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The Marx Brothers

 
 
 
   
             
   
             
           
 
 

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

             

Trailer

 

MGM, 1935. Directed by Sam Wood.  Camera:  Merritt B. Gerstad.  With Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Walter Woolf King, Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont, Billy Gilbert.

Considering that the Marx Brothers first appeared on the screen at the time of the big switchover to sound in 1929, this may seem a somewhat tardy moment at which to be catching up with them and their creative capacities for combining slapstick and talk. The explanation is simple: I am one who thinks A Night at the Opera is the grandest, the most inventive and satiric of all their japes, the one in which their unique combination of commentary and craftsmanship reached its peak. But because I am putting my selections in the chronological order in which they came, and they did not make this picture until 1935, we are just now coming upon them. This implies no lack of regard.

Indeed, it makes little difference to the permanent estimation of their work at what point one chooses to grapple with the Marx Brothers and their style, for they and their brand of humor are as changeless as Chaplin's Little Tramp. True, they provided a departure of fresh and explosive surprise when they first crashed the screen from the theater with The Cocoanuts in 1929. And their way of bombarding the viewer with sight and word gags in a barrage that added din to the familiar demolition of the visual did, indeed, help break the way into sound. But they, their character conceptions and their illusory construction of the world in which all the conventions of normal behavior are flouted and ridiculed, are the same in A Night at the Opera as they were in the succession of films the boys flung at an idolizing public after The Cocoanuts.

Groucho, the spearhead of the combine, is always a confidence man―a fast talker and a swindler who is forever trying to take somebody in. His monstrous eyebrows, his grease-paint moustache, his perpetually mobile cigar, his shoddy frock coat, his rasping chatter and his way of gliding in a headlong, foxy slouch betray beyond any question the egregious conniver he is. He may be anything―a snake-oil peddler, a quack professor, a fake psychiatrist―anything, just as long as it is shady and gives him plenty of room to move around. In a A Night at the Opera, he is posing as an international impresario who promises to get a rich and socially ambitious woman involved in a New York opera―naturally, for a price. Of course, he has no connections, no knowledge of music, no prestige, nothing but unlimited ingenuity, impudence and nerve.

His invariable sidekick is Chico, a casual scapegrace with the innocent facade of an Italian organ-grinder―a peaked cloth hat, a round and open face, a short, tight fitting jacket, baggy pantaloons and an oily Sicilian accent that suggests the docile immigrant. But Chico is far from docile. He will swindle without shame or restraint, and often, in his bland and stolid fashion, he will beat the crafty Groucho at his game.

Chico's companion is Harpo, an apparently lunatic mute whose broad, beaming face is sweetly haloed by a mop of wild, curly hair (it was pink on the stage and in color pictures). He wears an outsized raincoat and a squashed plug hat. Harpo is the pixie, the totally free spirit of the team. He responds without guile or inhibition to all sorts of spontaneous whims. He will pick up a powder puff and eat it with the nonchalance and relish of a goat. He will jump aboard the banister of a circular staircase and slide down it at a dizzying speed. He will fish into the baggy, catch-all pockets of his raincoat and snatch forth an antique bulb-blown auto horn which he will honk with smiling satisfaction and as a message of his ebullience to his friends. And often, when he spies a pretty female, he will take out after her in frantic chase, eyes glistening, coattails flying and arms stretching for a rapacious embrace.

The relations of these three rascals are usually nebulous and vague, except that they seem to work together whenever there's a swindle to be pulled. (In their films before this, a fourth Marx brother, Zeppo, is an obvious fifth wheel. He's just a good-looking schnook who is usually as much a butt of their jokes as any of the other befuddled characters who happen to get involved, and his excision from the combine was an intelligent move.)

Obviously Groucho and Chico are established confederates, for all their tries to horns woggle one another in the course of their nefarious deals. And obviously Chico and Harpo are inseparable friends, with Chico always gentle and protective toward the loveable mute, clearly understanding his weird sign language and translating it astonishingly whenever Harpo signals him with a shrill whistle and semaphores wildly with his hands. This friendship between these two eccentrics is one of the subtle felicities of the team, pointed up by the usual annoyance and impatience of Groucho toward the mute. And it is always brought to a touching climax, at least once in every film, when the two do a musical number, Chico playing the piano (which he does with comic flourishes) and Harpo playing the harp. This bond of melody between the zanies intrudes a touch of poignancy into their pranks.

It is futile and thoroughly nonessential to seek a plot in a Marx Brothers' film. The logic of a narrative arrangement is one of the conventions they deliberately defy. Once they have set a point of departure and indicated whom they are out to take, the occurrence of events thereafter is as vagrant as a tornado. Anything can happen. A random character coming on the scene can draw their abusive attention to a totally extraneous dead end. Then they can pop back to their swindle as though they had never been away and, indeed, as though the pulling of the swindle were a matter of casual concern. Or they can find themselves involved in a verbal blathering of one another with horrible puns that eventually ends up as nothing but a comical non sequitur.

So it is in A Night at the Opera. It begins with Groucho making a pitch as one Otis B. Driftwood to interest a Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) in investing in a nebulous opera which he promises to produce. He says this will greatly elevate her in New York society.

But all this is secondary to Groucho's establishing himself by blazing away with the shotgun banter that is his particular forte. Indeed, he makes his entrance in a possibly Parisian restaurant by barking imperiously at a waiter who has been paging him, "Waiter, won't you please stop calling my name around here! How would you like to have me go around calling your name?" It is a characteristically blatant and egotistical crack which immediately calls the attention of Mrs. Claypool and the audience to himself.

And he goes right on in this manner. Interspersed with his pitch are random verbal asides, such as asking the waiter, "Do you have any milk-fed chicken?  Well, squeeze the milk out of one and let me have it," or loudly complimenting Mrs. Claypool on being an excellent businesswoman, then topping it with the glib remark, "There's something about me that brings out the business in every woman." That's Groucho, always pushing himself.

Harpo is brought into the picture as the brutally banished valet of a pompous opera tenor who has caught him gleefully ransacking the dressing room; and Chico, who is the manager of a struggling young tenor (Allan Jones), arrives at this moment to help Harpo get out of the jam he's in. Thus is the standard bond of friendship between these two scamps laid down.

Typical of their verbal hassles is a conversation between Groucho and Chico. They have sat down in a bar to discuss the drawing of a contract―it doesn't matter for what―but before they begin, Groucho calls, "Two beers, bartender," and Chico, without batting an eye, calls out, "I'll have two beers, too." Then they attack the contract, each with a copy in his hands, swiftly running over its clauses and tearing off those they think nonessential or they don't understand. A few minutes of this and Groucho holds his copy away from him. "If my arms were a little longer I could read it," he says. Then he nonchalantly asks, "You haven't got a baboon in your pocket, have you?"

They continue with the tearing-off business. "Now what have you got?" Chico asks.
"I've got about a foot and a half," says Groucho. "How much have you got?"
Chico is miffed. "How come your contract is longer than mine?" he wants to know.
Groucho has the logical answer: "You must have been out on a tear last night."
When they come to the last item, Groucho says, "That's what they call a sanity clause."
Chico looks at him and chuckles wisely, "You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Claus."

Soon everybody is embarking by ship for New York: Mrs. Claypool; the Paris opera company, which includes an ingénue (Kitty Carlisle), with whom Chico's aspiring tenor is in love; Groucho, breezing along busily as custodian of Mrs. Claypool's trunks; and, for some reason, Chico and Harpo, who are evidently taking a free ride.

Now comes a classic scene of bedlam. Groucho and a huge steamer trunk are moved into a tiny stateroom, he beefing indignantly but climbing in nonetheless, with Chico climbing in after him. Groucho, with much agitation, opens a drawer of the trunk to get a shirt, finds the innocent Harpo curled up and sleeping inside. "That can't be my shirt," snarls Groucho. "My shirt doesn't snore."

The steward comes to take a food order, and some fast dialogue follows. "Have you got any stewed prunes?" asks Groucho.
"Sure," the waiter replies.
"Well, give them some hot coffee," says Groucho. "That'll sober 'em up."

Two maids crowd in with the three fellows, presumably to make up the berth. Then Allan Jones arrives; then a manicurist, whom Groucho tells to cut his nails―short. Down the corridor waddles a fat man, and we anticipate the gag. He shoves into the room, and Groucho hollers from where he is squashed against the wall, "Hey, is it my imagination, or is it getting crowded in here?"

Along comes a big charwoman, announcing, "I came to mop up." Groucho greets her warmly, "You're just the woman I'm looking for!" Then the waiters approach with trays of dishes, the door flies open and all fall out, knocking trays over teacups. That's the blackout, of course.

There is a cascade of chaos hereafter. The boys cut off the beards of three uniformed foreign generals and debark wearing the beards and uniforms themselves. They are greeted as visiting dignitaries and speeded to a reception at City Hall, where they are soon exposed as impostors and have to flee, with Groucho shouting back, "This means war!"

Eventually, they get to the opera and turn the place into a shambles by slipping the sheet music of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" into the orchestra score, and then hawking peanuts and popcorn in the aisles when the tune pops up in Il Trovatore. Chico and Harpo, dressed as peasants, get on stage and start a riot, kidnap the villainous tenor and put Allan Jones in his place. He is a sensation, Mrs. Claypool is happy, and the boys are hauled off to jail.

One can see the essence of the Marx Brothers' brand of comedy: it is a complete ridiculing of reason and reality. There is no regard for the disciplines by which so-called normal people behave (or pretend to behave) in the chaos of their outrageous actions and words. They mock and exploit the modes and manners of bourgeois society, making fun of anything that smacks remotely of prudence or pomposity. Mrs. Claypool's social ambition, the esthetics of opera, the formality of municipal receptions, all the clichés of classy etiquette and genteel conversation that considerate people observe are turned upside down by the Marxes in this apogee of their films. They are, in their way, as disdainful of the sober and self-restricting rules of the capitalist establishment as their unlikely namesake, Karl.

Here in A Night at the Opera, we see them using the cinema medium with a sharpness of staging and tempo and a mechanical refinement of wit that were absent or generally uneven in their early films. It is interesting that they pretested many of the separate episodes, such as the mix-up in the stateroom, on a West Coast vaudeville tour so that they could find the laughs and pace the action before putting them in the film.

While they worked with several directors (Sam Wood directed this one) and had many writers of their scripts, the compulsion of writers and directors was to adapt material to them. The creative pattern was as standard as Miss Dumont, always in the role of foil to Groucho's lurid swindles and mugging displays of lechery, or Harpo's equally preposterous sallies after girls. They also invariably included a strain of musical comedy romance, which is carried in A Night at the Opera by Miss Carlisle and Jones. The best to be said for the latter is that it affords a break from the bedlam of the boys.

Needless to say, the Marx Brothers eventually became monotonous when they and their congenital swindling began to degenerate. The last film they made together was The Big Store in 1941. But in the span of one decade, they managed to put a kind of neo-slapstick on the screen that is much more presentable and potent today than that of Mack Sennett's famous cops. It is significant that many new comics, including that British foursome, the Beatles, have been discovering this.

The Great Films by Bosley Crowther
G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1967

 

This was the Marxes' first film after leaving Paramount (well, after being pushed out).  MGM producer Irving Thalberg took the boys under his wing to produce two of their greatest films (the other being A Day At The Races).  Thalberg's contention was that, although the Marx Brothers' movies were funny, you couldn't "build insanity on insanity."  He proposed an actual story for the brothers to work against.  He figured that there may be only half as many laughs in a picture, but the films would give the audience something to care about.  His hunch was obviously correct, as A Night At The Opera was the Marx Brothers' biggest grossing film (more than doubling the take from Duck Soup two years earlier).  Although the brothers had difficulty with the way he handled business, Groucho proclaimed that Irving Thalberg was the only man he would truly call a "genius."  Thalberg asked the Marx brothers whom they would like to write the picture and, of course, they chose their two favorite writers, Kaufman and Ryskind.

In this picture, Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) tries to introduce Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) into society by arranging for her to donate $200,000 to the New York Opera Company.  The company's director, Mr. Gottleib (Siegfried Ruman) decides to use the dough to sign Rudolf Lassparri, one of Italy's most well-respected tenors.

Trying to keep his finger in the pie, Driftwood sets out to sign Lassparri himself, only to wind up signing Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) through his "manager," Fiorello (Chico), by mistake.  Add to this Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), the mutual love interest of Baroni and Lassparri, and you have a thoroughly entertaining film.  This movie contains the now infamous "stateroom" scene.

This was the Marx Brothers' first picture following the departure of Zeppo.  Many purists contend that their movies just weren't the same without him.  You be the judge.

Why a Duck?

More detailed information about this film is available from
the AFI Catalog of Feature Films at
AFI.com, or by clicking here.

Poster artwork courtesy of Gary