Friday, January 14, 2011

A Night At the Opera

Year: 1935
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 85
Writer: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, James Kevin McGuinness
Director: Sam Wood
Star: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx

Haven’t I already reviewed this movie?

There are many similarities between “A Night At the Opera” and “Duck Soup,” the other Marx Brothers movie on the AFI Top 100 list (article here:, so there isn’t much left to say about the Brothers as characters. Groucho is still full of his witty witticisms, Harpo is the master of physical comedy and Chico is the best buffoon around. The characters they play here are nearly identical to their roles in the rest of the series, and their comedy routines are similar in tone and style.

So what else is there to say? I don’t want to copy and paste my previous review, so instead I’ll talk about the differences between the films. The biggest change here is that this film would be the first example of “structure” within the Marx Brothers series. “A Night At the Opera” hitches its gags and jokes on something resembling a plot, whereas “Duck Soup” dealt with a theme (politics) and then just let loose. Here there’s a romantic subplot between a male opera singer (Allan Jones) and a female opera singer (Kitty Carlisle) and several villains for the Brothers to gang up on. Jones seems to have taken up the mantle of Zeppo Marx (now gone from the series), in that he plays the pseudo-straight man in several scenes but also takes part in physical comedy when larger groups are needed.

The idea of having a “plot” in a Marx Brothers vehicle works both for and against it. Allowing the boys to hang their jokes on story developments makes some of their routines stronger, but at the same time the film’s best stuff takes place outside of the plot entirely. On the one hand, the movie feels like it’s heading somewhere (to opening night at the Opera House, to be precise) while “Duck Soup” and other earlier features drifted aimlessly into complete (albeit funny) anarchy for God-knows-how-long. On the other hand, though the romantic coupling is cute and disposable enough, it feels completely out-of-place and an unnecessary dose of sanity in an insane film.

The music here is a big improvement over the horrible, unfunny musical numbers in “Duck Soup,” but for the most part these are just as disposable. I’m not talking about the opera scenes, which work, especially when the Brothers sneak “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” into the orchestra’s reams of sheet music, but the two big expensive MGM musical numbers. What was the point of having them, especially when it’s much more fun to see Chico entertain children by playing the piano and Harpo at work on his harp?

Margaret Dumont is back here, playing (as she did in “Duck Soup”) the thankless role of the straight man to every Groucho joke. I really began to appreciate her here (though the role is smaller than in other films), because though she must appear serious and unamused in every scene, she’s really overacting just as much as the Brothers. She’s rolling every “r” and stretching every “t,” playing up every line as if she were an old theatre diva.

And what of the gags? Well, I’ve always been partial to Groucho, and he’s got some of his best zingers here. My favorite? While watching a disgusting gypsy onstage, he remarks to the audience: “How’d you like to feel how she looks?” And though no slapstick reaches the perfection of the mirror sequence in “Duck Soup,” seeing Harpo using the Opera backstage as a trapeze act to stay away from the police comes damn close. The overstuffed room scene has been copied so many times in lesser films and television that it can’t help but lose some of its power, but still remains quite funny.

Other moments don’t work. Here I’m thinking of the Brothers having their breakfast in Groucho’s hotel room. And the scene where Chico and Harpo discuss a singing contract, so famous for the “There ain’t no Sanity Clause” line, feels overlong and awkwardly edited today. The director, Sam Wood, seems to have originally intended to film the entire sequence in one take. But then maybe some of the jokes didn’t work, or maybe they were too dirty. Whatever the reason, there are sudden, awkward cuts to close-ups of Chico and Groucho saying unfunny filler lines before the film cuts back to the medium shot. It ruins the flow of the scene.

And yet, like “Duck Soup,” much more works here than doesn’t. To me, the Marx Brothers are the original version of the Muppets, and you embrace the scattershot style of their storytelling and humor the same way you would embrace an episode of “The Muppet Show.” “A Night At the Opera” is better than “Duck Soup” in certain ways, but in other subtle ways “Duck Soup” is better than this film, but those reasons are negligible. I’m not sure why those who chose the AFI Top 100 felt the need to put two films on the list, especially because they are so interchangeable. That last sentence wasn’t meant to be a come-down on the films, but why not pick the one that best exemplified everything the Brothers were about and spotlight that one film?

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

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