A Night at the Opera, 1935.
Directed by Sam Wood.
Starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman.
The Marx Brothers make fools of high society’s opera lovers, and try to help their two friends-in-love along the way.
Groucho always gets the most ridiculously stately names. Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding from Animal Crackers, for example, or Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff from Horse Feathers. Mr Otis B. Driftwood is his character in A Night at the Opera. He’s still Groucho, though. He’s always Groucho.
Groucho acts as an advisor of sorts to Mrs Claypool (Margaret Dumont, of course). She’s trying to break into high society and solicits Groucho’s help. Why, we have no idea. This is a Marx Brothers film. Logic and rationality are the enemies.
He chooses the opera as their way up society’s ladder, encouraging Mrs Claypool to donate large sums of her dead husband’s money to an opera company in New York. It is at the final performance of the season in Italy where Groucho comes across Fiorello (Chico) and his friend Tomasso (Harpo). They’re still Chico and Harpo, though. Hell, they’re always Chico and Harpo.
This was the Marx Brothers’ first film for MGM, under the supervision of Irving Thalberg – a man Groucho deeply admired. During their Paramount days, they made great comedies, but the films were never treated as anything more than that. Animal Crackers and The Coconauts were based on their old vaudeville stage shows.
Thalberg, however, insisted they stick to a narrative. The audience needs an emotional hook, he’d argue. Then we can thread the gags around that. He channelled the Marxes’ anarchy solely at the stuck-up and the villains, making the audience more sympathetic towards them. In previous films they had unleashed their chaos on anyone close enough.
He demanded more clearly established villains, a lowest point for the protagonists, and a love story were the Marx Brothers would be needed to save the day. The romance in Animal Crackers was fudged into the film alongside the antics. A Night at the Opera incorporated them.
This way, the brothers could get “twice the box office with half the laughs.” Groucho maintained afterwards that his experience with Thalberg was the first time he ever felt treated like an artist.
Chico’s best friend and client, Riccardo (Allan Jones), joins the brothers on the boat to New York. He’s the male half of the romance, the other being opera singer Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). They’re in love, but she sings alongside Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), the opera’s leading man. Riccardo is merely a dreamer in the chorus.
The Brothers take it upon themselves to make Riccardo a star. Grocho and Chico draw up a simple contract to assess how much they might make from him. “It’s alright, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause,” Groucho reassures Chico of the document’s final part. “You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Claus!” Chico exclaims in his most elaborate Italian immigrant accent. Wocka wocka.
The film contains many ingenious comedy scenes. There’s one on the boat, in Groucho’s tiny stateroom, where he invites person after person to join him. There must be at least 15 people crammed in by the end, all playing it completely straight, with Groucho standing in the corner admiring the disorder he has created.
A later one has the brothers transfer all the furniture from a room to one next door, to confuse a policeman looking for Chico, Harpo and Riccardo. There’s a lot of slamming doors, as though they’re channelling an ancestor of Basil Fawlty, which always helps in a farce.
In the final act, at the New York opera’s opening night (the one to which the film’s title refers), Chico and Harpo subtly switch the sheet music for A Day at the Ball Park. Just as their deed drifts out of your memory, half way through the performance of the opera, the orchestra shifts into the baseball tune mid-song. Groucho appears at the back of the theatre in a full vendor uniform selling peanuts. Chico and Harpo, who are amongst the orchestra’s pit by this point, produce a ball and two bats. They proceed to play over the musicians’ heads.
Their ability for the chaotic is sublime. Harpo runs up a wall at one point, and it’s believable. It’s as though they’re superheroes of mischief, or ancient Gods of anarchy, who whittle away their time tormenting anyone of high society.
But in all Marx Brothers films, amongst the chaos, there are these little islands of beauty. A profound tranquillity arises whenever Chico and Harpo find themselves near instruments. In A Night at the Opera, it’s when they join the Italian immigrants on the boat bound for America. Initially they fool around on the piano, shooting keys and making the kids around them giggle. Chico plays a bawdy tune and gets a laugh. The eyes boggle at his masterful skill, hitting notes like they’re funny bones.
And then Harpo gets on his harp. He plucks the strings with a hypnotising rhythm. Everyone falls silent, allowing for the instrument’s volume, knowing it will hardly rise above a whisper. The children’s faces are shown as in a trance. It’s a soothing contrast from the mayhem that fills everywhere else. Those are always my favourite bits of Marx Brothers films.