A Night At The Opera

Dir: Sam Wood, 1935. Starring: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones. Classics.
A Night At The Opera

The Marx Brothers - Groucho, Chico, and Harpo - were actual brothers (their early stage act included another brother, Gummo, and in a couple early films he was replaced by Zeppo). Going from Vaudeville to Broadway then to the big screen, the Marx Brothers were a completely original act. Their formula, which is still in use today, was the classic snobs vs. the slobs, but what really made them memorable was the mix of smartass one-liners (from Groucho and Chico) and fantastic physical comedy (usually associated with the mute Harpo). After a half dozen films that progressively got better they really hit their stride with Duck Soup in 1933 and then made their true masterpiece with their next film, A Night At The Opera, a perfectly subversive film and still one of the funniest screen comedies of all time.

Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, a con man working the Opera scene in Italy. He is hired by the clueless widow, Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), to help her break into proper society. Meanwhile the egomaniacal star of the opera, Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), abuses his dresser (Harpo) and sexually harasses the company’s young ingénue, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), who is in love with the less successful, but equally talented tenor, Riccardo (Allan Jones, playing the Zeppo, straight man role). Riccardo is managed by Fiorello (Chico) who hustles Otis into signing him to a contract. As the opera company sets sail to New York the three Marx Brothers follow it in order to help the young lovers reunite, make some cash, and bring down the arrogant Lassparri.

In New York the Brothers are now on the run from the cops (Chico and Harpo were stowaways while Groucho aided and abetted). Eventually they cause mayhem at the opening night of the opera - though much smaller in scope, the idea is the inspiration behind the much bigger carnage in a film like National Lampoon’s Animal House. The snobs try to have their carefully planned events and the Marx Brothers break every rule to make fun of the opera’s rituals. They also brilliantly break the rules of physics like when cornered Harpo runs straight up a curtain.

The final opera scene is an amazing piece of lunacy, but it’s not the only one. Groucho and Chico  double-talking each other while negotiating Riccardo’s contract is a great moment of verbal sparring: “That's what they call a sanity clause.” “You can’t fool me, there ain’t no Sanity Clause.” The scene where the cop, Henderson (Robert Emmett O'Connor), chases them around the apartment is some brilliant comedy. And of course the most famous, still legendary scene in the stateroom, where Groucho manages to fit about a dozen and a half random people, including porters, maids, manicurists, and a sleeping Harpo into his tiny ship cabin. The scene is one of the all-time greats; it’s been copied and paid tribute to many times since.

Unlike many of their earlier films which had too many musical numbers (without the Bros in them), A Night At The Opera gets the ratio right. It also helps that, strangely, the opera music holds up much better today than say, the love ballads Irving Berlin composed for The Coconuts. But if worse comes to worst, the magic of DVD means you can forward through some of Riccardo and Rosa’s numbers, however you don’t want to miss any of The Marx Brothers asides during the final opera numbers. Another musical scene not to be skipped is when two of the Brothers show their own amazing musical chops, Chico on the piano and Harpo on the Harp, in the lower dregs of the ship. These two guys could have been successful concert musicians had comedy not worked out.

Besides moving their act from Paramount Pictures to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, A Night At The Opera also brought a slight stylistic change to the Marxs. They really honed their subversive attitudes, instead of being hostile to “everyone” they became more disruptive to the upper class. It became class warfare, another comic trait the Bros perfected and has been massively imitated. You can see it later in most of The Three Stooges shorts; they were usually trying to help either themselves or someone on the lower end of the social scale, while this was the thesis behind almost all of Charlie Chaplin’s work. However the Marx Brothers' goals were not improving society, it was usually just a need for anarchy, plain and simple.

The other interesting thing about The Marx Brothers' style in A Night At The Opera is that the Marxs are never behind the joke, they were ahead of it. As opposed to Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello (or even The Three Stooges), the Brothers are the smartest guys in the room, not the slowest. The joke isn’t on how dumb they are, it’s how dumb they make everyone else look. Also unlike most of the other great comedy teams, The Marxs generally don’t abuse each other (unless it’s a part of a verbal hustle), they save their main aggression for everyone else. Where Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges were much more about the physical comedy, the Marxs combine their three different physical personas with that sharp verbal wit. Back in the day only WC Fields could rival The Marx Brothers for that amazing combination of physical and verbal.

Amazingly The Marx Brothers' comedy still holds up three-fourths of a century later. Any fan of current comedy stars from Will Farrell to Sasha Baron Cohen to The Office can find much of the comic origins in The Marx Brothers. For new fans A Night At The Opera is the perfect introduction to the genius of The Marx Brothers. Then move on to Duck Soup and then work your way forward and backward in their catalog. Next you will be ready to navigate the entire origin of film comedy catalog: Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and Fields, then move on to Bob Hope and early Woody Allen. If you’re feeling like A Night At The Opera is dated, look and listen closer, in its day it was considered crude, crass, and even offensive by many. Inventing a genre was a scary thing for much of the masses who watched it play out in front of them. So next time you’re watching some slapped together Adam Sandler junk, remember it’s been done before and even done better.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 25, 2011 3:04pm
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