A Night at the Opera (1935)
Written by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Al Boasberg, and James Kevin McGuinness
Directed by Irving Thalberg
With this film, many changes happened to the Marx Brothers going forward. It was their first picture at MGM, having left Paramount on reasonably bad terms. Their contract expired, and they had no interest in renewing it with Paramount. Zeppo left the pictures and joined brother Gummo in working on the business side of things, forming a talent agency that would take on clients like Jack Benny and Lana Turner. Irving Thalberg played cards with Chico and worked as a producer at MGM. During their games, he began discussing the Brothers make a move to MGM but had some terms and conditions.
A Night at the Opera is a much more standardized movie that previous Marx works. Thalberg insisted on having a stronger narrative so that the Brothers’ antics followed a plot. He always wanted the Brothers to come across as more sympathetic to audiences. Thalberg saw their penchant for terrorizing random characters with anarchic comedy as offputting, particular female moviegoers who were the most considerable portion of the audience. There would need to be romantic supporting characters whom the Marxes would help and a very clear villain whom the Marxes would hinder. It’s relatively strange to go from the wild over the top nature of Duck Soup to a movie that seems like a Marx Brothers picture but more conventional.
Otis P. Driftwood (Groucho) has conned wealthy dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) into being her business manager with the help of getting her into high society. His ruse is foiled when the director of the New York Opera, Herman Gottlieb, introduces himself to Claypool during dinner while she is abroad in Venice. Claypool invests a considerable amount of money to secure famous tenor Rodolfo for a season in New York and drops Driftwood. Meanwhile, Fiorello (Chico) manages choir member Ricardo who has aspirations to lead the opera but is also smitten with soprano Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). Rodolfo’s dresser (Harpo) is a focus of the vein star’s abuses but is protected by Fiorello and Ricardo. The whole group ends up on an ocean liner headed to New York City and goes through a series of escapades that culminations in a massive display on the stage of the opera house.
While not as unhinged as earlier Marx movies, A Night at the Opera does have some fantastic comedy set-pieces. When Driftwood first meets Fiorello, he mistakes him for Rodolfo’s manager, and they enter into contract negotiations. This consists of Driftwood reading a section and Fiorello responding that he doesn’t like that part, they both proceed to tear it out of the duplicates they hold. There’s the visual comedy of the contracts getting so small they become a single shred of paper. There is also the puns you expect from Chico.
Driftwood: It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!
The second major set-piece is the stateroom scene, which finds Driftwood assigned what amounts to a janitor’s closet on board the ocean liner. Add to this, he has a comically over-sized steamer trunk, which is the way Fiorello, Harpo, and Ricardo have snuck onto the ship. Driftwood attempts to get rid of them, but they refuse until they get some food. Driftwood goes into the hallway and finds a porter who can take his order.
This first sequence involves Driftwood naming the food items he wants while being interrupted by Chico continually shouting for two hard-boiled eggs despite needing to stay quiet in the room. The second part of the sequence involves workers on the boat coming to check the pipes that run along the wall or services being offered to the Brothers. These people keep cramming inside the tiny room until people are stepping on top of each other, and then the food arrives. There’s even a young woman who thought this was her aunt’s cabin and then asks to use the phone. Exhausted at this point and feeling “in for a penny, in for a pound,” Driftwood invites her on inside.
The chaos is toned down, more controlled, and that would be the way the Marx Brothers films would be from here on out. Audiences were demanding more story rather than just a filmed musical-comedy revue when they went to theaters. I certainly think some magic was lost as a result with Duck Soup serving as evidence that when tempered the right way, the Marx Brothers could be anarchically fantastic. A Night at the Opera is still hilarious, just a sign that the Hays Code and more conservative studio heads were exercising more significant control of the final products.