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Quite surprisingly, this is my first experience of watching a Marx Brothers film, and I'm told it's the first to not feature the fourth brother, Zeppo, an focuses mainly on the antics of the three other brothers, Groucho, Chico and Harpo, with the backdrop of the opera providing the majority of the situations for the comedic brothers to do what they do best.
A Night At The Opera basically features wannabe opera singer Ricardo (Allan Jones) who longs not only for the limelight but also for the heart of established operatic leading lady Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). His sidekicks in order to make this happen are the trio of Marx brothers, with sly socialite business manager Otis B Driftwood (Groucho) and hapless duo Tomasso (Harpo) and Fiorelli (Chico) joining forces to try and make Ricardo's wishes come true.
They need to combat Ricardo's main adversary, the already established and renowned opera star Lassparri (Walter King), a very smug and annoying character. This inevitably means that the plot takes a bit of a back seat and the comedic timing and satirical nonsense of the Marx Brothers comes to the fore. I wasn't sure what to expect from the film, but what I found was that I was laughing out loud. The clever play on words that becomes an endless stream of comedy coming Groucho's mouth combines perfectly with the seemingly brains of the operation from Harpo, who has a permanently put on Italian accent. This serves him well when they pretend to be Italian aviators aboard a steamship to hide the fact that they are stowaways. There is one particularly funny scene where Groucho is ordering food aboard the steamship, and the mute Chico signifies multiples of orders from his hidden place by squeezing a horn, makign Groucho amend the order much to the bemusement of the steward outside. Hilarious stuff.
The film ends with a brilliant scene at the opera, with singing, acrobatics and comedy, and the whole experience was one that left me really impressed. Reportedly, this is the start of the downhill slide of the Marx Brothers, as they transferred from one production company to another, writers changing and Zeppo (the 4th brother) choosing to not take any further part. However, if this was the start of the slide, then what comes before must be complete genius. The film is intoxicating watching, the clever wordplay coming thick and fast, and the comedic moments providing brilliant moments. I went out straight away and borrowed a whole bunch of other Marx Brothers films, and have found them to be rather funny as well.
I can highly recommend this film. It's non stop laughs from start to finish, the plot definitely taking a backseat and merely providing a vehicle with which to give the Brothers something to base their comedy on. Made in 1935, it's timeless comedy, and the black and white doesn't diminish the effects it has on the viewer. The visual comedy and spoken comedy are just as good as each other, and I'm very glad I gave it a go. Highly recommended.
A Night at the Opera is a classic and very famous Marx Brothers film from 1935 directed by Sam Wood and written by George S kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. The film places the anarchic comedians in the world of the opera with Groucho as Otis B Driftwood, hired by the wealthy Mrs Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to promote her entry into high society if she invests $200,000 in the New York Opera Company. "Don't you see," says Driftwod. "You'll be a patron of the opera. You'll get into society. Then, you can marry me and they'll kick you out of society, and all you've lost is $200,000." Driftwood duly arranges a meeting with the pompous director of the New York Opera Company, Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), and ends up in a race to sign obnoxious tenor Lassparri (Walter Woolf). As ever, complications arise with Driftwood becoming mixed up instead with Fiorello (Chico Marx) and Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and their friend, the aspiring tenor Riccardo Baroni (Allan Jones). Baroni's ambitions and pursuit of fellow opera singer Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) are threatened by the egotistical Lassparri who wants both the limelight and Rosa. While Gottlieb signs Lassparri, Driftwood is tricked into signing Baroni...
A Night in the Opera is the first film the Marx Brothers made for Irving Thalberg with MGM and, although a classic film with plenty of wonderful moments, it is seen as the beginning of a gradual slide into conformity for the comedy team. While the Paramount films were full of energy and frequently absurd and obtuse, A Night at the Opera imposes some form and plot on the Marxian universe and they share much of the film with 'star of the month' Allan Jones. While some felt that the Marx Brothers were somewhat diluted by this new approach, A Night at the Opera is undoubtedly a hugely funny and enjoyable film with more than its fair share of great moments and routines. In 1993 A Night at the Opera was chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'. I suppose the only problem with the film is that while it is a great one by the standards of anyone else, it does seem just a trifle safe in contrast to the likes of Duck Soup and Horse Feathers. A Night at the Opera works very well indeed but this 'safer' approach to the Marx Brothers was really the beginning of the end and subsequent films seemed to become weaker and more predictable.
The opening scene of A Night at the Opera is a classic. Margaret Dumont's Mrs Claypool sits in a posh Milan restaurant waiting for Driftoood, who is late and appears to have stood her up. We gradually realise Groucho is at the table behind Dumont, laughing and joking with another woman. After leaving the woman with the bill ("$9.40? This is an outrage! I wouldn't pay that if I was you!") Groucho greets Dumont with a comically jovial slap on the back and indulges in ridiculous word play and flattery to explain his behaviour. "Do you know why I was sitting with that woman? Because she reminds me of you! That's why I'm sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your lips, your throat...everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that?" Groucho's banter with the bewildered Dumont is well up to par here and the bearded Sig Ruman, as ever, makes a suitably pompous adversary for Groucho and his brothers. "I saw Mrs Claypool first," says Driftwood to rival Gottlieb. "Of course, her mother really saw her first but there's no point in bringing the Civil War into this."
I do think it is fair to say A Night at the Opera lacks the anarchic spirit and freewheeling energy of their classic Paramount films. There is a plot of sorts and the brothers have been slightly tamed in adjusting to this new approach. There are more musical interludes than usual too which may slow the film a little for some although the interludes involving the brothers are always enjoyable. Alan Jones, as Baroni, is a bit wooden but he's quite likeable sharing the screen in the type of role they'd have given to Zeppo if he hadn't left the business. The film though does benefit from wonderful sets and the lavish operatic set-piece near the end is nicely brought to life with an authentic atmosphere.
The film also contains the classic stateroom scene, designed by Buster Keaton. Having spitefully been given the smallest cabin on a cruise ship by Gottlieb, Driftwood somehow conspires to end up with Harpo, Chico, Jones, an engineer, a manicurist, a cleaner, four stewards with plates of food, a woman seeking her Aunt and many more in the room. The joke here comes from the fact that Groucho cheerfully encourages people to keep coming in despite the cramped conditions. A classic moment also occurs when Groucho orders food from a waiter outside and Harpo keeps honking his horn from inside the cabin to add more to the order. There is a lovely scene on the cruise ship too where the stowaway brothers are given huge steaming plates of food and Chico entertains the children by playing the piano.
One of my favourite moments happens when Chico, Harpo and Jones attempt to get off the ship posing as famous Italian aviators with comically fake beards, having tied up the real bearded Italian aviators. Forced to give a press conference outside, the mute Harpo is reduced to drinking several cups of water to stall for time while Chico, who of course always speaks in a fake Italian accent anyway, duly gives a typically obtuse and ridiculous speech. "Then I get a the great idea. We no take a gasoline, we no take a the airplane. We take steamship, and that friends, is how we fly across the ocean." I love Groucho's little comments under his breath as the fake aviators attempt to bluff their way through the conference - "Go fast. I can see a man with a rope out there." The aviator sequence is funny too because we are introduced to the real aviators earlier as guests of honour at a ship banquet. "Three greatest aviators," muses Driftwood. "But you notice they're traveling by boat."
There are many great little scenes and moments in A Night at the Opera. A scene where they all eat breakfast and Harpo clowns around is good offbeat fun and there is a classic sequence where policeman Henderson searches the apartment Driftwood has been hiding them and is eventually driven to despair by the Marx Brothers constantly rearranging rooms to make him think he has stumbled into the wrong property. "The last time I was in this room there were four beds here," says Henderson. "Please," replies Driftwood. "I'm not interested in your private life!"
The legendary climax pits the Marx Brothers agaisnt the refined world of opera in classic fashion. It's a brilliantly sustained succession of set-pieces, using scenes primarily from 'Il Trovatore', as the staid atmosphere of this carefully planned production is engulfed in Marxian mayhem. As Verdi rings out - "I am sure the familiar strains of Verdi's music will come back to you tonight and Mrs Claypool's cheques will probably come back to her in the morning," says Groucho - around lavish sets, Harpo swings from ropes Tarzan style and fences with the orchestra alongside Chico while Groucho walks down the aisle selling peanuts and makes inappropriate comments from one of the special boxes. "How would you like to feel how she looks?" comments Driftwood on the show. This end set-piece is a classic piece of filmmaking and comedy, not just because it's well-staged but because there is so much going on.
While A Night at the Opera lacks the originality, spontaneous feel and sheer energy and invention of their classic Paramount films perhaps, the slightly more conventional approach (designed at the time to make the Marx Brothers more mainstream and popular) is aided here by a good script that throws up plenty of memorable moments and situations. A Night at the Opera seems a bit more pat and safe than the likes of Duck Soup but it is still a hugely enjoyable and very funny film and probably the last truly great Marx Brothers picture.