A Night at the Opera (1935)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in One-Man Show | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Double entendres and all-out anarchy.

Though he knew nothing of The Marx Brothers, Jean-Michel Frodon, a cinema writer at the French newspaper Le Monde, recalls going to the cinema to see A Night at the Opera at the request of an acquaintance. At only 10 years old, reading subtitles was a difficult task, especially considering the rapid verbal pace of the mustached man with a cigar. Not that he cared to see what they were saying by that time. After all, he was already rolling on the floor with laughter, barely keeping his eyes from watering or seeing above the towering seats, let alone read subtitles.

Everyone who has seen the works of The Marx Brothers has a similar story and will no doubt be able to recite their favorite lines and scenes verbatim. “You can’t fool me; there ain’t no sanity clause.” If you’ve yet to see a Marx Brothers movie, stop whatever plans you have tonight and watch one. After that you’ll want to halt your plans for the weekend and track down as many as you can find for a personal marathon. While their magnum opus is undoubtedly Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera has the comedians’ best set pieces and the laughs are open to audiences of all ages – some of Duck Soup’s socio-political jabs will be lost on youngsters.

By themselves, meaning individually, Marx3The Marx Brothers were nothing more than talented stock characters in a vaudeville act. Together, they created something entirely new that revolutionized screen comedy: rhythmic anarchy. The Brothers, and by that I mean the principle three, were (allegedly) nicknamed for their disposition, talents for instrumentation, and knack for chasing women. Known for his signature crouching walk and cigar, grease moustache and glasses (leading to novelty shop items), Groucho Marx played a phony member of high society who failingly tried to mooch his way into the upper crust. With a mouth like a trampoline as his one-liners and quips bounced randomly into conversations, Groucho was never completely appreciated in his time as lowbrows missed some of his verbal missiles and high society scoffed at the rest. Known for his classical harp playing and animated facial expressions (notably stuffed cheeks and crossed eyes with his tongue partially out), Harpo Marx relied on pantomime antics and sometimes a flute to communicate and snare laughs. Like Robert Crumb’s comics, Harpo is the Id in its pure form: he chases girls and always seems to be hungry (he downs items such as a cigar and thermometer). Harpo is often the favorite of younger viewers since he’s notably childlike, and just as destructive. Known for his gunpoint piano playing and muddy Italian accent (“Get-a your Tootsie Fruitsie”), Chico Marx (pronounced chick-oh) plays a straight character for plot development and switches (for comedic purposes) to Harpo’s translator for urgent communication gags or Groucho’s other half for verbal banter.

Of course, The Marx Brothers legend isn’t complete without mentioning Margaret Dumont, who played an elegant socialite in seven of their movies. Groucho pursued and often insulted her character for financial benefit, with little luck and a lot of laughs. One comedian, I forget who, accurately dubbed her, “the rock-hard center for the chaos to revolve around.”

The Brothers’ first two films, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, were adaptations from the stage written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who later returned with A Night at the Opera. When the trio moved from Paramount to MGM, producer Irving Thalberg injected a dramatic storyline into the films instead of the incoherent craziness of their first five films (they never saw the creative control enjoyed by Chaplin or Keaton). The movies were more financially successful for it (Duck Soup was a flop), but suffered from worthless sappy bits and lavished musical productions. The movie formula placed the Brothers in unique surroundings (a circus, sanitarium, opera, college, resort, ship, etc.) with a love story involving a tenor and ingénue, and a few bad guys that get in the way of the Brothers’ finances or love story, which leads to the inevitable conclusion where the Marx Brothers comically save the day.

Before breaking into cinema, the Brothers were stars on the stage. At Thalberg’s insistence, they pre-tested their MGM materials and set pieces on a stage tour to polish up the act. The Marx Brothers will always be known for their set pieces, which keep building and stretching out until they finally burst at the seams. Their classics include the land auction in Cocoanuts, bridge game in Animal Crackers, passports and puppets in Monkey Business, football game in Horse Feathers, Tootsie Fruitsie in A Day at the Races, and sanity clause in A Night at the Opera. The only gag more famous and replicated than the magic mirror in Duck Soup is the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, in which more and more passersby pack themselves into the Brothers’ tiny cabin and Groucho orders three more hard-boiled eggs. “Do they allow tipping on this point?” Groucho asks. “Do you have two fives? Then you won’t need the 10 cents I was going to give you.”

The plot of the movie involves the greatest tenor in the world (Walter Woolf King), the owner of the New York Opera Company (Siegfried Ruman), and a promising tenor (Allan Jones, who replaced Zeppo in the MGM run) backed by the Brothers. The climax involves the Brothers at a particularly chaotic opera show as they switch music sheets and play baseball in the orchestra pit, tear the clothes off actors on stage, and perform acrobatics in the wings. As usual, Chico has a piano solo and Harpo has his harp solo, but Harpo also plays piano and delivers a speech (sort of). Groucho is, well, Groucho. “Waiter, check please. Nine dollars and 40 cents, this is an outrage. If I were you I wouldn’t pay it.” In another amusing set piece, the Brothers run between the bedrooms of an apartment switching furniture to confuse the police. “I see the table is set for four,” the officer states. “That doesn’t prove a thing; my alarm clock’s set for eight,” Groucho responds.

Sam Wood, the director of Races and Opera, was reportedly a perfectionist and often asked the Brothers to do as many as 20 takes of one scene. As the story goes, Groucho wasn’t a fan of this and often complained, to which Wood said, “I guess you can’t make an actor out of clay.” Always the smart alec, Groucho retorted “nor a director out of Wood.” A Night at the Opera was the first of their MGM run and led to a remake by the Zucker Brothers in 1992 called Brain Donors and, along with the subsequent A Day at the Races, led to titles of Queen albums. Thalberg died during the production of Races and, with him, The Marx Brothers’ run of classic films (though some, like Woody Allen, submit that they never made a great film, they just committed a legendary comedy act on celluloid). Still, in a review of Go West, one of the Brothers’ last and worst films, James Agee wrote “the worst they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of.”

Though some of the references will fly over modern audiences’ heads, the films and comedy of The Marx Brothers have stood the test of time for almost a century. That’s longer than most buildings. “Do you follow me? Well stop following me or I’ll have you arrested.”

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