The Marx Brothers had just been reduced to three. Zeppo had decided not to work with them on their next picture, which would become a seminal film in their careers. The brothers were about to make their first comedy with the legendary producer Irving Thalberg; there would be a second film as well, A Day at the Races (1937).
Some fans of the brothers, true Marxists, dislike the Thalberg films because of all the music and the boring romances that take valuable screen time from the brothers. They may have a point, but I still say this is one of the funniest movies ever made.
Milking money from Mrs. Claypool
The very idea of this Marx film is to let the ragtag, disrespectful brothers collide with the highbrow world of opera. As you’d expect, the story is for the birds. The shameless business manager Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) is trying to milk as much money as possible from the clueless Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) who is financially supporting an opera house that features a brilliant tenor (Walter Woolf King). Mr. Driftwood runs into Fiorello (Chico Marx) who thinks his good friend Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), another tenor at the opera house, deserves to be a star. Fiorello tricks Driftwood into signing a contract to represent Baroni; along with Tomasso (Harpo Marx), a dresser, they decide to help Baroni take the star tenor’s place at the opera and perhaps get a romance going between him and soprano Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle).
Dumont is perfect as always; the way she looks outrageously insulted whenever Groucho throws her a one-liner is priceless. But I should also mention two other talents. This was Sig Ruman’s first film with the Marx Brothers and he matches Dumont as the manager of the opera house; one might say he would become to the brothers what Edgar Kennedy became to Laurel & Hardy. And then there’s Robert Emmett who’s equally good as the police detective who end up chasing Driftwood and his cronies. These three actors provide impressive support to the brothers.
Less memorable are Jones and Carlisle; they fall in love and few people will care. On the other hand, they do kind of take Zeppo’s place as the brothers’ straight counterpart. They also do their own singing, which is not bad. The musical numbers are usually annoying obstacles to the brothers’ comedy, but this is an example of when it works; there’s a song that became a hit, “Alone”, and one charming sequence has Chico effortlessly playing the piano.
But the film is primarily remembered for its outrageously funny comedy bits. The scene where Groucho and Chico go over a contract and end up getting to the sanity clause is perfect in its delivery. The stateroom sequence is a simple idea that comes off very well; just pack a tiny room with as many people as possible and see what happens. And then there’s the one where the brothers drive Emmett’s detective crazy by moving beds between rooms; the punchline is so ridiculous we can’t help but laugh. The climactic, chaotic opera performance risks running out of steam, but the filmmakers have included a constant stream of gags to make sure it doesn’t happen.
There are times when it becomes very clear that everything is second to the comedy. The filmmakers don’t even bother telling us that we’re actually not on U.S. soil in the first sequence, but in Italy, a fact that does matter to subsequent events – I guess they were too busy planning Groucho’s opening encounter with Dumont. Nevermind, don’t worry about the romance and the music. If you happen to like it, fine. The writers knew how to focus on the good stuff. And, boy, is that part good.
A Night at the Opera 1935-U.S. 92 min. B/W. Produced by Irving Thalberg. Directed by Sam Wood. Screenplay: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind. Song: “Alone“ (Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed). Cast: Groucho Marx (Otis B. Driftwood), Chico Marx (Fiorello), Harpo Marx (Tomasso), Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Walter Woolf King… Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman.
Quote: “I saw Mrs. Claypool first. Of course, her mother really saw her first but there’s no point in bringing the Civil War into this.” (Groucho Marx, on Dumont)
Last word: “[The Marx brothers] were so nice to me. I have no stories. They didn’t play tricks on me, and they didn’t make fun of me, and they were just as nice as could be. Groucho was always coming up to me to ask if I thought a line was funny. And he would never read it funny, so I’d say, ‘No, Grouch, that’s not funny.’ Chico was always in a card game with a lady in his dressing room.” (Carlisle, American Heritage)