relinquish control over it. This lighter tone is more relaxed, and lends itself more to convincing the Warner Brothers to drop their case by gently reminding them of the positive implications of such an action. Marx concludes his letter with a definitive statement that “we are all brothers under the skin,” which serves to reinforce the bond between these two prominent filmmaker families. It plays on the previously humorous interpretation of the word “brothers” in regards to their companies’ names and acts as a final attempt by Marx to demonstrate the common ground between them as a reason for the Warner Bros. to cease pursuing legal action and allow the Marx Brothers use of the word “Casablanca” in their film title. Confident in the logic behind his defense, Marx concludes his letter with a more relaxed tone that is meant to highlight the commonality between the two film companies.

In his written response to the Warner Brothers’ prohibiting the use of the word “Casablanca” in his film title, Groucho Marx employs a biting, satirical style to expose the logical fallacies in their argument and to leverage his own claim that the Marx Brothers should be allowed to name their film A Night in Casablanca. Marx underscored the ridiculousness of the Warner Brothers’ claim in this letter and the two more that followed it by countering with his own outlandish suggestions that mocked the irrationality of the original feud. Through his deft use of humor and his sparse use of logic, Marx soon wore down the Warner Brothers and won the usage rights of “Casablanca”.

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