A Night at the Opera

A Night at the OperaSynopsis: Arts patron Mrs. Claypool intends to pay pompous opera star Lassparri $1,000 per performance. Hey, maybe that’s why they call it grand opera!

Grand comedy, too, as Groucho, Chico and Harpo cram a ship’s stateroom and more with wall-to-wall gags, one-liners, musical riffs and two hard-boiled eggs – all while skewering Lassparri’s schemes and helping two young hopefuls (Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones) get a break. To save the opera, our heroes must first destroy it. And they must also gain ocean passage as stowaways, pull the wool (if not the beards) over the eyes of City Hall, shred legal mumbo-jumbo into a Sanity Clause, pester dowager Claypool (Margaret Dumont) and unleash so much glee that many say this is the best Marx Brothers movie. Seeing is believing.

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A Night at the Opera 7.75

eyelights: The Marx Brothers. the scope of the production. the elaborate musical and stunt acts.
eyesores: the conventional plot.

“And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor.”

‘A Night at the Opera’ is The Marx Brothers’ first movie with MGM and their first without Zeppo. It was a box office hit in 1935, released nearly two years to the day after their last effort, ‘Duck Soup‘, and, with the latter, is considered one of the brothers’ greatest pictures.

It follows the escapades of Otis Driftwood (Groucho), Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo) as they make their way through the opera world – the former as a financial adviser for a rich patron of the arts, the next as the manager of an up-and-coming singer and the latter as an assistant.

What is immediately apparent when one compares this production is that it is a superior film on all counts to the pictures the Marxes used to make with Paramount: the photography is better, its scale is massive, the writing is solid, and even the performances are an improvement.

Beyond that, the character types that the brothers had developed on stage and film were modified and the humour was sparser; gone was the anarchic and ferociously zany humour that they had built their career on. This time, they aimed to be more accessible, to have a broader appeal.

‘A Night at the Opera’ was a whole new type of Marx Brothers film.

When it was first released, some fans felt letdown by this new direction, but it appealed greatly to the general masses, becoming a wild success and setting the stage for the rest of their career. Future films would be built on the same elements that made them more widely appealing.

Maybe I’m exactly the kind of public they were aiming for, but I much preferred this picture to the others. Granted, I like the wild energy of the originals, but the films were sloppy as all get out and it was hard to get over that. ‘A Night at the Opera’ is, all in all, just a really good movie.

And I quite like that the characters were redesigned for this outing. I love that Chico isn’t nearly as dopey as he used to be; he has difficulty understanding but he’s not entirely deficient. And I much prefer Chico reigned in some; he’s still goofy but he fits the picture and isn’t grating.

Still, it’s quite clear by this point that although it’s billed as a Marx Brothers picture, it’s really The Groucho Marx Show: he has by far the most screen time, he’s the funniest, and is the most relatable (even if it’s a stretch). More than ever, Chico and Harpo are relegated to secondary parts.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Groucho’s fast-talking opening routine with Ms. Claypool, which is corny and punny, but also quite witty.
  • Groucho’s nonchalant ride atop his luggage while boarding the ocean liner. It looks like he’s having a blast.
  • The classic routine in his puny cabin, where he finds that he has just enough room for the bed and his luggage, but manages to squeeze in. Then finds two stowaways (Chico and Harpo, naturellement) and decides to invite just about everyone in, until 15 people are crammed into a space the size of a walk-in closet. It’s so absurd, hopelessly ridiculous and totally hilarious. His wicked insouciance when he decides to invite people in is too much.

There’s also a two-room routine, just as in ‘The Cocoanuts‘, but in which a police chief is trying to catch the stowaways. They not only evade him by going through the adjoining door and/or the balcony but wind up playing with him by moving the furniture around in the process. It’s quite contrived, but it’s amusing anyway.

And there’s the ending, which takes place during an opera performance and which is disturbed by Chico and Harpo as they’re chased around while Groucho comments. It may not seem like much, but the scale of the scene leaves your mouth dangling, with set backdrops constantly changing and some impressive highwire/rope work (it is said that Chico did many of his own stunts, which is jaw-dropping to think of when you see how dangerous it was).

For all the quality of this picture, though, there’s still one major anomaly, and it’s an opera piece that has Chico and Harpo as accompaniment, even though the actual music is an orchestra, not piano and harp; it looks discrepant. Still, it turns into an elaborate musical number complete with dozens of dancers, so it has its saving grace.

So far, ‘A Night at the Opera’ is my favourite of the Marx Brothers pictures, in a long line of pictures that all have their moments. It’s not as funny as some of their earlier efforts, but it’s a far superior picture on all counts than any of them. I’m very sure that I will return to it frequently in the future, and I recommend seeing it.

Date of viewing: June 6, 2015

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