Thursday 8 April 2010

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Director: Sam Wood
Stars: Groucho, Chico and Harpo, the Marx Brothers

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Of all the comedians who have ever appeared in front of a film camera, the Marx Brothers are probably both the easiest to like and the easiest to hate. They were undeniably talented and they threw jokes at us at such a breakneck pace that it's impossible for some of them not to stick. Yet these jokes are often now so dated that it can also be hard not to groan aloud at many of them. If you haven't yet experienced the Marx Brothers, and you'd certainly know it if you had, I'll give you a brief introduction. Groucho is the most easily recognisable, with his painted moustache, bowlegged walk and quickfire sarcasm. He's usually in charge, playing characters with the sort of strange manufactured names I get spam from every day, and he gets most of the good lines. Chico pretends to be Italian and plays a mean piano when not gambling or running scams. Harpo, as his name suggests, is a harpist of renown but he never speaks, communicating instead in pantomime. He's also a consummate pickpocket.

The trio quickly get themselves into a whole mess of trouble, if they weren't already there to start with, and sixty or seventy frantic minutes later there's some sort of happy ending. There were two other Marx brothers but Gummo never appeared in film and Zeppo had left after their last movie, Duck Soup. I've seen all but one of the Marx Brothers movies proper, 1949's Love Happy still eluding me, but I watched all these back in 2004 and 2005 and they've all blurred together in my memory, because plots are nothing more than loose frameworks for them to hang routines onto. A Night at the Opera is certainly the best of them, but I still can't see why it's regarded as such a major classic. It's wildly inconsistent, for a start. What's more, the brothers were very much a product of the 1930s and I'm watching three quarters of a century on, so there must be crossed wires somewhere.

This one benefitted from a surprising piece of fortune and a good piece of advice. After their previous film, Duck Soup, flopped, both critically and commercially, Paramount let the brothers go and MGM promptly snapped them up, perhaps because Chico played cards with studio w√ľnderkind Irving Thalberg and made him laugh. A lot. It was Thalberg who suggested that rather than improvising around a theme like jazz musicians, as they tended to do, they should take their material on the road and test it out on real audiences. As such these jokes were carefully crafted routines, even though they still feel improvised. It was also Thalberg who pointed out that the only thing missing from their films was that they never helped anyone. From then on their plots, in as much as there were any, always involved the brothers trying to help someone, a person or a business, and that meant other actors sharing a tiny piece of the limelight.

A Night at the Opera has to do with keeping a couple of young lovers together and while their romantic scenes are the least of the film, the concept does at least provide a coherence that their previous movie often lacked. Kitty Carlisle, stage actress and opera singer, plays Rosa, the lovely leading lady in a production of I Pagliacci in Milan. She's pursued by two men: Rodolfo Lasspari, who is the company's arrogant leading man, and Riccardo Baroni, who describes himself as 'nothing but a glorified chorus boy'. Naturally she prefers the latter because that way lies difficulty and complexity and our story, and he's played by Allan Jones, a frequent sight in musicals of the thirties, who returned for the Marx Brothers' next film, A Day at the Races. He is perpetually happy beyond the call of the character, and I get the impression that the trio had him in stitches between shots and he never quite got back to normal. This isn't uncommon in Marx Brothers movies.

Everyone ties together because of Herman Gottlieb, who is the managing director of the New York Opera Company. He wants to hire 'the greatest tenor in the world', referring of course to Lasspari. To get him he needs money, which he finds in the hands of Mrs Claypool, a woman whose husband left her with eight million dollars. With Mrs Claypool he finds Otis B Driftwood, whom she has hired to put her into society, but as they're played by Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx respectively you can imagine how well that's been going. These two were regular foils in Marx Brothers movies, going back to their first, The Cocoanuts in 1929, with Groucho's approach always being a bizarre conglomeration of wild flirtation and outrageous insult. Their banter is always one of the true joys of these films.

So Driftwood goes to hire Lasspari but mistakenly hires Baroni instead, who is managed by Fiorello, in the form of Chico Marx. They're an old partnership from way back when, and perhaps the fact that this singer hires a friend as his manager who can't read or write explains why he's still just a chorus boy, especially as Fiorelli is also Lasspari's dresser, one who he abuses from moment one. Then again Lasspari does find him clad not just in one of his costumes but three of them, each on top of the last with his real clothes underneath. While it's always believable that this trio of brothers had those around them splitting their sides in real life, it's also believable that they could annoy the crap out of you in the process. They certainly do that impeccably to most of the characters in their films. If you're wondering where Harpo Marx fits in, I'm not quite sure. He's some old friend of Fiorelli's called Tomasso who turns up backstage and never leaves.

Of the many memorable and oft quoted routines that the Marx Brothers set up throughout their film careers, many of the more famous ones come from a mere pair of them, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. In particular, this is the one with the stateroom scene, mostly written by Buster Keaton and set up in the story by Gottlieb who finds Driftwood the smallest cabin on the boat to the States, thus surely inspiring all the records for how many men you can fit into a mini or a phone box or whatever else you have to hand. It's hard enough for Dritwood to get inside himself past his huge trunk, but then he finds that Fiorello, Tomasso and Baroni have stowed away inside it. Then come two women to make up the bed, one engineer to fix the pipes, a manicurist, the engineer's rather large assistant, a girl looking for her aunt, a washerwoman to mop the floor and finally four stewards with the food. Margaret Dumont would be the sixteenth but of course she's one too many, because she always was.

There's the scene where Groucho and Chico gradually shorten a pair of long contracts to remove everything one of them doesn't like, until it's nothing but a sanity clause. It's Chico who delivers the inevitable punchline in his fake Italian accent: 'You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!' There's the scene where a detective called Henderson turns up at Driftwood's hotel room to track down the three stowaways, only to be led on a blitzkrieg of choreography that leaves him doubting his own sanity, all set up with two rooms, a door and a balcony. Henderson is played by Robert Emmett O'Connor, a perennial cop in thirties movies. In 1935 alone, he played at least two detectives, two lieutenants, two captains and one sergeant. Eventually there's also the sabotaging of Lasspari's debut at the New York Opera, which is when the film really kicks into gear and stays there for thirty blissful minutes of unadulterated chaos.

Most of these routines involve physical humour, which the trio are more than adept at, but it's Groucho's rapid fire wit that remains longest in the mind. I always thought films like Airplane or Blazing Saddles were avalanches of gags, but even they have nothing on Groucho. He's more like a tornado than a comedian, in that it's not his individual jokes that sear themselves onto our memory but his entire performance. His actual lines are inconsistent, some being blisteringly funny while others are just throwaway, but there are so many of them and they're so quickly dispatched that it's not unusual to find yourself still laughing at one gem after a couple of duds slip past, either that or trying to file them away for future use in the right company.

Somehow it feels wrong to say that this wild wit's best line here is, 'Ooger booger booger,' but it was so unexpected and so right that it's hard to top. However there are plenty of choice favourites to choose from. 'Are you sure you have everything, Otis?' Mrs Claypool asks him. 'Well, I haven't had any complaints yet,' he replies. 'You're willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing?' he asks Gottlieb. 'Why, you can get a phonograph record of Minnie the Moocher for 75 cents. And for a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie.' When Det Henderson finds him alone but points out that the table's set for four, he replies, 'That's nothing. My alarm clock is set for eight. That doesn't prove a thing.' Unfortunately if I start quoting Groucho, I might as well just type out the entire script so I'll give up right now.

The funniest scenes to me were the musical scenes, not the songs which are played straight and often with quite a bit of MGM production behind them, but Harpo and Chico strutting their stuff on harp and piano. They were both great physical comedians and great musicians, but they were even better when they put the two together. It's easy to ignore the songs, or as Roger Ebert does, 'fast-forward over the sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones,' but I gazed rivetted at the way Harpo's eyes goggle while he plays the harp and especially at how Chico's fingers dance over the piano keyboard, almost characters of their own. Harpo gets a little piano action here as well, and has the kids around him in stitches. These are warm scenes, full of awe and hilarity, and they play better to me than even Groucho's lightning wit.

There are supporting actors, of course, as even the Marx Brothers can't be everywhere at once, however hard they try, but the term was never so accurate as here. The brothers, especially Groucho, dominate every single scene to the degree that everyone else in the picture becomes nothing but props. The only one who really made any sort of impression at all was Margaret Dumont, who became so good at being Groucho's foil that she almost became as integral to their films as the brothers themselves. Sig Ruman joined the brothers here for his first of three films with them but he doesn't get anywhere near as much to do as Gottlieb as he did as say, Sgt Schulz in Stalag 17. He moved between comedy and drama with ease and while this is a comedy, he got a straight role. Walter Woolf King is lost in the noise as Lasspari, but Kitty Carlisle is a little more memorable as Rosa.

Allan Jones is easily notable, but then he's really playing the fourth Marx brother here. Up until Duck Soup, the role of the straight man to the three wild and wacky Marx brothers was generally played by Zeppo Marx, whose gimmick was that he didn't have a gimmick. That's not to say he wasn't funny, because he has been described as the funniest of all the brothers, able to fill each of their shoes in a pinch and was supposedly a better Groucho than Groucho, but you don't get to see that in their films. He joined their touring company when Gummo left to become an agent and continued on in that capacity when they started making movies, but after five of them he felt that he wasn't getting the opportunities that the others did so left to join Gummo. It's a shame that he didn't stay on because if he easily doubled them all, the potential for anarchic confusion is beyond measure.

At the end of the day, like every Marx Brothers movie this would have made a dozen of the funniest trailers ever made but as a film it has flaws. Even as the most consistent, the most coherent, the most stable of their films, it doesn't cut it as a consistent, coherent or stable picture. That really wasn't what they did, they created chaos like a set of wisecracking whirlwinds and enough of that filters through the framework to make all but the most diehard of diehards happy while keeping them at least a little accessible to the rest of us. It's too long since I worked through their Paramount films and I really should revisit them. It's very likely that like Monty Python the gags just get funnier the more you can recite them by heart in good company. I've sat at a table where two Groucho fans batted back and forth like a comedic game of Pong on hyperspeed and it was a joy to behold. It would take a lot of immersion for me to get close to that and I'm not sure I should even dare try.

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