Saturday, March 24, 2018
Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1935)
A Night at the Opera
If you listen to legend, you'll believe that “Duck Soup” was a box office flop, clearly being too ahead of its time. This led to the Marx Brothers being let go from their lofty positions at Paramount Studio, forcing them to uproot themselves and go across town to MGM Studios, where they began the next phase of their career. As appealing as this story is, it's simply not true. “Duck Soup” was a moderate success and its box office performance had nothing to do with the Marxes' exit from Paramount. Instead, the change in studio was due to boring contract disputes with Paramount. The move led to a change in style for the Brothers but “A Night at the Opera,” their film at MGM, was a success in 1935 and is now considered a classic.
Beginning in Milan, “A Night at the Opera” is – obviously – concerned with opera. Groucho steps into the role of Otis B. Driftwood, a shaky business manager hoping to con some money out of wealthy Mrs. Claypool. He talks her into investing money into the New York Opera Company, especially its tenor Rodolfo Lassparri. Lassparri hopes to marry soprano, Rosa. Rosa, however, is in love with aspiring singer Ricardo. Ricardo's friend Fiorello and Tomasso trick Driftwood into hiring Ricardo instead. Soon, the five guys are on a boat ride across the ocean, the lovers being reunited. Upon arriving in the states, a plan is formulated to get Ricardo on stage at the opera.
In the time between “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera,” Zeppo Marx would retire from performing, focusing instead on opening a successful talent agency. Since Zeppo rarely added much to the films, you'd think MGM would be happy to ditch the dead weight. While Zeppo is gone, the role he would usually play – the boring romantic lead – is a bigger part of the movie than ever. Allan Jones plays Ricardo, the aspiring opera singer being kept apart by circumstance from Rosa, the girl he loves. This romance motivates nearly the entire plot, forcing Jones and Kitty Carlisle into way more scenes than are necessary.
Though “A Night at the Opera” is clearly not as funny as the Marxes' earlier movies, there are definitely some gags that work really well. The movie's most famous scene has Groucho arriving at his room on the boat. Which turns out to be a tiny stateroom. After carrying in his giant suitcase – which Harpo, Chico, and Ricardo have hidden inside – more and more people arrive at the room. The scene quickly escalates. Maids, a plumber, a manicurist, the plumber's assistant arrive and that's before the group of waiters show up. Each one attempt to squeeze into the tiny room. Another highlight has Harpo and Chico continually moving around a room, carrying around a bed, in order to confuse the detective pursuing him. They are successful as the guy is driven totally batty.
Regardless of the quality of the overall movie, Groucho Marx could always be counted on to deliver some memorable one-liners. “A Night at the Opera” certainly has its share. Margoret Dumont is back, allowing a springboard for some of Groucho's best lines here. Like an extended, and lively, introduction to Mr. Dudley and Ms. Claypool. Or his attempt to arrive deliberately late to the opera. Later, he refuses to leave her room on the bed, leading to some decent lines. Such as “They'll probably say you're a very lucky woman!” The stateroom sequence has some stand-out lines, especially when he comments on the size of the suitcase or the quality of his shirts. And then there's just some good old fashion silliness, like lines about milk-fed chicken and spaghetti and seltzer.
Chico really gets it the worst though. In the early scenes, he's actually reduced to trading normal dialogue with Ricardo, helping set up the plot. It's really not until he starts to interact with the other Brothers that he actually gets to start telling some jokes. Now, these are solid moments. A scene where he negotiates a contract with Groucho, which gradually whittles at the actual paper, is a high line. And he certainly gets to deploy some of his trademark puns. Such as when confuses duplicates and quadruplets. Disappointingly, Chico gets the short end too often here, his absurd conversations cut down to almost zero.