A Night at the Opera

Given its masterpiece status now, it’s hard to imagine that 1933’s Duck Soup was such a massive flop that it nearly resulted in the downfall of The Marx Brothers’ film career. For those who have even the least appreciation for the films that followed, we largely have Irving Thalberg to thank for that. Thalberg was one of the legendary producers for MGM, nicknamed “Boy Wonder” for his youth and unprecedented success at such an early age. Thalberg saw great potential in the Marx’s, but felt that their failure was in their inability to put their brand of wacky, almost absurdist comedy into a more accessible framework. His theory was to put the Marx’s in a film that was anchored by a traditional love story, so that their comedy could act as punctuation marks rather than as one run-on sentence that would dominate the entire film.

The first result of Thalberg’s theory was A Night at the Opera, a film that has fiercely divided Marx fans who prefer “Marx Only” movies and those who do find that the Marx’s did indeed benefit from more story and structure. The story is rather simple and involves an opera troupe that consists of Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), Ricardo (Allan Jones), and Lassparri (Walter Woolf King). Rosa and Ricardo are in love, but ruthless opera producer Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) is focusing his attention on making the pretentious Lassparri its star when they come to America. Margaret Dumont plays the clasic “foil” to the brothers, here in the form of Mrs. Claypool, a wealthy heiress who is helping to fund the opera season. Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, the “business manager” of Mrs. Claypool, while Chico is Fiorello, the bumbling agent of Ricardo and Harpo is Tomasso, the ever silent assistant (soon ex-assistant) of Lassparri.

Having seen both Horse Feathers and Duck Soup prior to A Night at the Opera, while I can sympathize with those who prefer the “Marx Only” movies, I can’t help but think that Thalberg was right when he said they needed more structure to work in film. A Night at the Opera certainly provides that structure, though the film still fails to perfectly stitch the romance story together with the Marx’s anarchic brand of comedy. The result is a film that, like most operas, seems separated by the story-driven recitatives of the Rosa/Ricardo/Lasspari/Gottlieb plot and the comedic set-piece “arias” of the Marx Brothers. The result is a film that’s a bit of a structural, narrative mess, but when it works it works so stupendously it’s hard not to forgive any structural/narrative flaws and transgressions.

While it may be difficult to really find sympathy for the romantic storyline, it’s simply too bland to provoke much interest, it is helped by the fact that both Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones have a natural likeability and charm about them. Both were trained opera singers, and Carlisle in an interview on the DVD even tells the story about how she halted production when she discovered they had planned to dub over her singing voice. After Thalberg and co. relented, the result is a film in which Carlisle actually does get to sing and showcase her voice, primarily on the hit song Alone (music by Nacio Herb Brown and lyrics by Arthur Free) which she sings with Allan Jones and during the finale during a production of Verdi’s Il Trovotore.

But of course, everyone is here to see the inimitable comedy of The Marx’s, and they certainly don’t disappoint. A Night at the Opera surely contains some of their finest work, including the “contract” scene between Groucho and Chico which finds both ripping through a contract because neither likes the “party of the first part” language, concluding with the wonderful “there ain’t no Sanity Clause” joke. But the film features two marvelous physical set-pieces; the first being when the brothers try to cram themselves into a tiny room on board a ship that keeps getting fuller and fuller as a cavalcade of people—including a manicurist, two maids, a janitor, a lost girl, a plumber, and four servers—all begin to pile into the room. The joke becomes increasingly funnier and absurd with every entry, and is certainly one of those great pieces of screen comedy that must be seen to be believed.

But Thalberg, the writers, and the Marx’s certainly save the best for last as they find themselves at the opera itself during the season’s debut at a production of Verdi’s Il Trovotore. Since Groucho has been fired, and Chico and Harpo have stowed away, all are being hunted by the police and Gottlieb. The climax comes with the Marx’s attempting to evade capture by the police whom themselves are conscious of not disturbing the production of the opera taking place. The Marx’s, of course, have no reservations about disturbing the opera, and events like substituting the score for Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and Harpo’s near superhero or Tarzan-like chase through the opera house’s rafters is genuinely thrilling, and downright hilarious.

For a film that lampoons the opera, it’s only appropriate that it would be one of the Marx’s most musical films. Both Chico and Harpo were self-taught musicians, with Harp even getting his nickname for his love of the harp. They especially get to show off their skills on a boat as they make their way to the lower class section. While Allan Jones’ “Cosi Cosa” is an embarrassing failure, especially because MGM’s penchant for grand musical numbers and choreography seems terribly out of place, Chico’s idiosyncratic piano playing, Harpo’s subsequent piano playing and mesmerizing harp playing are as charming as anything you’re likely to find in the history of film comedy this side of Charlie Chaplin.

One of the wonderful things about the Marx’s was their ability to poke fun at the establishment while still reveling in the positive aspects of those establishments as well. Here, they certainly take turns ripping into the most pretentious aspects of opera and the people involved, but, at the same time, they also celebrate music on a fundamental level, and even opera itself when it’s performed by real and humble talent. But, above all else, A Night at the Opera is utterly spellbinding comedy. It’s The Golden Age of Hollywood at its best, back when producers cared about making high quality products that would have appeal but also a high degree of artistry as well. It strikes a wonderful balance between the period’s highly formally structured works and the Marx’s chaotic nature.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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