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Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Night at the Opera

A Night at the Opera was a turning point in the Marx Brothers' career. There earlier films, such as Horsefeathers and Duck Soup, are the ones that purists prefer, as they are almost complete anarchy. But they weren't box office hits. In 1935 they signed with MGM, and studio head Irving Thalberg had some advice for them--"help the lovers get together." Thus their characters would be more sympathetic.

It worked, as A Night at the Opera was a big hit, although again, purists might not rate it as high. It is certainly their best MGM film, though, as it contains some of their most iconic scenes.

The plot, such as it is, has Groucho as Otis B. Driftwood, a shady business manager for Mrs. Claypool (the ever patient Margaret Dumont). She is a widow with eight million dollars, and wants to get into society. Groucho arranges for her to donate money to the opera, which is run by stuffed shirt Sig Ruman.

Meanwhile, Chico used to manage a young tenor (Allan Jones), who is in love with the leading lady (Kitty Carlisle). She is being pursued by the vain Walter Woolf King. He is cruel to his dresser (Harpo Marx). All the Marx Brothers conspire to help Jones become the star that he deserves to be and get the couple together.

There are the predictably slow musical numbers--you can go to the bathroom when Jones and Carlisle sing "Alone," and Chico and Harpo do their bits on their instruments of choice. The best bits are when Groucho and Chico go over a contract, with the "party of the first part" rap.

Otis B. Driftwood: It's all right, that's in every contract. That's what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Claus!

Perhaps the most famous bit is the state room scene. Groucho has been given a room barely bigger than a closet on a steamship. Chico, Harpo, and Jones have smuggled their way on inside a massive trunk. Eventually several more people enter. A maid comes in to mop up and Groucho tells her she'll have to do the ceiling as that's the only open space. When Dumont opens the door everyone spills out.

I laughed most at a line when Groucho hears that Ruman is going to play King a thousand dollars a night for singing. Groucho says, "You can a record of  'Minnie the Moocher' for seventy-five cents. You can get Minnie for a buck and a quarter."

The film ends with Harpo swinging above the opera, while it is going on, like Tarzan. The boys manage to get Jones to replace King, and all is well.

The major change in this film from the others is that the boys project much more warmth, and only torment those guilty of pomposity and cruelty. There's a moment when Groucho delivers a note from Jones to Carlisle and she hugs him as if he were her grandpa. You didn't see that in the early films.

This was also the first film without Zeppo, who isn't missed, as he was never funny. Jones, on the other hand, for playing kind of a bland character, is very good as he chums around with the brothers. Carlisle, if you are a certain age, is best known for her later appearances as a panelist on To Tell the Truth. Both she and Jones did their own singing.

Overall I put A Night at the Opera as the fourth best Marx Brothers film, after Duck Soup, Horsefeathers, and Animal Crackers.

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