US Release Date: 11-15-1935
Directed by: Sam Wood
- Groucho Marx, as
- Otis B. Driftwood
- Chico Marx, as
- Harpo Marx, as
- Kitty Carlisle, as
- Rosa Castaldi
- Allan Jones, as
- Ricardo Baroni
- Walter Woolf King, as
- Rodolfo Lassparri
- Sig Ruman as
- Herman Gottlieb
The Marx Brothers were the originators of sketch comedy in talking feature films. Like a good Saturday Night Live episode, A Night at the Opera combines a bunch of funny skits with an occasional song.
Groucho plays a gold digger to a wealthy widow. She invests in an opera where Harpo is the lead tenor's valet, until he gets fired. The lead tenor is in love with the opera's female lead. Chico is the manager of a promising chorus member who is also in love with the opera's leading lady.
The opera leads, as well as Groucho, head to America aboard a liner. Chico, his love struck singing client and Harpo stow away in Groucho's trunk. Groucho finds Harpo asleep in a large drawer. "Don't wake him. He's got insomnia. He's trying to sleep it off." Chico explains. A few minutes later comes the classic crowded stateroom scene. The one where a dozen or so people crowd into Groucho's tiny stateroom and eventually spill out into the hall when someone opens the door.
Once in New York, the three stowaways are still on the lamb. They hide out in Groucho's apartment. A detective comes to look for them. As they hide in the next room the policeman questions Groucho. "I see your table is set for 4?" He asks. "That's nothing." Groucho replies. "My clock is set for 8."
Some how, the plot gets back to the opera singers love story, but who cares? This movie is all about the Marx brothers. Their one-liners and comic antics are what make this movie great. What makes this movie not great is the sheer absence of plot. I know, it's a comedy and it's all about the set up. However, the set ups are far too obvious and they really do not make an even flow. The Marx Brothers should have done a television show. Their comedy is better suited for a variety show or a half hour sitcom, than a feature film.
Groucho, Chico and Harpo with the unflappable Margaret Dumont.
The four Marx Brothers made five movies for Paramount between 1929 and 1933. The first four did well at the box office but their fifth movie, Duck Soup, was a financial failure. Ironically it is now considered their masterpiece. Fourth brother Zeppo quit the group at this time as he was tired of playing straight man to his more talented siblings. Anyway just when it seemed the Marx Brothers’ movie career was over, MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg stepped in.
MGM meant a much larger budget. The extravagant sets and hundreds of extras in this movie set it apart from their Paramount work. Also, although I agree with Eric that the plot is pretty slim, it is actually more substantial than in their previous work. This one at least has a somewhat plausible story arc that builds to a zany climax at the opera house and it has fewer of the brothers’ vaudeville routines. Thalberg even got George Kaufman to write the screenplay.
I actually prefer their earlier more anarchic movies. Here their rhythm is never allowed to gain full momentum. It does have some hilarious moments and Groucho throws plenty of insults at the unflappable Margaret Dumont. But the main reason it is remembered today is for the crowded stateroom scene. It is, however, one of the funniest scenes ever shot in my opinion. When Harpo starts “sleeping” on the maid I laugh my ass off.
I spent my whole life pronouncing Chico as cheek-o. Only after watching a documentary on the Marx Brothers did I learn that they always pronounced it chick-o. Apparently Chico was a chick magnet who counted Tallulah Bankhead among his many conquests. Just as Groucho’s nickname came from his sunny disposition and Harpo’s because he played the harp. There was even a fifth brother Gummo but he never appeared in any Marx Brothers’ movie.
A Night at the Opera is good but certainly not the best of the Marx Brothers.
Groucho has always been my favorite Marx Brother.
The only problems I have with this movie are the problems I have with every Marx Brothers' movie and those are the songs they always seem to squeeze into them and Harpo invariably ends up playing the harp at some point and Chico usually joins in on the piano. The songs, except for the comic ones by Groucho, are always ones I don't like and Harpo, while a talented harpist, has always been my least favorite of the brothers. These musical interludes do nothing for me except slow down the film.
The thing I love about this movie is also the same thing I love about all the Marx Brothers movies and that's Groucho. His one-liners and fast-talking patter are always the highlight of their films. "I am sure the familiar strains of Verdi's music will come back to you tonight, and Mrs. Claypool's cheques will probably come back to her in the morning." "I have here an accident policy that will absolutely protect you no matter what happens. If you lose a leg, we'll help you look for it." "When I invite a woman to dinner I expect her to look at my face. That's the price she has to pay."
Although the stateroom scene is the most famous scene by far from this movie, and it is very funny, I think my favorite moment is the exchange between Groucho and Chico as the go over the contract for the opera singer. The bit where they go over the clauses and it ends with Chico saying, "You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Claus!"
You're very right Eric when you say this movie is like a series of sketches. The plot is paper thin and you could lift bits here and there directly from the movie and perform them on their own and they'd still be funny. In fact, parts of this movie are funnier than the whole.
Like most sketch comedies, there's only so much you can take. This one pushes the boundary on length. If they'd cut out the couple of opera numbers and Harpo's harp scene, it would have helped the pacing and the timing.
This is a very funny movie in parts, but all those parts added together don't make for a great movie, just a pretty good one.
Photos © Copyright MGM (1935)