Watching the Marx Brothers’ 1935 comedy classic A Night at the Opera is always an enjoyable experience. Watching it on the big screen with a theater full of delighted film fans is a special treat. But, watching A Night At The Opera with Groucho Marx’s grandson is a little slice of heaven. I had the privilege of doing just that during the second annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.
Preceding the opening night screening was a discussion with film historian Robert Bader and Andy Marx, Groucho’s grandson. A Night at the Opera is considered one of the funniest movies ever made (and rightly so), but in 1935, Groucho and the gang were experiencing a little turbulence getting the film made. It was the first Marx Brothers film made at MGM after they left Paramount, their home studio for comedy classics Duck Soup and Horse Feathers. The studio move represented a major shift in the way the Brothers did business. Zeppo was no more. Studio head Irving Thalberg discouraged improvisation, insisting on tightly scripted scenarios and pushed for a film with wider mass appeal.
While Thalberg challenged the Marx Brothers creatively, he believed in their brand of comedy and worked with them cooperatively during A Night at the Opera. However, according to Andy Marx, Louis B. Mayer was actively against the Marx Brothers. Marx relayed one famous story of a test screening of the film in Long Beach, CA (far enough away from Hollywood to qualify as an “average” sampling of American moviegoers): a preview screening of the film absolutely bombed; the audience hated it. Mayer’s doubts seemed justified. The Brothers in attendance had a spark of inspiration. They grabbed the film cans, walked across the street to another movie theater and talked the manager into letting them screen A Night at the Opera instead of their regularly scheduled movie. It killed! Just goes to show the effectiveness of test screenings, especially for something as subjective as comedy.
Andy Marx had plenty of stories of growing up with Groucho around the house. He remembered that his grandfather was less than enthusiastic about retelling stories about his glory days—until the Marx Brothers experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s. Groucho became a genuine comedy icon. Andy Marx related stories of watching his grandfather’s comedies at Groucho’s house with Jack Nicholson and other New Hollywood royalty in attendance. What a childhood! Many attendees at the TCMFF recall making audio recordings of old Marx Brothers movies and memorizing all the jokes; Andy Marx is probably the only did on earth who did the same thing and got to run lines with Groucho himself.
As for the film itself, A Night at the Opera is undoubtedly one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. The theatrical atmosphere only heightened the hilarity. So few comedies these days deliver on as many levels as a Marx Brothers comedy does. This film has it all: verbal wit (courtesy of Groucho), broad, physical humor (courtesy of Harpo), unexpectedly beguiling musical interludes (Chico on piano and Harpo on his mellifluous, signature harp), and a charming love story featuring Zeppo replacement, Allan Jones.
Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, a theatrical agent and shameless raconteur, who is wooing opera patron Margaret Dumont for her considerable, ahem, fortune. (Dumont was a Marx Brothers staple and a perfect comic foil for Groucho; he once called her “the fifth Marx Brother.”) Young tenor Riccardo (Jones) catches Groucho’s eye, but must contend with Jones’ manager Fiorelli (Chico) and his friend Tomasso (Harpo) who are determined to get Riccardo to New York to join the opera (illegally, of course). All of them must deal with the pompous opera star Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) and his crafty manager Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman).
A Night at the Opera features many memorable comedy routines, so many, in fact, it’s tempting to deem each one the film’s best. In perhaps the film’s most famed sequence, Harpo, Chico and Riccardo have stowed away in Groucho’s luggage, on board a steam ship headed for New York. Gottlieb, the rival theatrical agent, has put Groucho in the tiniest room on the ship, the boiler room. Crammed into Groucho’s oversized trunk, the brothers spill out into the tiny room, one on top of the other. Then, things get crazy. When the brothers order dinner (a comical amount of hardboiled eggs that would give even Cool Hand Luke pause), the waiters cram into the room, too. Then a manicurist. Then a cleaning lady. Then a maintenance man. More and more guests pack into the tiny stateroom, filling the frame with limbs akimbo, Groucho cracking wise all the time.
It’s a classic routine, but one that nevertheless seemed very familiar to me. During the Marx Brothers’ time at MGM, Buster Keaton was also working for the studio as an uncredited gag writer (after suffering a career slump as an MGM star in the early ‘30s). Keaton has a gag in his first MGM comedy The Cameraman wherein he’s trapped in a poolside changing room with a very burly, very angry man and both men struggle to get undressed in the tiny space. Coincidentally (or maybe not), The Cameraman was also screened during the TCM Film Fest and viewing both within a span of two days, the similarity became obvious. The gag is definitely Keaton’s, this time packed with a half dozen extra bodies and lots more wisecracks.
A Night at the Opera is also notable for its use of music. The setting, the opera world, naturally lends itself to a musical treatment. Harpo and Chico were both talented musicians and there’s a charming scene on deck of the ocean liner (bound from Italy to New York and full of rustic Italian immigrants) where their skills are put to use. In the first scene, Chico delights the children aboard with a comic routine on the piano. Director Sam Wood uses a wide shot to show us Chico really playing. The faces of the children must have been genuine: they are faces of pure, unadulterated joy. In true movie musical fashion, the scene halts the action entirely; we pause for a few minutes to enjoy the talents of a multifaceted performer doing what he does best, and then we return to the narrative. Harpo also dazzles with a performance on his namesake. As always, his harp playing is a stunning testament to legitimate musical prowess. There is no story reason to explain how Italian immigrants would have a giant harp on a steam ship, but that doesn’t stop us from basking in the enchanting melodies of the scene.
The film’s climactic sequence during a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore is a genius satire of the pomposity of high art (opera) vs. so-called low art (the movies). Gate-crashing the entire production, Groucho sells peanuts to the crowd and heckles the uppercrust patrons while Harpo swings from ropes and pulleys backstage, causing shenanigans on stage. Film allows what the theater cannot: revealing the artifice of the production, giving us a look at the staged performance, the backstage chaos, and the thin membrane between the dramatic (Il Trovatore’s gypsy camp) and the absurd (the wrong backdrop: a cable car, a storefront, etc.). The entire sequence is deftly choreographed, bringing together the romantic storyline, the opera storyline, and juggling all three Brothers’ whereabouts as they weave their way through the confused actors and the outraged patrons.
A Night at the Opera does not have the satirical bite of their earlier masterpiece Duck Soup and for that, will probably always be considered by some to be the lesser Marx Brothers movie. However, in terms of comedy construction and pure laugh factor, A Night at the Opera is the better film. All of the comedy routines, including the classic contract bit (with the famous “sanity clause” joke), are perfectly timed and executed. Their inclusion in any other movie would be the highlight of a lesser film. As always, seeing a film (especially a comedy) in a theater, with an audience, amplifies its impact. There are so many laughs in the picture that are packed so tightly, it’s thrilling to hear an audience react to one joke with a hearty laugh, followed by little, mini-laughs: the glorious ripple effect you rarely experience watching at home.