In my first year of college, I was part of a crowd that regularly hung out in my dorm hallways shooting the breeze. Another such hallway bum was Jeff, an enormous Marx Brothers fan; when he was in a mischievous mood, he’d do bang-on Harpo imitations. I hadn’t yet seen any of their films, and had to finally ask what he was doing. He explained, but was completely floored that I was Marx-Brothers Ignorant.
About three weeks after that conversation, I was puttering in my dorm room one Saturday when Jeff came by. “Are you busy right now?”
He ignored my question. “Do you have anything going on today? A test to study for or a date or anything?”
“Good,” said Jeff eagerly. “You haven’t seen the Marx Brothers, and I need to fix that. The moviehouse up the street is showing A Day At The Races and A Night At The Opera as a double feature. It starts in 20 minutes. Get your coat.”
It was a perfect introduction to the Marx Brothers; A Night At The Opera, along with Duck Soup, is one of their best-known works, and contains one of their best-known sequences – the “Stateroom Scene,” which sees fifteen people try to cram into a shipboard room the size of a closet.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. This time around, Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, business adviser to the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (the unflappable Margaret Dumont). Mrs. Claypool is looking for an inroad into high society, and Driftwood has advised her to make a donation to New York’s Opera, then helmed by a Mr. Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman). Gottlieb is eager to use the money to hire famed Italian tenor Rodolfo Lasspari.
Lassparri is something of a jerk, however; he regularly beats up his dresser (Harpo), and is trying to hook up with the opera’s soprano, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle Hart). Rosa’s heart belongs to a lesser-known, but equally talented, tenor in the chorus named Ricardo Baroni. When Driftwood comes sniffing around the opera house, hoping to sign Lassparri for New York’s opera, Baroni quickly hires a family friend, Fiorello (Chico), as his manager and tries to get in on the action as well. Harpo also ditches Lassparri in favor of Baroni.
But Gottlieb only has eyes for Lassparri, and hires him and Rosa to appear in New York’s opera houses. After Baroni gives Rosa a tearful good-bye at the dock of their ship, Fiorello manages to get Team Baroni on board after all – by stowing away inside Driftwood’s steamer trunk. Driftwood is by now sympathetic to Rosa’s preference for Baroni, and agrees to champion him to Gottlieb as well. Maybe they could interrupt Lassparri’s debut performance somehow….
The script was a little more cohesive than Duck Soup, largely at the behest of producer Irving Thalberg, who was working with the Marx Brothers for the first time. He’d pointed out that the previous constant-stream-of-jokes with a plot sort of mixed in was funny and all, but the jokes targeting the film’s “good guys” could be seen as off-putting. He proposed an overall formula for the Brothers’ scripts on his watch:
- There’s a romantic couple that Chico is friendly with and wants to help them.
- Harpo is a put-upon underling who teams up with Chico.
- There is extensive verbal wordplay between Chico and Groucho.
- Jokes that come at the expense of another character should target the “villains” of the film.
- There are musical numbers.
- There’s a happy ending.
- The whole thing is set in an eye-popping venue, like the opera, the circus, an exotic city, etc.
Fans of the total-anarchy version of the Marx Brothers objected, but I actually think it’s an improvement; the story leads the jokes, rather than the other way around. The brothers are more consistent characters, rather than swinging from sympathetic to mean-spirited. And there’s still plenty of chances for gags, such as the stateroom scene above (it was so good, Alex actually applauded), or with Chico and Harpo crashing the orchestra to mess with Lassparri.
The film uses a good deal of opera, understandably, but also adds two original songs – a love duet between Rosa and Baroni, and “Cosi Cosa”, a fanciful romp that takes place when Baroni, Chico and Harpo crash a spaghetti dinner down in the steerage part of the ship. The “Cosi Cosa” sequence felt pretty superfluous, to be honest; but it gave Chico and Harpo a chance to show off their respective musical talents, with Chico doing a quick piano solo and Harpo….well, you know.
By the way, Harpo comes by his name honestly; his solo was lovely. And it felt utterly bizarre to see Harpo switch from the anarchic manic physical comedian to a sensitive ethereal musician. And then right back to zany comedy guy.
On the whole, Thalberg’s new formula worked, especially for A Night At The Opera, which received some of the best reviews of the team’s career thus far.