April Fools: A Night at the Opera (1935)
April is for celebrating the fools of filmland. Each Friday this month, we will examine a vintage comedy. This week Adam and Samantha discuss A Night at the Opera.
ADAM: Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, a business manager for music-admirer Margaret Dumont. The grand dame intends on donating a large sum to über-Teutonic impresario Sig Ruman to fund a grand opera. There is some sort of rivalry between tenors, a pompous established star played by Walter Woolf King and a fresh-faced kid played by Allan Jones. Chico plays the up-and-comer’s manager. Harpo works for the great star. None of this makes any sense nor does any of it feel consequential. It’s a glossy MGM film replete with music and glamour with the brothers running loose throughout. To put it another way, it’s as if Groucho was a business manager and quasi-lover to a high society woman—wait a second, that’s what I just explained. To put it another way, it’s as if an orchestra had several conductors and they were engaged in a baton fight. Again, too on-point! The only way I can describe this ridiculousness is to write it prosaically.
SAMANTHA: The Marx Brothers thrive on anarchy. The plot doesn't have to be strong as long as they get a chance to ruin whatever institution is provided for them. This film is a send up to the stuffed shirts who use opera as a way to feel sophisticated and superior. For this reason, I think the Marx Brothers are the closest of the classic era comedians to modern comedy. Their humor is alternately zany, smart and shocking.
A: Comedies are the most difficult movies to review. I certainly have strong opinions about them but explaining why always feels like I’m taking the wind out of the sails. To wit: this movie’s opening scene wastes no time in its race to laughs but no description could do it justice. There is no attempt to explain the lunacy. Groucho is Groucho, despite his character’s distinctly corn pone name. Everyone in the audience gets it—an 8-year-old who doesn’t know the difference between vaudeville and Louisville would probably adapt to the Marx universe in no time. In a fancy restaurant, Margaret Dumont waits for a meeting with her manager. Groucho, seated directly behind her, promptly leaves his date when he receives the check: “$9.40!? This is an outrage! If I were you, I wouldn’t pay it.” He then joins his original date, Ms. Dumont, for a second meal. “Have you got any milk-fed chicken? Squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.” Et cetera, et cetera. It scored well on the amuse-o-meter; I don’t need to dissect it.
S: I have seen clips from this film many times in documentaries over the years. It is one of the most beloved of the Marx Brothers movies, and for good reason. The dinner scene you mention, stateroom scene and the contract scene are all favorites among film fans and comedians. Maybe because I'd seen these bits before, I appreciated many of the smaller moments, the unexpected gags, like Groucho goosing Sig Ruman with a party blower, Harpo's nod to Douglas Fairbanks' famous slide down the ship sail from The Black Pirate as he descends with the backdrop between his legs, Groucho taking credit for shooting the opera star who is only passed out, or Harpo kissing everyone goodbye on the cruise ship. My favorite bit, which I watched a few times, was the frantic hotel room sequence where the boys make beds disappear from the room. They have no respect for authority, tradition, manners or expectations.
A: The movie is as densely packed with gags as that stateroom. All the little bits you mention just confirm that I already need to re-watch this one. The corniest joke in the stateroom scene made me laugh the hardest. (It was the line about stewed prunes if I must reveal my weakness for lame jokes.)
S: There are lots of fun lines that could be and have been repeated. I liked Chico's remark about Harpo, "Don't wake him up. He's got insomnia; he's trying to sleep it off."
A: Yes, another one that got me! I’m no Marx Bros. expert but even I felt that their corners were slightly sanded down for A Night at the Opera. As I understand it, under Thalberg-led MGM, the Brothers were groomed to be slightly less aggressive.
S: One of my favorite Marx Brothers stories involves Thalberg, who made the mistake of leaving the boys waiting for a meeting in his office. They had enough time to find potatoes, take off all their clothes, and sit waiting in front of the fireplace roasting their spuds when Thalberg walked in. They were anarchists on screen and off. Nothing was serious enough to be taken seriously.
A: I usually get a chill at Harpo’s antics, a feeling which was noticeably absent while I watched this movie. I even felt a little tenderness toward the imp while he played his harp aboard the cruise ship. At 93 minutes, I couldn’t help think that Harpo should have been let loose in the editorial department with those scissors. If I can soldier through those “normal” moments in W.C. Fields’ movies—I’m thinking of Gloria Jean in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break—then I can relax during the Kitty Carlisle scenes here.
S: Although I think they were necessary for the plot, some of the music scenes dragged the tone of the film down. Even Harpo playing the harp, or Chico playfully playing the piano could have been excised. Some of the comedy sequences are five star bits, but the movie overall isn't perfect. I give it four stars.
A: This was not my favorite Marx Bros. film, but I still greatly enjoyed it. Three stars—one for each brother (no Zeppo in this one).