1930's, Allan Jones, America, Anvil Chorus, black and white, black and white movie, Chico, Chico Marx, classic comedy, Comedy, comedy review, Cosi Cosa, golden age of Hollywood, Great Depression, Groucho, Groucho Marx, Gummo, Gummo Marx, Harpo, Harpo Marx, Hollywood, Hollywood musical, Il Trovatore, immigrants, italy, Kitty Carlisle, Margaret Dumont, Marx, Marx Brothers, movie review, musical, musical review, Night at the Opera, opera, opera star, Paggliachi, romantic cliche, romantic comedy, sanity clause, two hard boiled eggs, Zeppo, Zeppo Marx
“And now, on with the opera – Let joy be unconfined! Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor! Play, don.”
– Otis B. Driftwood, aka Groucho Marx opening a new opera season
Hi there, I hope everyone’s had a Happy Halloween, and I’d like to welcome back any and all newcomers who discovered this blog through Prydain On Film, which highlighted my two-part review of The Black Cauldron on their blog the same day I posted it. I’m happy to have you here.
Stick around, check out the other movie reviews I’ve done.
Be sure to read my retrospective on Gravity Falls too.
Please don’t leave.
Anyway, I’m especially excited – and more than a little daunted – for this month’s review, as I finally get to talk about some of my favorite comedians of all time, The Marx Brothers.
Julius, Leonard, Herbert and
Adolph Arthur – aka Groucho, Chico, Zeppo and Harpo – were sons of Jewish immigrants who discovered they had quite the knack for making people laugh as well as making music. Since their parents were already in the entertainment business, they had almost no trouble making a name for themselves. Groucho grew infamous for his quick biting wit, Chico for his fast-talking, womanizing and heavy faux-Italian accent, and Harpo for his childlike mischief and mute pantomiming (when not communicating through whistles and horn honks). Zeppo could be just as hilarious as his siblings onstage – for some performances he even stood in for Groucho and nobody could tell the difference – though he was often relegated to playing the straight man to his brothers’ antics. While already a hit on the vaudeville circuit and Broadway, the brothers made the leap from stage to screen with the advent of talkies and their fame quintupled overnight.
The Marxes’ unique brand of humor continues to influence comedians to this day; you can see them (especially Groucho) in the likes of Alan Alda, Lucille Ball, Judd Apatow, Bugs Bunny, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the cast of Animaniacs. If you were to watch their films – their early ones in particular – you could say the threadbare plots were only there for them to hang jokes on. Cliché stories surrounding college football, high-class parties and traditional Hollywood romances were not safe from the brothers’ brand of anarchic humor; they poked holes in conventions of society and film, often breaking the fourth wall with the force of a sledgehammer to remind the audience how much of a farce even the most serious of scenarios really are. Their “us vs. them” antics helped America laugh through the Great Depression and World War 2, however not all of them were complete successes in their day.
After their ahead of its time war satire Duck Soup nearly bankrupted Paramount, the Brothers were cut loose from the studio and set adrift in Hollywood. Luckily they had an ardent admirer in Irving Thalberg, big shot producer at MGM, who quickly signed them on. Fortunate as this was, it didn’t come without a few changes to the Marxes which to this day angers certain die-hard fans:
First, Zeppo followed in forgotten Marx brother Gummo’s footsteps by quitting acting and reinventing himself as a successful agent, thus whittling the comic quartet down to a trio.
Second, their method of taking shots at anyone in their path was altered to karmic trickery; mess with them or their friends and only then do the gloves come off.
Third, in an effort to appeal to more women, a romance subplot would be added to their films wherein the brothers would help whatever couple was the focus hook up and achieve their dreams.
But does this warm touch and loss of one sibling mean the famous brothers have lost their edge? Will the inclusion of the opera, which was perceived as highbrow art for the upper class back then as much as it is today, serve as an excellent backdrop for the Marxes’ shenanigans or is it merely a musical distraction? And more importantly, can I actually make with the funny in this review as good as the Marxes did in their own film? Let’s find out.
Now the movie begins in sunny Italy, but you wouldn’t know that from the opening. Originally there was an elaborate musical sequence featuring denizens of the country with the best food ever going about their day singing snippets of popular opera tunes that one would pick up as the other stopped. Think “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast meets that telephone game you used to play in school. That and all other explicit references to Italy were removed in the final cut due to Italy’s involvement with the eventual losing side of World War 2. For years they were thought to be lost until a print containing most of them resurfaced in 2008.
Wealthy widowed dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) is sitting in a restaurant in Milan impatiently waiting for her money manager Otis B. Driftwood, played by Groucho. You gotta love the ridiculous names his characters are given in his movies: Rufus T. Firefly, Cheever Loophole, Wolfgang J. Flywheel, Quincy Wagstaff, Hugo Z. Hackenbush, Booboo Stewart –
It turns out Groucho is enjoying dinner with a comely young lady.
In the same restaurant as Mrs. Claypool.
At the table directly across from her.
Mrs. Claypool does not approve, but Groucho brushes it off, ditches the dame and woos the madame through veiled insults, a staple of any Marx Brothers picture that has Margaret Dumont in the cast. Groucho often remarked that his jokes targeted at Dumont always flew over her head, but I disagree. It takes a talented straight man to keep their composure when acting through hilarity, especially if you’re sharing the screen with a contender for the funniest man who ever lived. Margaret Dumont was a classically trained theater actress who was well aware of how to act as a perfect foil to a clown like Groucho in the face of his ribbing. The jokes are made all the funnier due to her subtle responses as opposed to a more reactionary approach. I’d gladly argue she’s truly one of the best straight women in comedy, a rarity back then and in this day and age.
Mrs. Claypool has hired Groucho to help her be inducted into high society, but the only thing to come of it so far is a swiftly dwindling bank account. Groucho assures her he’s actually been doing some of his job; he’s arranged for Mrs. Claypool to donate a generous sum to the New York Opera Company, thus making her a patron of the arts and a society shoo-in. He introduces her to the head of the opera, the unctuous Herman Gottlieb, who announces her contribution will enable them sign on world-famous tenor Rodolfo Lasparri.
Lasparri is starring in a production of Il Pagliacchi (aka the one with the crying clown), which Mrs. Claypool and Gottlieb attend that evening (Groucho does everything in his power to avoid it until the final curtain drops). While a decent singer, Lasparri is a self-centered prima donna who treats everyone beneath him like garbage and is prone to fits when he doesn’t get his way, like when his flirting with leading lady Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) falls flat. Rosa sees him for the jerk that he is, and showers her affection on the sweeter, more talented chorus member Ricardo Baroni, played by Allan Jones. There’s no doubt that if Zeppo were still around, this would be the role he’d occupy. I don’t find the casting of Allan Jones to be entirely coincidental either, as he bears a bit of an uncanny resemblance to Zeppo.
Ricardo would do anything to marry Rosa, though he’s constantly overshadowed by Lasparri and has little to his name. Help comes in the form of his old buddy Fiorello played by Chico, who drops by the opera and decides to become his manager on a whim. While Chico’s bordering on stereotypical portrayal of an Italian immigrant may not fly for some today, when you factor in the period these movies were made as well as Chico’s own comic strengths, he’s a prime example of the trope “Mexicans Love Speedy Gonzales”. Chico’s characters could out-talk and outwit a barrage of snooty white upper-class twits within seconds; some of his best scenes throughout his career involve him verbally sparring with Groucho, and nine times out of ten he’s the one who comes out on top. Chico was an underdog the immigrants and lower classes could root for. Also he was one hell of a piano player. Often times the movies would pause so he could perform an impressive solo, and this one is no exception.
After the performance Lasparri receives a private invitation to dinner from Gottlieb. He asks Rosa to join him, insinuating that he can take her to New York with him if she ditches Ricardo, but Rosa stands by her man. Lasparri violently takes his “friendzone” anger out on a playful stagehand, Tomasso, played by Harpo. Groucho stumbles upon them while searching for Lasparri so he can beat Gottlieb to the punch; unaware that he’s face to face with the man he’s looking for, Groucho defends Harpo and insults Lasparri to his face.
Before Lasparri can turn on Groucho, Harpo knocks him out with his favorite weapon of choice, his mallet. Chico runs into Groucho and tricks him into signing on Ricardo when he hears he’s looking to hire the world’s greatest tenor. This leads into the famous “sanity clause” routine where they literally tear through the contract to skip the “first party of the first part and second party of the first part” diatribes.
Ultimately it comes down to the part which this sketch was named after: Groucho points out a part of the contract that states it’s null and void if neither party is in their right mind, ie. a sanity clause, to which Chico laughs, “You can’t fool me, there ain’t no Sanity Clause!”
The truth about just who Groucho signed on is outed when Gottlieb comes backstage and attempts to revive Lasparri. One time skip later and Lasparri, Gottlieb, Rosa, Mrs. Claypool and Groucho are getting on the ship that will sail them home. Lasparri’s fans implore him for one last song before disembarking, but in another display of his arrogant assholishness, he brushes them off (“Why should I sing for them when I’m not being paid for it,” he snidely quips to Gottlieb, a sentiment his new manager shares).
Yet without missing a beat, the opera devotees turn to Rosa instead. She readily performs the movie’s love theme “Alone”, slowly coaxing Ricardo, who’s watching from down on the docks, into a duet. I love this reversal of the traditional romantic scene; Instead of Romeo serenading Juliet, it’s Juliet serenading Romeo from her balcony. Rosa begs Gottlieb to consider bringing Ricardo along, but because Gottlieb’s the Jack Warner of the opera world, he’ll only consider it when Ricardo’s made a big name for himself.
Once the voyage is underway, Groucho pays a visit to Rosa, who’s already missing Ricardo dearly. She plays it off as homesickness and he gives her a “prescription” for it – a love letter Ricardo asked him to deliver to her. Now, Groucho didn’t have to do that. He could have just walked on by continuing to crack jokes at everyone in his path. When you think about it, Groucho and Gottlieb are two sides of the same coin. They’re both interested in Mrs. Claypool for her money and have a tendency to thumb their nose at most everyone they meet; the only difference being Gottlieb is a total asshole and Groucho is slightly less of an asshole. With this kind gesture, as well as him standing up for Harpo and helping his buddies, he proves that he is worthy of our care and role of protagonist.
Groucho also drops in on Mrs. Claypool and badgers her into a rendezvous at his cabin. But he’s dismayed to learn that due to Gottlieb’s meddling his stateroom is only slightly larger than a broom closet. Not only that but Ricardo, Harpo and Chico have stowed away in his oversized steamer trunk. They’re tired, hungry, and refuse to leave without some food, so Groucho quickly summons room service and orders a little bit of everything.
While waiting for the food to arrive, the stateroom is gradually besieged by more interlopers – maids, plumbers, janitors, lost guests, and more all begin taking up whatever little space is available. I know the maintenance scheduling on some cruises are bad, but having them show up almost all at once is a whole other level of incompetency. It gets to the point that when the food does arrive, an exhausted Harpo climbs on top of the platters held aloft by the waiters just so he can lie down somewhere.
You know, E.B. White once said that dissecting humor is like dissecting a frog – finding out how it works ends up killing it, so to speak. That, in addition to coming up with jokes that couldn’t touch the Marxes’ if I tried, was why I had some qualms about writing up my thoughts on this film. But I can’t I let the infamous, frequently pastiched stateroom sequence go by without delving into its significance.
A Night At The Opera marked the beginning of a new method to the Marxes’ madness; before filming completely wrapped up, they would take various skits from the movie and perform them for live audiences to see what worked and what didn’t. The stateroom scene was just one of them. It didn’t go over well until the boys threw out the script they were given and rolled with the improv as it played out. The jokes they made up on the fly is just part why it works as brilliantly as it does. Like the story of the animals climbing one by one into the mitten, as more and more people crowd their way into the stateroom, you’re anticipating the moment where everything finally falls to pieces. And when Mrs. Claypool, the only person Groucho actually WANTS to see in there shows up for their rendezvous…
Eventually it’s the last night of the cruise. While the upper class enjoy their fancy gala, Ricardo, Harpo and Chico, overcome with hunger, sneak out to steerage where the immigrants are celebrating with a sumptuous Italian banquet. Filled with good cheer and the best meal they’ve had in weeks, they commandeer the band’s instruments and lead the throng in an elaborate traditional MGM musical number, “Cosi Cosa”.
As much as I love this song, it’s Chico and Harpo who steal the show. The moment the dancing is done, Chico plunks out a playful rendition of “All I Do Is Dream of You” on the piano (which is a tune some of you might recall from Singin’ in the Rain). It’s entertaining, though it’s got nothing on his solo in Go West where he plays using an apple. Then Harpo tries to tickle the ivories but makes a fool of himself for the kids before turning to his namesake.
Be honest, did you expect a buffoon such as Harpo to have that level of skill, that rare ability to express such beauty? The level of hidden depth is one of the reasons why he is arguably my favorite Marx Brother. His guileless capers and occasional reality-defying jibes are all spectacularly hilarious to be sure, but when he sits down at the harp, there are no pretensions of foolishness. That look on his face is the one you can only see when an artist is both deep in concentration and at utter peace as he flexes his craft. He is a master in his element. What’s more, Harpo didn’t pick up this talent through traditional training – he was completely self-taught. The Marxes’ mother Minnie could only afford piano lessons for one boy and Chico already called dibs. Inspired by a painting of a harpist, Harpo took it upon himself to learn the instrument, and turned out to be incredibly gifted at it. His own technique is still studied today by fellow harpists.
All this beautiful music has attracted the attention of the upper class, which unfortunately includes Lasparri. On recognizing Ricardo and his friends, he rats them out to the captain and they’re thrown in the brig. Thankfully with a little help from Groucho and a lot of splashing about, they escape. Harpo finds himself in the room where three world-renowned pilots with notably large beards are sleeping. And if you know Harpo as well as I do, you’ll know he’s always one to have scissors handy…
The disguise works a little too well however; on reaching New York the “pilots” are escorted to city hall and asked to make a big speech about their exploits. Chico BS-es for a bit with his trademark garrulousness, but the real trouble occurs when Harpo’s the one called up to the mic. His silence and constant stalling by downing a pitcher of water, which slowly melts away his beard, comes dangerously close to exposing the charade. Groucho once again steps in as their “translator” and plays it up as though the mayor has greatly offended their guests. He and his cronies offer their apologies and Harpo shows there’s no hard feelings by planting a kiss – along with his dripping wet beard – on one Sergeant Henderson. Their cover officially blown, the boys flee with the entire NYPD hot on their heels.
They hide out in Groucho’s hotel room where he treats them like a mother prepping her kids for school (“Come on kiddies, you’re gonna be late for jail!”) and Harpo plays with his food. Breakfast is interrupted by the unwarranted arrival of Sgt. Henderson looking to arrest and deport these well-meaning immigrants; truly a novelty these days. In quite possibly the Marxes’ biggest act of trolling ever (and that’s saying something), they lead him on a wild goose chase back and forth between the two rooms; each time they enter one they remove a bed and add it to the other room while Groucho acts as nothing’s changed, slowly driving the sergeant crazy.
Ricardo takes the fire escape one floor down to Rosa’s room and the two lovers are happily reunited. Too bad for them Lasparri chooses that moment to barge in once again demanding Rosa’s affection. He goads Ricardo into an altercation and vows they’ll both pay for crossing him.
The following morning Groucho arrives at the opera and is heartily welcomed by the staff and cast. But that goodwill doesn’t last long. By the time he arrives at his office, he learns Gottlieb has convinced Mrs. Claypool to hand over complete trust in her funds to him. Groucho is officially persona non grata at the opera and is given the bum rush by the very people who were dying to shake his hand minutes before. Now officially broke and homeless, there’s nowhere for him and the rest of the crew to sleep but on a bench in Central Park. The subtext of this entire sequence made for an easy way to gain sympathy from the audience. This movie was produced during the heart of the Great Depression, and countless formerly well-off Americans were thrust into tragically similar scenarios.
They’re not the only ones feeling blue; Rosa bumps into them while out walking with Ricardo and reveals Lasparri had Gottlieb fire her for spurning his unwanted advances. And since #MeToo won’t exist for eighty-plus years, there’s only three men incensed and insane enough to set things right. In Groucho’s own words:
Gottlieb arrives in his office that evening to find the brothers lounging about helping themselves to his cigars and booze, not unlike how they acted while waiting for their very first meeting with Irving Thalberg; Gottlieb should count his lucky stars that they didn’t strip down and start a fire with the furniture.
The brothers have a proposition for Gottlieb: they’ll gladly turn themselves in to the police if he lets Rosa sing tonight. Gottlieb turns them down on the latter but is quick to jump on the former, though Harpo bops him on the head before he can call the cops. Groucho switches out their ill-fitted tuxedos and surprises Mrs. Claypool in her box while Harpo and Chico plant the seeds of their chicanery in the orchestra pit. Everything from here on in is pure Marx mayhem, giving us one of the funniest climaxes of any film ever made:
Partway through the overture, the sheet music is switched to a rousing orchestration of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, complete with Harpo and Chico tossing a ball around the pit and Groucho hawking peanuts to the appalled onlookers! Gottlieb comes to and calls the police, leading Chico and Harpo now disguised as chorus members to participate in some onstage sabotage (which I dare not spoil here) while Groucho does some grade-A heckling from the audience.
If I may, I’d like to momentarily shine a spotlight on the opera this all taking place during, Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Out of all the great operas out there, I can’t think of any that would serve as a more perfect backdrop to the brothers’ chaos than this one. Il Trovatore is a bizarre show plot wise – you got muddled prophecies, Romani curses, switched identities from birth, mixups, revenge, and romantic contrivances galore. In short, it’s pure melodrama stretched to the extreme. Due to the nature of how it’s performed, however, it’s taken incredibly seriously, and that juxtaposition of seriousness and the Marxes’ mishaps is part of what makes this sequence comedy gold platinum diamond. It doesn’t hurt that half of the action occurs during Il Trovatore’s most famous number, “The Anvil Chorus”. Chances are you’ve heard already it in other comedies and cartoons, and I think it’s safe to say you can thank this movie for influencing the humorous tone that’s often associated with it.
The police arrive led by Henderson and he and Gottlieb attempt to put an end to the madness – first by trying to take out the interlopers from the wings, then sneaking on as costumed extras – though Harpo’s always one step ahead of them. Eventually he escapes by clambering on to the rigging; Groucho joked earlier while being chased over the side of Mrs. Claypool’s box by Gottlieb that “it’s just the Tarzan in him” (complete with an amazing Tarzan yell that never fails to have me rolling on the floor) but Harpo’s the REAL Tarzan in this scenario, swinging all over the place like a natural trapeze artist. And that’s not a stunt double by the way, Harpo Marx really did all those stunts you see onscreen. AND he was 47 at the time. Later he admitted he probably should have gotten someone younger to handle this scene, but I think we can all be grateful he didn’t.
His rope antics switches out the backdrop with increasingly inappropriate ones as Lasparri desperately tries to keep the show going; my personal favorite is the battleship if only for how Gottlieb reacts to this apparent blasphemy towards Verdi. The way he gasps “A battleship in Il Trovatore?!” in the same self-righteous infuriated manner as a Star Wars fanboy regarding The Last Jedi cracks me up.
Harpo even gets around to messing with the lights, throwing the theater in complete darkness. Despite this, Lasparri carries on until his singing is halted with a startled cry. The lights go up again and the audience is stunned to discover he’s disappeared.
No tenor means an opportunity for Ricardo to step in and save the show; he also convinces Gottlieb to let Rosa sing with him or neither of them will. No complaints here, theirs is a beautiful and completely straight rendition of Il Trovatore’s signature duet “Miserere”.
Ricardo and Rosa are a smash hit; even Mrs. Claypool is won over. It would seem their stardom is assured – until the setpiece hiding the Marxes and a bound and gagged Lasparri comes crashing down backstage. The boys are arrested and Lasparri goes to show the audience what a real star sounds like. But the moment he strolls onstage, he’s greeted with boos and tossed produce. Cathartic as it is, I’m curious as to how unimpressed theater goers always seem to have fruit and vegetables at the ready in these types of films. Do they make it a point to stop by a grocery dumpster on the way to the show, or is there a farmer’s market stand in the lobby which we’re not privy to? And who would be that greedy to attempt to profit from an audience’s displeasure anyway?
Furious, Lasparri calls it quits. Gottlieb is pressured into keeping Ricardo on by Mrs. Claypool, and Ricardo uses his new status as savior of the opera to prevent the brothers from going to jail and get Groucho his job back. As Ricardo and Rosa sing an encore, Groucho, Chico and Harpo drag Gottlieb through a quick reprise of the sanity clause routine. What a way to end on a high note.
So that’s A Night at the Opera, and speaking as a fan of both the Marx Brothers and classic opera (I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few and find it quite enjoyable if you’re open to it), well, it’s earned its reputation as one of the best comedies of the twentieth century. If this was still the 90’s, I’d say it’s all that and a bag of chips.
If A Night at the Opera is your introduction to opera, it’s a damn good one. If it’s your introduction to the Marx Brothers, even better. Groucho himself believed this and its followup, A Day at the Races, were the best films they ever made. In a lifelong career full of highs, that’s quite a statement. Duck Soup used to be my favorite Marx Brothers outing for its constant zany humor, but in recent years A Night at the Opera has all but topped it. It’s more sweet than cynical yet rarely comes off as cloying. And of course, the humor is spot-on. Catch a viewing at your earliest convenience, and by all means check out the rest of the Marx Brothers’ work too. You won’t regret it.
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Artwork by Charles Moss.