A NIGHT AT THE OPERA sees The Marx Brothers down to The Big 3—Groucho, Chico Harpo—after Zeppo left the act to become both an engineer and a theatrical agent, and switching studios from Paramount to MGM. Under guidance from MGMs Irving Thalberg, the guys manic images were softened a bit, plots were made more…plot-like…and musical numbers were added to give ‘culture’ breaks to the expected anarchy.
In this 1935 venture, Groucho is ‘Otis P. Driftwood’, business manager and bane to wealthy ‘Mrs. Claypool’ (Margaret Dumont, 53, in the 4th of seven brave subjections), investor in the New York Opera Company run by ‘Herman Gottleib’ (Sig Ruman). Meanwhile ‘Fiorello’ (Chico) and his pal ‘Tomasso’ (Harpo) are angling to get the unknown singer ‘Ricardo Baroni’ (Allan Jones) onto the opera stage with star ‘Rosa Castaldi’ (Kitty Carlisle). Will lunacy prevail? “You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Claus!”
Directed by Sam Wood, written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (with uncredited contributions from 8 others, including Buster Keaton), it was a success (#18 at the boxoffice that year) and has kept a high ranking among critics and many Marx fans. *
There are plenty of funny bits, including the classic “Stateroom” sequence (there are 15 people jammed in there before Margaret Dumont opens the door). The musical interludes of operatic numbers sung by Jones and Carlisle pad it out and bog things down whenever they unlimber. The music that does score (sorry, it slipped out) are the charming passages where Chico demonstrates his flair on the piano and Harpo makes the harp strings shimmer with grace. It’s a durable lark, true, but from this corner of the stateroom we’ll order Duck Soup and Horse Feathers.
93 minutes, with Walter Woolf King and Robert Emmett O’Connor. Let’s give a 84-year-late shout-out to Marion Bell, the cutie who joined the stateroom jumble as the lady looking for her ‘Aunt Minnie’. Just seventeen here, Miss Bell first sang on the radio when she was eight, trained as an opera singer and later married (briefly) Alan Jay Lerner.
* Many reviews erroneously cite this as the most successful Marx Brothers film. Nope, it ranks 5th, bested by A Day At The Races, Horse Feathers, Animal Crackers and The Coaconuts. According to MGM it cost $1,057,000 and grossed $1,815,000. Cogerson lists its gross as $3,300,000.
Speaking of differences of opinion, it’s surprising that today’s tireless and tiresome P.C. crusaders (a 5th column in the War on Fun) don’t twist knickers into strangle mode over the non-Karl Marxes. ‘Chico’ (born Leonard) doing a wildly stereotypical Italian impression, ‘Harpo’ (Adolph) being obviously mentally ill, and ‘Groucho’ (Julius) leering with sexual innuendo ought to be enough to bonfire DVDs and stigmatize those of us so obviously tone deaf, racist and sexist to have the audacity to laugh at them. Oh, but it’s so hard for the pure among us to bear the guilt—for the entirety of history…. “Ladies and gentlemen… I guess that takes in most of you…”