“I know there ain’t no sanity clause.” A Night at the Opera

It’s been years since I’ve seen A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) and it holds up very well. It’s also an interesting turning point in their career, one I have mixed thoughts on.

The story has Groucho as wheeler-dealer Otis P. Driftwood sucking down a fat salary for supposedly helping wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) rise in society. His efforts to actually deliver on this result in Claypool dumping him to help stuffy opera manager Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) bring an arrogant tenor to the US (as there’s no establishing shot or other information, I didn’t realize we were in Italy at first). Driftwood winds up contracting with Ricardo (Allan Jones), a greater tenor and nicer human being, but lacking the reputation for A-list gigs. Groucho, Chico and Harpo work together to bring Ricard to the US, land him an opera gig and unite him with Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), the singer Ricardo and his arrogant rival are both interested in.

The three previous comedies the brothers made for Paramount (Horse Feathers, Monkey Business and Duck Soup) were insane, anarchic frenzies (I mean that as a compliment); Duck Soup, now considered a classic, was a flop, ending their association with the studio. Chico, however (it’s pronounced “Chick-o” by the way), played bridge with Irving Thalberg, MGM’s superstar producer, and so the Marx brothers shifted to MGM for a more conventionally plotted comedy (conventional compared to their earlier work, that is). There’s a dramatic arc, with the brothers apparently losing on all fronts before the climax.

It works beautifully, but as one book on their movies says, it worked against their strengths. Lots of comedians could do a movie about stowing away on a ship; only the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business would stow away, then go to the captain to complain about the lack of service, then try to get off the ship by impersonating Maurice Chevalier. Other comics got laughs avoiding trouble; the Marx Brothers welcomed it.

Making them more vulnerable worked with Opera, but their later MGM films got increasingly formulaic, wasting their talents.

But Opera did work. As Leonard Maltin says on the excellent commentary track, it’s a trickier film to pull off than it looks. The Marx Brothers have a great time disrupting the opera at the climax and deflating Gottlieb’s pomposity, but the happy ending hinges on Ricardo and Rosa becoming opera stars so the film can’t mock opera too much.

It succeeds. The film has wonderful energy, great lines (“This bill is an outrage! If I were you, I wouldn’t pay it.”), cheerfully insane scenes and good performances. This DVD also came with a mini-documentary on the brothers, a brief interview with Groucho, and two 1935 non-Marx comic shorts, HOW TO SLEEP (Robert Benchley discusses the art of sleeping) and SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE TROCADERO, a musical sketch piece.

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