Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1935)

6. 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.

When the Marx Brothers came to MGM, studio head Irving Thalberg had some suggestions. He feared that the brothers' chaotic antics made them unsympathetic, especially to female viewers. He demanded a more story driven screenplays. This change is very evident in “A Night at the Opera.” The Brothers are, simply put, not the big jerks they usually are. They occupy themselves in the film by trying to get two young dreamers together. They spend much less of the film hassling the squares. Adding further insult is that the middle portion of the film, in which the Brothers play stowaways on a cruise ship, is obviously recycled from the superior “Monkey Business.” This story-driven direction cuts down on the rapid-fire jokes and gags, resulting in a much slower, at times painfully slow, motion picture.

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.

While the musical numbers played an increasingly smaller role in the Paramount films, “A Night at the Opera,” perhaps as the title indicates, is more focused on song and dance.  Yes, there's some opera throughout the movie, though it's usually at the sidelines. Music takes center stage in several extended sequence. Such as when Ricardo and Rosa sing to each other as the boat starts to take off, a scene that just seems to go on and on. Nearly as laborious is a scene near the end where Harpo and Chico entertain some party-goers on the boat. That's where we get the required piano and harp playing scenes. The harp scene is especially extended. These moments drain any momentum from the movie.

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.

However, a lot of the really broad gags in “A Night at the Opera” do not grab the laughs they reach for. Sped-up motion is employed in at least three moments. One has Harpo racing down a staircase. Later, there's an extended scene of him being flung around on ropes outside the boat. Both gags come off as overly desperate and aggressively wacky. During the movie's titular night at the opera, the brothers interfere, leading to curtains and inappropriate backdrops falling on-stage. While this gag is okay, as it features the heroes being pursued across the catwalk, it also feels similarly desperate for laughs.

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.

While Groucho's typical antics get out of “A Night at the Opera” more-or-less unchanged, the other two brothers were not quite so lucky. No longer allowed to be a huge asshole to people, Harpo's anarchic tendencies are reeled way in. He still gets some funny scenes. At one point, he revives the film's villain just to conk him on the head with a hammer. His refusal to wake up during the chaotic stateroom scene is a highlight. So is the way he signals for more hard-boiled eggs by honking his horn. A small, but especially amusing gag, has him attempting to start a sword fight in the orchestra. This proceeds a random rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” However, Harpo gets a huge duds as well. Such as a long scene devoted to him eating ordinary objects at the breakfast table. Or a scene where he continually drinks water, to avoid answering a question.

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.

But what do I know? Wikipedia says the movie was a “smash hit” in 1935. The Brothers considered it one of their best movies. After “Duck Soup,” its the team's most critically acclaimed and discussed movie. Of course, it would also inspire the title of one of Queen's album. Yet, watching the movie, I couldn't help but find myself missing the more wild, anarchic laughs of the movies the guys made for Paramount. The weak stuff in this film is really weak and prevents me from liking the movie more overall. [Grade: C+]

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