A Night at the Opera

Suggested reading:

Monkey Business: The Lives and

Legends of the Marx Brothers

(2000), Simon Louvish

The Marx Brothers (1987), Wes D. Gehring

The highest grossing (and reportedly Groucho’s favorite) of all the brothers’ movies, A Night at the Opera marked something of a turning point for the Marxes. After their switch from Paramount to MGM, producer Irving Thalberg (perhaps wisely) wanted to find a way to contain some of the scattershot mania that had characterized the brothers’ earlier films.

Under the direction of the appropriately named Sam Wood, this film does indeed feel more ordered than previous fare such as Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers, and this is both its chief strength and its chief weakness. The free-form spontaneity on display in those earlier films did indeed give them an unfocused, episodic feel (similar to the feel of early Woody Allen movies), but they also had an unpredictability and freshness that is missing in the later work. This film stands as a stepping stone – there is still much to enjoy, but plodding formula is looming large on the horizon.

Given that so much of the Marx humor relies on knocking the pompous off their perches and down to size, the idea of turning them loose in an opera house seems like a perfect recipe for comedy (especially with the somewhat leaden Zeppo out of the picture), and indeed it is. In an opening scene that runs like a comic equivalent of the explosion-heavy pre-credits sequences that would later come to characterize the James Bond franchise, Groucho lounges in a fancy restaurant, alternately wooing and insulting his perennial foil, the divinely unflappable Margaret Dumont. Both performers are at the very top of their game in this scene. As always, Groucho knows exactly how far he can go, insulting Dumont into a haughty sulk before he has to jump to one knee and reel her back in with his tried and true “Can’t you see what I’m telling you? I love you!” routine.

After similarly characteristic introductions to Harpo and Chico, the film runs into its real problem: the love story. This is an element that was always present in the Marxes material to a certain degree, but one that began to move into the foreground around this period, presumably to ‘structure’ the film and increase its broad audience appeal. Like all commercially-oriented artistic compromises, this one causes the material to fall between two stools; the film is allowed neither to sustain its comic momentum due to the romantic interruptions, nor to flesh out its romantic leads sufficiently due to the comedy. This may perhaps be a generational difference, but it is hard to believe that even 1930s audiences went to see a Marx brothers movie hoping to see two drippy but good-looking youngsters endlessly crooning at each other. The youngsters in this case are Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, and every minute that they are on screen is more or less unbearable. Curly of hair and chiseled of jaw, Jones plays an ambitious but unknown Italian opera singer, and Carlisle is his equally ambitious and equally unknown singer girlfriend.

The ever-scheming Chico becomes Jones’s agent and promises to help him find his big break. Enter Groucho, who is tangentially connected to the New York opera scene, and he and Chico proceed to enter into one of the funniest scenes in the whole Marx canon: the ‘party of the first part’ scene in which they write up Jones’s contract. Despite the fact that he is most commonly paired with Harpo, many of Chico’s funniest scenes are with Groucho. There is something very brotherly about the way the two of them proceed haltingly through surreal conversations such as this one. Looking up occasionally to see if the other is still with them, they pit non-sequitur against non-sequitur in a game of surrealist ‘chicken’, waiting for the other to blink first. They tear clause after clause from the contract, often for little or no reason, until each is left with a tiny strip of paper on which to sign. This scene, with its nonsensical deconstruction of not only the language but the very fabric of formality could be the most sublime embodiment of the benevolent anarchy of Marx Brothers.

The film has several other standout scenes, such as one aboard an ocean liner, in which Groucho crams a trunk the size of a refrigerator into the smallest state room on the boat (during which process he asks the porter, “Wouldn’t it be easier just to put the state room in the trunk?”) and then crams brother after friend after maid after manicurist into the room until it is a seething mass of arms and legs. Also worthy of special note is the scene in which Chico entertains a group of children with an impromptu piano recital that proves once and for all that, in his hands, the piano is a very funny instrument indeed.

Pacing problems do mar the comedy on occasion, with long silences and reaction cutaways that give the distinct feeling of being elbowed in the ribs by the film’s editor. The climactic sequence in the opera house has an enjoyable circus feel to it (fans of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon may well be surprised to see that Harpo Marx was running on wires up vertical surfaces twenty years before Ang Lee was even born.) Aside from an extended final duet that leaves viewers wondering if the director genuinely believes that he was making an Allan Jones/Kitty Carlisle movie all along, this is a great film; a fascinating and hilarious exercise in organized chaos.

– Ben Stephens