A Night at the Opera (1935) usually presents a bit of a problem for most hardcore Marx Brothers fans. Why? Because it is extremely good. And yet it is good at the expense of the Marx Brothers. People who cite it as their favorite Marx Brothers film tend to be movie buffs or lovers of musicals but not Marx Brothers fans per se. If backed into a corner, I would have to concede that it is their best movie (best constructed, most crowd pleasing among general audiences), but not my favorite one.
That’s a strange and rare thing to have to say, but then the Marx Brothers are unlike almost any other movie stars. Their modus operandi had always been contrariness, anarchy, exploding conventions and conventionality with TNT. But after Duck Soup, Paramount and the Marx Brothers parted ways, forcing the team to seek a new home and a new situation. They found one at the most prestigious studio of the 1930s, MGM, and they found themselves in a direct working relation with production head “boy genius” Irving Thalberg. It was Thalberg who talked them into a new formula in an attempt to increase audiences (in affect, adding the factions of the population that didn’t care for crazy comedy) by beefing up the romantic sub-plot, making the Marx Brothers’ characters somewhat more realistic, and integrating them into the plot, giving them motivations, feelings, and points of view.
Anyone with any understanding of what is unique, special, interesting and in the long run successful about the Marx Brothers is that they are ABOVE and AGAINST those conventions. What they do best is skate along the top of a plot and shoot holes in it with both barrels. They are magnificent wild beasts. Now Thalberg would begin the process of taming them. The Marx Bros have been enlisted in the service of the status quo. They have been domesticated. The revolt is over.
Case in point: an opera house is indeed a good place to set the Marx Brothers loose, and, granted, the film is not without their patented irreverence. Groucho complains when a taxi driver gets him too close to the opera, because he “almost heard” it. And the three brothers’ disruption of a production of Il Trovatore at the climax is not just exhilarating, but one of the classic scenes in all comedy film. In this scene they do at an opera what they had done at a football game in Horse Feathers. Yet, the movie overall undermines the undermining, essentially taking the stance ultimately that we ought to care about the institution of opera and the two young aspiring opera singers who are our romantic leads, Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. In other words, the sort of dangerous critique (or at least the disrespect of authority—including the very form of the musical they are in) that had been the voice of the Marx Brothers in all their Paramount comedies is now gone. The Marx Brothers have sold out and become the enemy.
Most ominously, the film begins the process of de-fanging Groucho. In previous films, his diatribes were breath-taking and unanswerable. When he has the floor, others are essentially powerless. Usually, Margaret Dumont and the other characters would stand there politely, dazed, uncomprehending with stupid smiles on their faces while Groucho insulted them. Sometimes they would vaguely get the idea that they were being put down and utter a lame protest, but not in such a way that Groucho could ever be derailed. But starting with A Night at the Opera, Groucho would be of lowly status. Here he is a shady, fly-by-night talent agent whose influence over Margaret Dumont’s philanthropist is always precarious and threatened by a rival (Sig Ruman). His insults are now acknowledged and countered, and worse — suffered through. When Groucho talks, everyone around him is irritated. They sigh and make faces. At one point in the film, the door is barred to Groucho and he is thrown down the stairs. UNACCEPTABLE! The theory, I imagine, is that he is our hero and we are to feel sympathy for him. But that’s not how it works. If we are going to begin to regard this character logically as a human being, why would we feel sympathy for him? He is a swindler and a rogue. If he is an unsuccessful one, all the more contemptible. No, we must never go down this road. Besides, Groucho’s motivation is never mere money. If anything (if we must reduce the least rational force on earth to logic) his motivation is power, the power that comes from the joy of gaslighting and confounding everyone. Somebody whose motivation is money-grubbing is not a hero, but a villain. (But I imagine Hollywood producers might not look at life that way. Hence…so much that is so very wrong…)
Still there is quite a lot of the old Marx Brothers in the script, partly because no one could yet bear to part with their old voices, and partly because the authors were Kaufman and Ryskind, authors of their foundation vehicles The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, with uncredited contributions by the legendary Al Boasberg. Everyone loves the opening scene in the restaurant where we first meet Driftwood (Groucho) and Mrs. Claypool (Dumont). They love the “sanity clause” scene between Groucho and Chico. I love the bit where Chico and Harpo, disguised as famous aviators in long joke-shop beards are forced to give a radio speech. And as I said, the final scene of the film is absolutely wonderful.
I once had a problem with the popular stateroom sequence, perhaps the most famous scene in the film, on the grounds that it violates their normal relationship to the world, in that the world is crazier than the Marx Brothers are here: all they do is react sarcastically to madness that is happening to them. Filling a room to the ceiling with innocent strangers is something the Marx Brothers are supposed to do to OTHER people. But it subsequently dawned in me that the Marx Brothers DID fill the room with these people; Groucho ADMITS them, where others would have said, “Come back later, this is a very small room”. And further, the joke is ultimatelty on Margaret Dumont, who believes that she has a private rendez-vous with Groucho. So I stand corrected — by myself!
You’ve heard me be hard on it, but the reality is this film grows on me all the time. It helps to try to watch it as that theoretical “movie buff” or “musicals fan” and take a broader view. The film is visually much more beautiful to look at than any of their Paramounts, and the music is admittedly wonderful — I never think of this movie without thinking of the music, not just the opera excerpts but the popular songs like “Alone” (by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown) and “Cosi Cosa”. And yet…we miss the lack of Kalmar and Ruby. Where’s a crazy song for Groucho? The absence is felt…and most symbolic. While I can’t bring myself to care about the young lovers or their career aspirations, there are those several classic comedy scenes to redeem A Night at the Opera.
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.