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On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera
(1935)

(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

Driftwood: Say, was that three fellows, or one fellow with three beards?

Irving Thalberg can be blamed in part, for impressing upon the brothers that they should be more sympathetic, more likeable and less wilfully anarchic. Oh, and have a solid plotline to see them through. The latter, I can’t wholly disagree with (although it goes somewhat against the operating principle of an anarchic tone), but the rest definitely leave one with a takeaway that something vital and distinctive has gone astray.

Driftwood: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
Mrs Claypool: Really?
Driftwood: Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (aside) If she figures that one out, she’s good.

Nevertheless, the opening scene is classic Groucho, his Otis B Driftwood not so much arriving late for dinner – in Milan – with Margaret Dumont’s Mrs Claypool as revealing he arrived an hour earlier and already had dinner with another guest. Whom he leaves with the bill (“Nine dollars and fifty cents? This is an outrage! If I were you, I wouldn’t pay it!”) He also makes it clear he isn’t keen on Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman’s first appearance with the brothers) vying for the attention of a rich widow (“… incredible as it may seem, Mrs Claypool isn’t as big a sap as she looks”). Groucho, Dumont’s business manager, has arranged for her to invest in the New York Opera Company, Gottlieb being its director.

Henderson: Say, what’s that bed doing here?
Driftwood: I don’t see it doing anything.

Soon after, however, we’re introduced to Harpo and Chico, and something is clearly off. It’s as if they’ve been emasculated (some would doubtless consider that a good thing in Harpo’s case). Harpo (as Tomasso) is being beaten up by rotter star tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) and the closest he gets to the loveable sex pest of old is when he’s unconscious (in the state room sequence). He does, eventually, hit Lassparri with a mallet (twice, having brought him round with smelling salts for the second bout) but he has evidently been reined in. Chico (as Fiorello) is hopelessly dedicated to bringing chorister pal Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) into the big time. And with Ricardo being smitten with soprano Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle), even Groucho gets in on the “lead” lovers plot, relaying messages that will see true love finding a way.

Mrs Claypool: Get off that bed. What would people say?
Driftwood: They’d probably say you’re a very lucky woman.

This basic idea of crazy contrast to a straight “main” plot has been repeated since, of course (Pirates of Caribbean being one of the most recent), and Zeppo was nominally filling this function in some of the earlier pictures. There, however, there was little real dedication to the element, and it certainly never felt like it was actually sapping the life out of the urge to run riot. Jones and Carlisle are really quite insipid, and everything stops for a couple of duets between them. Indeed, at one point, there’s a ten-minute musical interlude in which both Harpo and Chico tickle the ivories. The fast-forward button was invented with exactly this in mind.

Driftwood: Now pay particular attention to this first clause because it’s most important. It says the, uh…“The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part.” How do you like that? That’s pretty neat, eh?
Fiorelli: No, that’s no good.

Groucho has some fun tearing strips of Gottlieb and being rude to Mrs Claypool (“Ah, twin beds. You little rascal, you”), but his best moments come with his brothers. There’s the classic “sanity clause” scene with Chico, in which the latter thoroughly exasperates Groucho with his objections to a contract (cue much looking to camera on Groucho’s part). It’s only afterwards that Groucho learns he has signed Ricardo rather than the sought-after Lassparri.

Henderson: Say! Now, how did those two beds get together?
Driftwood: Well, you know how those things are. They breed like rabbits.

Later, after stowing away on ocean liner bound for New York (shades of Monkey Business), Harpo having cut the beards off three famous aviators (“Three greatest aviators, but you notice they’re travelling by boat”) – complete with animated moth – so he, Chico and Ricardo can impersonate them, they thoroughly confuse a police sergeant (Robert Emmett O’Connor) by moving all the furniture around in Groucho’s hotel room. During which, Harpo memorably disguises himself as an old lady in a Chico chair.

Driftwood: (as ship is sailing away) Hey, have I got time to go back and pay my hotel bill?
Captain: Sorry, too late.
Driftwood: That suits me fine.

During the second half of the picture, the New York section, Groucho is thrown down some stairs by a doorman, and they gate-crash Gottlieb, but the various entanglements at the opera, culminating, naturally, in everyone getting what they deserve (Ricardo a contract, Lassparri booed offstage and Groucho his job back), are all so legitimate and in keeping with traditional, prescribed movie justice, they can’t help but slightly disappoint.

Driftwood: Uh, have you got any stewed prunes?
Steward: Yes, sir.
Driftwood: Well, give them some black coffee, that’ll sober them up.
Fiorello: And two hard-boiled eggs.
Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs. (Tomasso honks repeatedly in the manner of Morse-code). It’s either foggy out, or make that twelve more hard-boiled eggs.

Nevertheless, A Night at the Opera is still mostly cut-above Marx Brothers entertainment, despite the extraneous fifteen minutes, and in the state room scene, it offers one of the most demented, inspired pieces of lunacy they ever devised. Groucho, shown to his cabin, discovers it’s on the small side (“Tomorrow you can take the trunk out and I’ll go in”), only to find himself even more cramped when three stowaways are revealed in the trunk. Orders for food ensure (“And two hard boiled eggs”), as does the arrival of several maids, an engineer, a manicurist, the engineer’s assistant, and a mopper upper, followed by the four stewards with their food. And then Mrs Claypool comes to the door.

Driftwood: (to carriage driver) Hey you. I told you to slow that nag down. On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

In somewhat diluted form, their routines gave them their biggest hit, but it’s undoubtedly the case that A Night at the Opera’s reputation as classic and the trio on peak form rests in no small part on that stateroom scene, and to a slightly lesser degree the sanity clause and the furniture rearrangement skits. 


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