- Director: Sam Wood
- Writers: Screenplay by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and Al Boasberg, Story by James Kevin McGuinness
- Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman, and Walter Woolf King
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#85)
- Where to Watch: Stream with cable subscription on TCM App, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV
There is a case to be made that the Marx Brothers fundamentally changed the way American comedy worked. They were the first comedy superstars of the sound era, the successors of Chaplin, Keaton, and many others geniuses of physical comedy. The Marx Brothers could certainly pull off physical comedy with the best of them, but their primary gift was verbal. No one could turn a bunch of lines on a page into an action sequence quite like these guys. Their energy, however, was almost too anarchic for both Hollywood and the public to handle. They became stars at Paramount, which gave them freedom to basically do whatever they wanted. These movies eventually culminated in what is probably my personal favorite Marx Brothers’ movie, Duck Soup. Following that movie’s tepid reception at the time, MGM and super-Producer Irving Thalberg offered the brothers all of the money, but also repackaged them for the sake of “palatability.” Starting with A Night at the Opera, the Marx Brothers made a series of (slightly) more restrained comedies at MGM that all followed a very similar formula.
All of these movies have a non-Marx romantic couple, who the brothers assist in getting together. In their early movies, the brothers attack everyone they come across, friend or foe. They are a force of sheer chaos. In the Thalberg movies, they attack a bad guy on behalf of the lead couple. The joke density is dialed down, which is one of the reasons I like the earlier movies more in general, but the individual jokes are just as good. Thalberg actually said, counterintuitively, that he thought they could get “twice the box office with half the laughs.” Bizarrely, from my perspective, he turned out to be right. A Night at the Opera instigated a Marx career renaissance.
Here, the lead couple is played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones, but honestly you can pretty much forget about every scene they’re in. The Marx Brothers still managed to fit in some of their most famous and oft-imitated routines. The basic story starts in Italy, where the various characters are all part of an opera company. The company goes to America to tour, and the middle section of the movie is on an ocean liner. Then we get to America, where there are more hijinks and the brothers eventually succeed in driving off the girl’s abusive (this is played very differently than it would be today) lead tenor suitor in favor of the chorusboy who truly loves her.
One of the best known scenes in the movie takes place in the tiny stateroom the brothers are sharing, as more and more other people keep arriving to perform various services, packing into the room like a clown car. What makes the scene actually funny is the way they all take it completely seriously. One girl stands there the whole time trying to give Groucho a manicure, seemingly slightly annoyed at most at the nonsense going on around her. In another scene, Groucho and Chico engage in some of their most fun verbal gymnastics while going over a contract at length: “It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause.” “You can’t fool me! There ain’t no sanity clause!”
Also appearing in this movie, as she does in seven total Marx Brothers movies, is Margaret Dumont, an actual millionairess who acted as sort of a hobby. She served as their foil, the butt of many of their jokes, sometimes literally jokes about how big her butt is (“I can just see you, the perfect wife, slaving away in front of the stove. Of course, I can’t see the stove…”). She perhaps deserves to be known as one of the best sports in American history. Here, she plays a rich widow, Mrs. Claypool, who wants to donate to the opera company, a shoestring on which this movie lays an awful lot. Groucho himself referred to Dumont as the “Fifth Marx Brother,” and though she doesn’t actively engage in the hijinks she’s somehow just as important to many of the jokes.
1935 was a very different time in terms of the musical landscape, and MGM really did sell this movie partly on it including multiple actual, full-length opera scenes, scenes that a modern viewer may get the urge to fast forward through even if they’re reasonably high quality. Carlisle and Jones were in fact cast in their parts partly on the basis that they were both trained opera singers. We also get a lengthy interlude, not unusual in Marx Brothers movies, where Harpo plays harp and Chico plays piano. In Vaudeville, you had to have multiple talents. These scenes also feel really weird to a modern viewer, who likely won’t be sure how to react. Are they supposed to be funny? What is actually happening? You just kind of have to go with it.
One of the things I’ve discovered in going through some of these greatest movie lists is that I actually really enjoy watching the Marx Brothers. It was sort of a weird realization in that I’d never really given them a second thought before. Even though, as I said, A Night at the Opera isn’t my favorite, it’s lots of fun, and I think it might not be a bad “introductory” Marx movie if you are unfamiliar. Try as they might, even the MGM movies still have that essential, anarchic energy, which is the part that makes the Marx Brothers really worth watching.