"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 11, 2011

"A Night at the Opera" (1935) (Film review)

Business promoter Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx with his trademark glued-on mustache, thick eyebrows and fat cigar) is hired by dignified dowager and would-be socialite Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, Groucho's perennial nemesis, who remains typically unruffled by the many insults he hurls at her) to help her enter high society. He convinces her to invest in an opera production, whose self-important manager Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) engages an arrogant tenor Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) as his star singer. But the leading soprano, hotty brunette Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) is in love with the young, talented singer Ricardo (Allan Jones). With the help of two wacky friends (Italian piano player and con man Chico Marx, and harp-player plus mute girl-chaser Harpo Marx) she tries to give him his big break. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo think up a zany plot to turn Ricardo into a star at the expense of Lassparri and enable the young lovers to stay together.

A Night at the Opera was the most successful film of the Marx Brothers at the box office, made after the absurdist anti-war Duck Soup had failed to catch public interest. The love interest was added at the instigation of MGM to catch more female viewers and there is more of a story than in their previous films thanks to a well-developed screenplay. Production values are high (director was Sam Wood) with several inserted musical numbers - of course Chico and Harpo have their piano and harp routines as well. To be sure the gags and jokes would work, the film was first market-tested in the vaudeville circuit.

Are the Marx Brothers still funny? In the main, yes. Of course some of the routines are dated and tired, but there was enough to keep me interested: the tearing up of a contract by taking out clause after clause ("The Party of the first part" etc.), the scene where a ton of people are being stuffed into Groucho's small cabin room, the sequence where the furniture is switched between two rooms to elude a private detective, or Harpo swinging like Tarzan on stage fly ropes high up in the opera house. This was the iconic scene I remembered the film by from seeing it long ago.

Made during the Great Depression and poking anarchic fun at authorities, this film is a sure antidote against any form of depression!