Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Director: Sam Wood
Starring: The Marx Bros, Kitty Carlisle, Allen Jones

#12 on AFI's 100 Laughs
#85 on AFI's Top 100 (2007)

After a two year hiatus from the silver screen the Marx Brothers return to create even more ciaos in A Night at the Opera. Since we last saw the Marx Bros. in Duck Soup in 1933 the group had left Paramount over contract disputes, youngest brother Zeppo left the group, and the three remaining members would sign on with the biggest and most lavish studio in Hollywood, MGM. In this picture we see how a new studio and it’s larger budget changed the Marx Bros.’ brand  of comedy by corralling the silliness and channeling it through a film that actually has a reasonable plot, with a true beginning, middle, and end along with production value above anything that they had worked in before. Some would say the change limited the group’s humor, while others thought less was more for a team that had previously felt out of control. In either case this feature would make for a highly entertaining movie that would be remembered as one of the groups very best.

A Night at the Opera is a Marx Bros. comedy about the reuniting of a young couple who are being separated due to one going on tour with an opera company, and the several messes created by the men that help make it possible. Despite the film being a madcap runaround with the Marx brothers, it is centered on the tale of two young lovers Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), a successful blooming opera singer picked to join a New York opera group with very famous and egotistical star, and Riccardo (Allen Jones), an equally talented, yet overshadowed singer whom Rosa loves and reluctantly leaves behind in Italy while setting sail for America. With the help of Riccardo’s manger Fiorelli (Chico) and his sidekick Tomasso (Harpo), Riccardo is perceived by silly opera executive Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) to be the real talent of the opera  instead of Rosa’s narcissistic co-star. Riccardo, Fiorelli, and Tomasso stow away in Otis’ luggage as they set sail across the Atlantic for America and cause a humorous ruckus on board of the ocean liner, eventually sabotaging the opera’s opening night reuniting the young lovers, concluding with the creation of a new sensation in the New York opera.

Unlike the Marx Bros. films with Paramount, where they tend to simply run around and cause all sorts of trouble for laughs, A Night at the Opera contains a serviceable story with a complete arc in development, proceeding to an ultimate conclusion. The studio MGM, producer Irving Thalberg in particular, saw the brothers as a great draw, but thought that their overall troublesome actions made their characters unsympathetic. Believing that a solid plot complete with villains and story structure would make for their characters more likable and would have audiences to root for the Marx Bros. as heroes. In a way Thalberg was correct. The laughs are not flying at you a mile a minute as you might have seen in their previous  features, such as Monkey Business or Horse Feathers, but the characters seem more sympathetic instead of men just destroying the civility that surround them. In all they are very much the Marx Bros. of old, minus straight man Zeppo who was easily replaced by a minor actor, supplying us with tremendous physical and word gags that the team worked hard on in a small stage tour to perfect the laughs they desired on the film.

To corral the zany brothers in this picture was Sam Wood, a long time veteran director that had worked with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille in the silent days of film and proceeded to become a lesser known studio director at MGM. Wood was said to be a perfectionist, working Groucho, Chico, and Harpo to great lengths to get his shots perfect. Added in this feature, unlike the films made for Paramount, were lavish musical numbers that added to the more sophisticated production quality that MGM had over other studios. The large dance number would seem a little out of place when you think about it, but it blends in well with the overall picture, something that can be seen as acceptable and appreciated of an added spectacle which MGM provides.

Even with the transition to MGM we still see familiar friends to the Marx Bros. Margret Dumont in her usual role as elder love interest to Groucho, for who to bounce jokes off of, her being the straight, sophisticated woman whom he clashes with. Her role is somewhat reduced, but helps mask the transition from one studio to the other. With Zeppo exiting the group, being the straight man and lesser entertaining of the brothers, his style character as the usual center of the actual plot would be handed to Allan Jones. This newcomer to the screen would not quite be as entertaining as Zeppo in interacting with the brothers, but his musically trained vocal cords would be on show as he sings with and serenades his co-star Kitty Carlisle. Kitty would call A Night at the Opera her big break, showcasing her own musical talents as well as her acting skill.

The picture would feature two of the groups most well known scenes, known simply as “the contact scene” and “the stateroom scene” to anyone who is a historian of film comedy. The contract scene is a dialogue heavy sketch between Chico and Harpo with the usual misguided understanding of Chico and his poorer grasp of the English language, including his disbelief of a “Sanity Claus” (Santa Claus). Their banter back and forth ends up with a contract that is a piece of paper about one inch in height compared to the very large paper it started out as. The stateroom however would be a much loved scene by many comedians. It is a scene that starts in Groucho’s stateroom, starting off already very  cramped, but the addition of his large trunk fills much of the. Bursting out from the truck is Chico and Harpo, then over time enter maids, engineers, waiters, and more until the tiny room contains 15 characters total, each committed to performing their task. It is a scene that needs to watched to appreciated to its fullest, using the comic rule of building on a joke, which expands the humor. It is said the scene was a difficult one to perform, originally not producing the flare the brothers wished it would have. Eventually they would throw away the script and for the most part improvise the scene creating the spontaneity of the humor.

A Night at the Opera was a monster success for MGM and the Marx Bros. Critics for the most part liked the film, but there were few that saw this as a limiting version of the brothers, preferring the pile of jokes thrown wildly on the screen in their Paramount features. This picture would keep the humor more contained, but it allowed for a timed execution of the jokes that permitted more space for laughter than they had previously. Despite the reasonable critiques, the movie would be hailed as one of the teams very best along side of Duck Soup. Its legacy would be rewarded with listing on AFI’s Top Laughs list of 2000 as the #12 all time best American comedy, as well as the 2007 AFI list of all time best American movies at #85; a rare occasion to find a silly comedy bring compared side-by-side to such highly praised dramas. Furthermore, it would be preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress as a national treasure of sorts for importance to the American culture of the 20th century.

The Marx Bros. had found a new home in Hollywood with a studio that provided them the opportunity for far greater success than they would have had anywhere else. They would not be quite as juvenile as they were before, but their skills were still there, including Chico’s masterful tickling of the piano and Harpo’s namesake of playing a beautiful harp. Things were not quite the same with the barrage of jokes before, but it would not seem to matter as people continued to enjoy Groucho, Chico, and Harpo as they persisted to create a humorous mess on screen.

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