Real-life siblings the Marx Brothers started their careers in Broadway vaudeville in the early 1900s. Chico (born Leonard) was the eldest surviving brother (first-born Manny had died in infancy), followed by Harpo (Adolph), Groucho (Julius), Gummo (Milton) and Zeppo (Herbert). The brothers enjoyed early fame during their stage era, and minus Gummo (who left the entertainment industry), the other four followed their stage success with a move to films. They starred in five titles for Paramount, some of which were based on their popular stage shows. Their first four films (one a year from 1929 to 1932) bought success, but the fifth (1933’s Duck Soup) did not do as well critically or financially. This eventually led to the end of their relationship with Paramount. Zeppo (who’d played the ‘straight man’ in these early films) left the troupe after this, and went on to become a theatrical agent.
During their post-Paramount film hiatus, big gambler Chico was playing cards with then 35-year-old MGM’s ‘Boy Wonder’ Head of Production Irving Thalberg (yes, he of the eponymous honorary Academy Award). The men got talking about the brothers signing with MGM, and this discussion eventually lead to their first title with the studio, 1935’s A Night at the Opera. Apparently lots of Old Hollywood deals got started over card games!
A Night at the Opera is hilarious, and is widely regarded as one of the funniest comedies of all time. It’s a worthy recipient of Graffiti with Punctuation Five Star Film status. Now, some reasons why this film is so terrific …..
1. THE INFLUENCE OF IRVING THALBERG
Thalberg had been concerned that the earlier Marx Brothers films, though in the most part successful, were alienating some potential audiences. He felt that their Paramount titles has been too lacking in structure, and often played out like a series of (admittedly funny) sketches, mashed together within a very loose narrative. He was also worried that the brothers’ characters came off as too mean-spirited, as their comic insults in these earlier films were indiscriminately aimed at every other character in the film, with no concern as to whether their ‘victims’ deserved it or not. Thalberg didn’t want ‘good guy’ characters copping it from the Marx Brothers, and believed that the boys needed ways of getting the audience on side with them from the beginning of the film. He let them choose their favourite writers for the film (George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind), but insisted on a more classical narrative structure, along with a romantic sub-plot.
Thalberg also took the novel approach of taking the film ‘on the road’ to try out the jokes and storyline before production began. A bit like the Broadway concept of the ‘out of town tryout’, he had the brothers perform selected scenes from the script in small and medium-sized towns (four times a day!), and based on audience emotional reactions and laughs, had the writers adjust the script accordingly. Thalberg’s idea was that fewer laughs could mean more box office. He certainly wanted the brothers to continue with their zany antics, but to make them less anarchic. He also felt that if the hilarious sketches were more seamlessly woven into a clear narrative (which involved the brothers working together to help the film’s young lovers get together), the audience would be rooting for them when they were mercilessly tormenting the bad guys.
The eventual plot of A Night at the Opera (which was directed by Sam Wood, who would later go on to direct, among other titles, 1939’s Goodbye, Mr Chips and 1943’s For Whom the Bell Tolls) entailed Groucho, as dodgy theatrical promoter Otis B. Driftwood, trying to woo wealthy widow Mrs Claypool (the wonderful Margaret Dumont: more on her shortly) for her money, while also doing some good: joining forces with Fiorello (Chico, in his usual cheeky Italian conman role) and Tomasso (Harpo, as a mute ex-Opera backstage dresser, who comes along for the ride), as they help young lover Opera singers Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and Ricardo (Allan Jones) overcome various obstacles, including interference by arrogant celebrity tenor Rodolfo (Walter Woolf King).
Thalberg’s directives paid off, and the film was a huge financial and critical success. Though some Marx Brothers fans who loved their earlier films felt that this new approach reigned the brothers in too much and took away some of their authenticity, there’s no doubt that the film still includes some of their funniest and most iconic work.
[On a sad note: two years later, in 1937, in the middle of production for the Marx Brothers’ second MGM feature (the fabulous and endlessly quoted A Day at the Races), MGM’s Boy Wonder tragically died at the age of 37, after complications with pneumonia.]
2. MARGARET DUMONT
One of the Marx Brothers’ most enduring screen legacies (not just in A Night at the Opera, but in six of their other films as well) is the collection of absolutely priceless scenes between Groucho and his ever-patient straight woman, Margaret Dupont.
Their work together was brilliant, and the contrast between cheeky and insulting Groucho and the ever-dignified Dumont is the stuff of comedy legend.
The fact that Dumont’s characters always reacted with either confusion to the put-downs from Groucho’s characters, or ignored them all together, made for a hilarious double-act. A hotly debated topic among film critics is whether or not Dumont was in on the joke. Some claim she was just a foil or a stooge who didn’t know what was going on (and some alleged quotes from Groucho appear to back this up), and others claim that she was aware, and that this was all part of her cleverness and skill as a performer (as some quotes attributed to Dumont appear to claim she WAS in fact in on the joke). Whatever the truth, their scenes together are legendary.
One of the greatest comic exchanges in A Night at the Opera was between Groucho and Dumont. Dumont’s Mrs Claypool asks Groucho’s Driftwood ‘Do you have everything Otis?’, to which he replies ‘Well, I haven’t had any complaints yet’. This line, one of many suggestive ones in the film, was actually cut by censors in many US states where the film played in it’s original run.
The Hayes Code, the film industry’s set of moral censorship guidelines, had only began being enforced in 1934, a year before A Night at the Opera (after being adopted in 1930). Though the above-mentioned line was censored, many others brazen and innuendo-filled ones slipped through, such as these doozies from Groucho:
* ‘You’re willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of ‘Minnie the Moocher’ for 75 cents’. [Pause] ‘For a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie’.
* In answer to a detective’s comment that ‘The last time I was in this room there were four beds here’:
‘Please! I’m not interested in your private life, Henderson’.
Another classic line which was particularly cheeky (though not a concern for censors), was when Groucho mimics Greta Garbo, by saying her famous line from Grand Hotel ‘I vant to be alone’. The Garbo film was only three years earlier (1932), so the joke reference a was relatively recent one for 1935’s audiences. What I love about this is that even though the Garbo film is over eighty years old, audiences watching A Night at the Opera today still get the Grand Hotel connection – and it seems as fresh (and is certainly as funny) as it was four generations ago.
4. THE MULTI-SKILLED BROTHERS
Groucho, Harpo and Chico’s highly tuned comic skills are on display all throughout A Night at the Opera. In a particularly hilarious iconic scene, Groucho and Chico discuss the clauses of a performer’s contract. The scene is completely ridiculous (in the best possible way), and their banter as they debate ‘the party of the first part’ etc is just delicious. They literally tear off bits of the contract as the discuss and abandon various clauses, until they are just left with tiny scraps of paper at the end. Chico’s best line of the scene (in response to Groucho’s comments about a ‘sanity cause’) is (in his trademark fake Italian accent) ‘…you can’t fool me, there aint no Sanity Claus’.
The Marx Brothers were not only uber-skilled comics, they were also accomplished musicians. In A Night at the Opera, as in many of their films, they (particularly Chico and Harpo) displayed their musical skills. In this film, there’s a beautiful extended scene where Chico entertains a group of children with a comic piano performance. The children are both amused and mesmerised, as they are when Harpo takes to the piano. Both piano performances combined skilled musicianship and expert comic timing. Perhaps the most moving of the brothers’ musical performances is a lovely harp (and whistling) solo performed by Harpo – again to mesmerised audience (this time of both adults and children).
5. THE FAMOUS ‘STATEROOM SCENE’
Undoubtedly, the most famous scene from A Night at the Opera is the ‘Stateroom scene’. It’s also the funniest. The gag setup begins when Groucho’s Otis is allocated a less than salubrious cabin/stateroom on a passenger ship. The room is so small it doesn’t even look sufficient for one man, let alone four (as he’s planning to hide three stowaways in the room too). Due to an absurd turn of events over a period of just a couple of minutes, extra people (including, among others: a manicurist, two cleaners, and four waiters) keep turning up wanting to enter the room for various reasons. It gets more and more ridiculous by the second, and as the scene nears its end, there are actually FIFTEEN PEOPLE in the tiny room – at which point some of the characters end up literally climbing the walls to fit in. The scene finally ends when Dumont’s Mrs Claypool opens the outward-opening door from the hallway into the stateroom, and all fifteen people fall out into the hall and into a chaotic pile. Rumour has it that the great Buster Keaton collaborated with the Marx Brothers and the production team on this scene, but this fact is difficult to verify. Either way, whether or not Keaton was involved, the scene is just magnificent.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing A Night at the Opera, I urge you to see it. Or at the very least, please check out the Stateroom Scene:
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf