Friday 30 November 2012

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Halløj i Operaen
The Marx Brothers were more than just an ensemble in showbiz. They became synonymous with disrespectful anarchy and chaos in the most positive and exasperating meaning of the words. Even today The Marx Brothers are frequently used as exponent for those concepts: “Who did I hire? The Marx Brothers?” Without a doubt the icon of the Marx Brothers will long outlive the memory of the films they made.

Before starting this voyage through early cinema The Marx Brothers were one of the few familiar names on the list. I had seen this one before and also “A day at the Races”, but it was a long time ago and I cannot say I remember much. What I do remember very well are the characters: Groucho, Harpo and Chico. They had real, more mundane names, but the world will always know them under their stage names and their unfailing looks that they carried from movie to movie. There were two other brothers, but they do not appear in “A Night at the Opera”.

As indicated above the style of the Marx Brothers is utter anarchy. You find something refined and pompous and the brothers will take is apart. In this movie it is the opera. What more refined backdrop can you find? They need such a stiff, inflexible opponent as counterweight to their shenanigans otherwise it does not work. Groucho Marx is funny when he runs corners on Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) or Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann) exactly because they are uptight and inflexible. Had they been smiling, easy people Groucho would not have been half as fun. That is also why Dumont is sometimes considered (at least by me) the extra Marx Brother. She is always there, the prime victim of their pranks. And she is excellent.

Groucho Marx is Otis B. Driftwood, a particularly sleazy and opportune agent, currently engaged by Mrs. Claypool (just consider their names again: Driftwood and Claypool, priceless!) to promote her into society. She has a lot of money and do not know what to do with them, prime victim. Driftwood actually accomplishes the task somewhere in between a flood of hidden and not so hidden insults by introducing her to Gottlieb, the manager of the New York Opera. She is to sponsor the opera so they can hire the famous tenor Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) in Europe and bring him in for the new season.

Lassparri is a self-obsessed prima donna and thus a first class victim for Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo). He also has the hots for a female singer Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) who in turn is in (mutual) love with the chorus singer (and hidden gem) Ricardo Baroni. Fiorello is a friend of Baroni and arranges to become his agent.

When Driftwood learns what sort of money Lassparri can get per show he maneuvers to become his agent. He finds Fiorelli and they agree to share in being his agent in one of the most ridiculous contract negotiations ever. The clauses are all “the first party, known as the first party” mumbo-jumbo and they end up tearing the contract to pieces obviously having no clue what it says. Well, soon enough Driftwood realizes it is Baroni not Lassparri he has signed.

The whole ensemble travel by boat to America and here we witness the funniest scene of the movie. Gottlieb, who has already take a dislike to Driftwood has installed him in an ultra-tiny cabin. There is barely room for Driftwood’s oversize suitcase. When he opens the suitcase he finds Fiorello, Tomasso and Baroni inside. They need to go to America as well because Rosa is going and they have no money. They are hungry however so they talk Driftwood into ordering food. It ends up being an enormous meal with a lot (!) of hardboiled eggs. While waiting for the food the maid comes to make up the bed, the plumber to fix the pipes, the cleaner to mop the floor, two women to give manicures and probably I forgot some. When the food arrives the three waiters manage to get in as well somehow, but when Mrs. Claypool shows up all come tumbling out the door like a flood. The scene is impossible to describe, it has to be seen.

In America the three stowaways are illegal immigrants and as such being chased by the police, notably Sergeant Henderson (Robert Emmett O´Connor) resulting in two spectacular scenes.

First the three of them are disguised as three famous airmen and are received with music and speeches and are required to make their own speeches, which do not go down very well.

Secondly they manage to drive the poor sergeant crazy when he visit the place they live in. By moving the furniture around continuously they confuse him so badly he just gives up.

But the glory moment is when the three Marx brothers turn the glorious premiere of the New York Opera in to a circus. The opera is so utterly profaned that you do not know whether to laugh or cry. All to the end of ruining Lassparri and Gottlieb and placing Baroni in the lead. Never has Il Trovatore been abused to this extent and to such amusing end and again it is the refined setting that makes the Marx Brothers funny.

While the story thus allows for scenes that in themselves are funny, it is also largely a vehicle for the anarchistic comic of the brothers. Groucho cannot open his mouth without a pun, an insult or just an insane statement. Chico plays well up against Groucho and Harpy is, well, just anarchy. A big child causing endless havoc.

Of the two Marx Brothers movies on the list I am tilting toward this one (the other one being Duck Soup). Primarily because of the backdrop. It is the self-styled pompousness of the opera world that makes the gags so funny.


  1. This is probably my favorite Marx Brothers movie. And the stateroom scene is one of the most famous comic scenes in cinema history, and rightly so.