Directed by Sam Wood. Written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, from a story by James Kevin McGuinness. Produced by Irving Thalberg. Music by Hebert Stothart. Photographed by Merritt B. Gerstad. Edited by William LeVanaway. Art direction by Cedric Gibbons. Starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Walter Woolf King, Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont, Edward Keane, Robert Emmett O’Connor.
A Night at the Opera contains many of the elements that you’d expect to find in a Marx Brothers movie: one-liners, goofy slapstick, satire, and effervescent playfulness. But it also contains an uncommon sincerity that I think is quite welcome. The movie benefits from a finer polish that typically characterizes their work, and it adds a sweet, non-cynical focus that throws everything into sharp relief. The critical thinking usually states that too much of the mushy stuff dulls the edge of the Brothers, but I think it’s a nice change of pace. As they gently enable the sympathetic legs of a love triangle and battle legitimate financial ruin, it makes their shtick all the funnier, because there seem to be real stakes involved. It’s impossible to rank Marx Brothers movies, because they are all part of a collective whole, made out of free-range comedy bits. Nevertheless, out of all them? This is a good one.
Of course, if you’ve never seen a Marx Brothers movie, then you have no idea what I am talking about. That’s okay. In a Marx Brothers movie, characters frequently do not know what they’re talking about. The Marxes: Groucho, Harpo, Chico are one of the most influential comedy teams of all time, and they arrived in the 1920’s as a comic explosion: sarcastic, glib, unrefined, hilarious. Their usual targets? The upper classes, pomposity, pretension, social conventions, the cruel, the heartless, themselves, with the occasional stealth strikes at racism and sexual mores. They’re sometimes surreal, sometimes shockingly subversive, always brazenly anarchic, and only got more popular as they got cozier with their comic personas: Groucho, the above-it-all wisecracker; Chico, the uneducated schemer with a lot of heart; Harpo, the giddy, mute clown who obeys no rules (of society, common sense, physics…). They all operate on different societal levels (except for Harpo, who operates on no recognizable plane of reality), all occupying bulletproof little bubbles made up entirely out of their own personalities. When combined, their comic force is destructive to anything in their path. They’re unconventional, unpredictable, and deeply, deeply funny. If you have never seen a Marx Brothers movie, you have my blessing to start at A Night at the Opera. It will do nicely.
Shall I summarize the plot? To do so for a Marx movie is outright foolishness, but I will persevere: mainly because A Night at the Opera does a better show than most in plotting, but also because I am an outright fool. Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, business manager for a high-end New York opera house, hired by the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), who hopes to buy her way into high society with Driftwood’s help. At an Italian performance of Pagliacci, both Driftwood and his rival, Gottlieb, zero in on grabbing talent from the show for their own production of Il Travatore, and inadvertently align themselves with different men. Gottlieb gets Lasspari (Walter Woolf King), the conceited star, while Groucho ends up haggling with Fiorello (Chico) over the contract of Riccardo (Allan Jones), who is a major talent, but with minor respect. Lasspari pushes for the singer Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) to accompany him to New York, to be his star both onstage and off. But Rosa is in love with Riccardo, and before long they’re all passengers on a steamer ship to America, with Riccardo as a stowaway, along with Fiorello and his companion, Tomasso (Harpo). All of this is, of course, merely a clothesline to connect set pieces, and yet A Night at the Opera pays more attention to its narrative than a typical Marx Brothers movie. Note, for example, that it maintains the subplot of Groucho resenting the presence of the two interlopers Chico and Harpo; usually by the end of the first act, they’ve abandoned all pretense that these characters don’t know each other that well. (This will be the last time I’ll refer to the Brothers by their character names, because who really cares?)
I mentioned the comedy. There’s a lot of it, much of it falling into the recognizable tropes that populate a Marx Brothers film: scenes of Groucho insulting any stuffed shirt he can (including Dumont), and scenes of Harpo just being Harpo (like when he goes down the ship’s deck and kisses everyone, or when he uses smelling salts to wake up the unconscious Lasspari just so he can knock him out again). There are scenes of the impoverished Chico trying his hand at clever negotiation despite the unavoidable fact that he’s an idiot (“Can you live in New York on three dollars a week?”), and some moments that are just weird (like what Harpo finds in an airman’s lengthy beard). The movie is so generous that when it provides slapstick, it even makes it literal: Harpo gets into a sword fight with an orchestra string section, all of them using their bows as weapons. Chico, of course, plays the piano (he always does), and small moments depend entirely upon the interplay to succeed. One of the biggest laughs comes when the brothers eat breakfast, and the goatish Harpo makes a sandwich out of his glassware and saucers. He offers it to Chico, who waves him away and barely seems to think about his offhand response: “I don’t like cupcakes.” Ba-dum-bum. It’s not the joke itself, so much, it’s the way the constant rapport is so practiced at being so casual. Marx Brothers films thrive on the speed and skill at which the actors bounce off each other, and this one hums with a rare electricity.
And then there’s the stateroom scene. Groucho, assigned a thimble-sized cabin on the steamship, opens his trunk to find Riccardo, Harpo and Chico stowed inside, hungry. Groucho orders some food for them to an in incredulous steward. Before long, a parade of people enter the stateroom to perform services. First two cleaning ladies. Then, a manicurist. And the engineer, the engineer’s assistant, a maid, four waiters, and a poor girl trying to find her lost aunt by using the phone. Finally, when Mrs. Claypool opens the door, everyone spills out into the hall. What makes this sequence so funny, juggling a total of fifteen people in a tiny room, is its mastery of traffic direction, and the utter conviction of all involved that this makes perfect logical sense, as they crawl about a static frame, jumping on beds, hooking onto pipes, shimmying over the trunk. No one ever seems to be winking, not even Groucho, who treats this as an amusing annoyance, and not a physical impossibility. It’s a comic principle in action: people are funniest when they aren’t trying to be funny. It comes so early that the film itself has trouble topping it; a later sequence of the gang shuffling beds around a hotel suite to avoid a detective (Robert Emmett O’Connor) is ordinary in comparison.
The comedy is terrific, but it’s also built from a very real place: the threat of poverty is a constant runner throughout A Night at the Opera, and one of the surprises is the way it takes such an ordeal relatively seriously, while still finding the funny. Most of the Brothers’ films involve storylines where most (if not all) of them, are poor, but this one lingers on Harpo’s face when, finding his way in a food line, his plate his piled high with apples and spaghetti. Harpo and Chico, indeed, are so eager to receive food that at one point they trade identical sausages, just to simulate the experience. They latch onto Groucho, who is also going through his share of money problems, having overdrawn six times his monthly salary, and frequently connives to escape from such trivial things as paying his bills. In an uncommon move for a Marx Brothers movie, Groucho is not at all immune from the pressures that his co-stars face (usually he’s above everything). Late in the film, he’s punished for associating with known criminals by being fired, and as he sits destitute in the park with his companions, there is real resonance as the camera focuses on a tableau that in America was becoming more and more common. Made in 1935, the ongoing Depression was obviously on the minds of everyone involved, and that respect towards the down-and-out (i.e. much of the country) informs a good deal of the picture, and escalates the comedy, because it feels born out of a desire to escape that feels real.
As for the love story, it’s only fitting, as this is a film that makes liberal use of Italian opera. Tellingly, the love does not involve the brothers, and with good cause: that would be deadly. But the Rosa/Ricardo story is sweet, if unremarkable, and is bolstered by the ways that the Marxes, in their own way, instinctively feel for the separated lovers: carrying messages, helping them to broker contract disputes, and by the end there’s an elaborate chase sequence high above the stage, as Harpo swings from ropes in the name of humiliating the vain Lasspari, and putting the more deserving Rosa and Ricardo onstage. Instead of being typically scattershot, the brothers, even at their lowest point, seem driven towards a shared goal of righting wrongs, and the result is a tighter plot that actually creates catharsis by the ending (something they usually did not go for). Yes, the romance sequences maybe run a little too long, but you know what? That’s okay. And the songs, for what they are, are fine. Although, to be honest, when the love story isn’t the focus, Ricardo does seem to fade into the background a bit (I’m not sure in the second half of the movie he gets more than three lines).
Now who has the hardest job in a Marx Brothers movie? Easy. Margaret Dumont. In every single one, she has to stand around as Groucho does his schtick, putting up with his insults, spouting lines that are meant to either unload exposition or carry the plot, trying to make this unlikely character work, despite it all (she is able to make the audience avoid asking the question of why such a woman would endure Groucho). She has to act scandalized, and plays characters with no sense of humor. To truly appreciate how thankless such a role can be, study the early scenes, as Groucho conveys an endless barrage of put-downs and social faux pas, and she somehow manages to chuckle and cast such issues aside in order to keep the plot moving. But in A Night at the Opera she’s no pushover: when Groucho is ousted from society, even Dumont wants nothing more to do with him (and that’s never fixed). She’s an inspired straight man, given that much more dignity here.
And then there are the Brothers themselves. The Groucho personality is structured out of countless zingers, and I love the way his overall look (his greasepaint mustache, the bushy hair and the goofy glasses) help to sell his image: everything about him seems improvised, with no self-consciousness. That comes through even in his speech patterns: the way he circles back to find new avenues of conversation after old ones prove unyielding, the way he’ll tell a joke that doesn’t work and then smirks at himself for doing so, or how he talks fast, very fast, unconcerned about any audience, not caring if he’s too fast for them (sometimes he’s even too fast for the camera; notice the “seamless” jump cuts throughout). The man was like a jazz musician for words, always ready for improvisation, always a virtuoso. His character is complete, even when it veers into caricature, punctuated by those wonderful little moments when he glares at someone just for being a fool (often Chico). He’s a comedy legend for a reason.
Chico is smarter than he looks, but not as smart as he thinks he is, and much mileage is gotten out of his inability to understand the finer details (like in the classic “party of the first part” contract dispute). But he’s clever in all the right places. And Harpo’s energy is infectuous: his goofy grin, his behavior that only obeys his own rules, his delight at pulling things out of his pants (except the one thing, of course, that the censors would most disapprove of). All three of them, at every turn, communicate an impenetrable sense of fun, at how damned great it is to make people laugh. And in an illustration of the fine comedic inevitability on display, the never-talkative Harpo eventually finds himself forced in front of, of course, a huge bank of microphones. How does he get out of this? I’ll never tell.
Why is A Night at the Opera great? It’s great because it is fun, and endlessly inventive. I know some may consider it dated, but throughout the works of the Marx Brothers, there is a singular effort on display to make people forget about their woes, to lighten their burden, to puncture the egotistical and hold high the common man, and that never goes out of style. It’s such a beautiful high-wire act, done so fearlessly. They tried anything, they achieved everything. To watch A Night at the Opera (or any of the other films) is to start with a frown and end with a smile so big it could match only Harpo’s. I would never stoop to such a cliché as to suggest that by the ending, the movie brings the house down. Except, you know what? It kinda does just that, literally. Pretty fitting, if you ask me.
NEXT TIME PERIOD: 2000 – Memento
PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 2000 – The Patriot