Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Night at the Opera

A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935) A career resuscitation for the zany Marx Brothers (or 3/4 of them—Zeppo does not make the studio transition with brothers Groucho, Harpo, and Chico), this was the first film made with the boys under their new contract with M-G-M, under the tutelage of Irving Thalberg. It was Thalberg's bright idea to take the Vaudeville vets back to Square One—back to the hit-days of The Cocoanuts, as they play glorified Rosencrantz's and Guildensterns to a couple of love-crazy kids for whom life is throwing a cold shower. It rather douses the film, as well, and softening the brothers' hellz-a-poppin' approach of the latter Paramount films. Unlike their previous film, Duck Soup, anarchy does not reign, but merely drizzles a little, getting the floor wet enough to allow the "bad guys" and authority figures to slip and fall.

I prefer the latter, where the focus is on the insanity of the brothers intruding on the niceties of the real world, with only rare interludes into unmolested cinema "reality."  It was a nice satiric touch to make them the heads of a small bankrupt nation who aspire to greatness (and economic recovery) by going to war,* and the send-up's of blind patriotism ring true in any decade.

Sadly, at the time, that didn't translate into boffo box-office, Thalberg's view of Duck Soup's drop in attendance was "there was no one to root for" (translation: anyone normal) so, starting with this film, the percentages were reversed.  There are lulls of song between the comedy bits, appropriate given the opera background of the story, giving breathing spaces to let audiences catch their collective breath—the kinds of interludes that prompted Groucho (in the film Horse Feathers**) to break the fourth wall to turn to the cinema audience and grouse: "I have to stay, but that's no reason the rest of you can't go to the lobby for a quick smoke or something!"

A Night at the Opera (written by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Al Boasberg, and, reportedly, the great Buster Keaton) sees Groucho as false-impressario Otis P. Driftwood, under contract and slightly under-thumb of society-craving Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont).  Chico is the manager of Riccardo (Allan Jones), who aspires to opera stardom and is in love with Rosa (Miss Kitty Carlisle—as she was known as a panelist on "To Tell the Truth").  Harpo is the dresser of Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), a gas-bag opera star,who also has designs on Rosa.  Immediately it becomes a case of clashing egos, thwarted love and abuse of power and entitlement, perfect diva-size targets for the Marxes to lampoon.  It's safe and sane, such a pity.  But, there is enough rich material to satisfy Marx Brothers fans.

And, thanks to the wonders of technology, you can skip over the other parts if you so desire.***  Where's my remote?  (Probably under Mrs. Claypool)

Still, one must be grateful.  Half a classic film is better than no classic at all. 

* Mussolini took Duck Soup as a personal insult and had it banned in Italy.

** Did it ever occur to you that the titles for the first Marx Brothers films (except for The Cocoanuts)  could be euphmisms for "Bull-shit?" Well, it certainly occurred to me!

*** In his review of A Night at the Opera, Roger Ebert says that is exactly what he does.

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