#411) A Night at the Opera (1935)

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#411) A Night at the Opera (1935)

OR “Don Grouchovanni”

Directed by Sam Wood

Written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Based on a story by James Kevin McGuinness.

Class of 1993

The film’s re-release trailer. See “Other notes” to learn why it’s important.

The Plot: While in Milan, business manager Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) convinces dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret DuMont) to invest in the New York Opera Company. Driftwood attempts to sign up international tenor Rudolpho Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), but due to a mixup with an agent named Fiorello (Chico Marx), accidentally signs a contract for Fiorello’s friend Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones). There’s a love story between Baroni and Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle), the silent antics of Lassparri’s dresser Tomasso (Harpo Marx), a stateroom with 15 people crammed into it, plenty of musical interludes, a sanity clause, and two hard-boiled eggs. [Honk] Make that three hard-boiled eggs.

Why It Matters: The NFR covers the film’s behind-the-scenes story (see “Other notes”) and admits that although this film “signaled [the Marx Brothers’] artistic decline”, it still has “plenty of frenetic fun”, singling out the stateroom scene.

But Does It Really?: Apparently I’m the only person who prefers this movie over “Duck Soup”. Yes, the Ricardo/Rosa subplot slows things down, but ultimately “Night at the Opera” is a more polished, funnier outing for the boys. That being said, both films are laugh-out-loud funny and iconic enough that there is no need to choose one over the other for NFR consideration.

Shout Outs: Groucho quotes another MGM classic by telling Sergeant Henderson “I vant to be alone”.

Everybody Gets One: Director Sam Wood was one of MGM’s workman directors, specializing in dramas like “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Pride of the Yankees”. Despite directing this and “A Day at the Races”, Wood didn’t get along with the Marx Brothers, who detested his penchant for numerous retakes. After failing to get Groucho to deliver a line his way, Wood allegedly commented “You can’t make an actor out of clay”, to which Groucho retorted “Nor a director out of Wood”.

Wow, That’s Dated: We get such ‘30s things as smelling salts, pageboys in restaurants, and opera as a thing people still go to. And when adjusted for inflation, Groucho’s outrageous $9.40 dinner bill comes to roughly $176.

Seriously, Oscars?: “A Night at the Opera” was completely shut out of the 1935 Oscars. MGM did, however, produce the Best Picture winner; another movie that takes place on a boat: “Mutiny on the Bounty”.

Other notes

  • During production of “Duck Soup”, Chico was playing bridge with his friend, MGM producer Irving Thalberg. Chico expressed the Marx Brothers’ dissatisfaction with working for Paramount, and over the course of the game, Thalberg successfully lured the act to MGM. Thalberg was the Marx Brothers’ key cheerleader at MGM, and got them to reign in their anarchic comedy to something that would appeal to a wider audience. The Marx Brothers (as well as future generations of fans) disapproved of this pseudo-censoring, but Thalberg was vindicated when “A Night at the Opera” became the most successful Marx Brothers movie of their career.
  • You may notice several abrupt cuts throughout the film, including one at the very beginning. At some point after the film’s release, the original negative was trimmed to delete all references to Italy (possibly done in the late ‘30s to appease Mussolini). This included an opening musical sequence establishing the film’s Milan setting, and, for some reason, the original credits which included the Marx Brothers replacing Leo the Lion. While most of this footage has been deemed lost forever, the Leo shots resurfaced in the film’s re-release trailer.
  • Right from the start Groucho is a relentless joke machine. Yes, it’s all scripted, but unlike a Jack Benny or a Bob Hope, Groucho makes it sound spontaneous.
  • Kitty Carlisle looks so familiar. Is she known for her work in the theater? Is she bigger than a breadbox? That’s two down, eight to go…
  • Both Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle were trained opera singers, and successfully lobbied to do their own singing. Walter Woolf King was also an opera singer, but because his character was a tenor, his natural baritone was dubbed.
  • Once the brothers start interacting with each other on screen, the movie really gets going, as evident in the contract scene between Groucho and Chico. Their timing is flawless.
  • Surprise guest stars ZZ Top as the aviators!
  • Ah, the stateroom sequence. Only the mirror scene in “Duck Soup” rivals it as the Marx Brothers’ signature piece. As always with the boys, the mix of physical slapstick and Groucho’s one-liners gives the scene an “everything but the kitchen sink” quality.
  • This was the first Marx Brothers movie without Zeppo, who quit acting and became a successful agent. Allan Jones makes an acceptable substitute straight man for the group; he’s basically Zeppo with a better singing voice.
  • Things come to a grinding halt for Chico’s piano solo and Harpo’s harp solo, but if nothing else it shows off their versatility.
  • Apparently Harpo did most of his own stunts in this movie, including the several instances where he swings from a rope. Harpo later admitted that at age 47, this was a bad idea.
  • The sequence in which the boys pose as the aviators goes on a bit too long, but it has my favorite line in the movie: “I’m going out to arrange your bail.”
  • Margaret Dumont does not get a lot to do in this one, but at least it’s another classic for her resume.
  • The finale (the actual night at the opera) is worth the wait, with an inspired lunacy that never lets up. It helps that I’m a sucker for any scene where a vendor starts hawking food at a random non-sports related venue.

Legacy

  • As previously stated “A Night at the Opera” was a huge success, and the Marx Brothers followed-up with their very similar 1937 outing, “A Day at the Races”. After Irving Thalberg’s death, the boys lost their main support at the studio, and while they made three more pictures for MGM, even Groucho admitted they weren’t very good. The Marx Brothers ended their act in the late ‘40s, but continued to reunite and reminisce for the rest of their lives.
  • “A Night at the Opera” has been referenced throughout pop culture in the last 85 years. “MST3K” often referenced Groucho’s “make that three hard boiled eggs” line, and Cyndi Lauper (among countless others) paid homage to the stateroom scene in her “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” music video.
  • The band Queen’s fourth studio album “A Night at the Opera” is named in honor of the film. It’s the one with “Bohemian Rhapsody”!

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