A Night at the Opera
Sam Wood I 1935 I USA
A Night at the Opera was the first film of the Marx Brothers in the MGM, and also the first under the regulation of the great Irving Thalberg. It proved to be the greatest commercial success for the Brothers, and gained enormous critical praise upon its initial release, something which managed to be somewhat appropriate after Duck Soup had bombed in the box office two years earlier, in 1933. An extraordinarily sophisticated implementation in the creation of utter and complete chaos, A Night at the Opera is universally considered by many to be the Marx Brothers' finest film, and the one by which they're mostly defined. While clearly superior to some of their latter films such as Room Service or A Night in Casablanca (which, despite being criminally underrated is still very good, mind you), A Night at The Opera does not surpass the sheer genius of the Brothers previous film, the legendary Duck Soup. Yet, one cannot merely overlook all the treasures that there are to behold in the film.
The story, as in the vast majority of the Marx Brothers films, is conventional and simple to follow (although one could argue that it's the most believable and richest of al the films they've done) but it is the mayhem and mischief that unfolds within it that most impresses the viewer. The script was written by two greats of the era: George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who provide the film with some of the wittiest and most side-splitting dialogue to have ever been put onto celluloid. The plot goes something along these lines: two lovers who are both in opera are prevented from being together by the man's lack of acceptance as an operatic tenor. Fiorello and Tomasso (Chico Marx and Harpo Marx respectively), two happy-go-lucky friends, will do anything possible in order to help the two lovers. Meanwhile, Ottis B.Driftwood (sensationally played by Groucho Marx, who has seldom been better) somehow gets in the middle of all the turmoil and, with his amusingly sharp comments on the upper class and society as a whole, will try to seduce the wealthy Mrs Claypool. Pulling several typical Marx Brothers stunts, they arrange for the normal tenor to be absent so that the young lover can get his chance. They go from a steamship to the uproarious, grand finale in the opera, where all their usual antics will get together and where one of the most unforgettable climaxes in the history of cinema will take place. A Night at The Opera is a hysterical interpretation of the Marx's usual pandemonium-generating at its best, proving to wholly entertain the viewer while at the same time telling him or her that this is, without a doubt, one of the funniest movies ever made.
For me, it is that perfect sense of balance between the three brothers which makes the film work so well. Each brother is as good as the one who proceeds and precedes him, because their particular takes on comedy, albeit being completely distinct from each other, are all equally fascinating. Groucho, we know, is essentially a critic; there is not a single moment in which he sees someone with defects and does not evaluate him or her for that reason. His sense of humour is lunatic, hilarious and exceedingly clever - it never fails to make you laugh. With his off-beat haircut, his large moustache and his peculiar way of walking (and let's not forget his usual philosophising and dark comic genius), he is the movie's main strength. There's this determined conversation between him and Chico which always makes me laugh out loud:
Groucho: "Is that my shirt you're wearing?"
Chico: "I don't know, we found it in the trunk."
Groucho: "Well it couldn't be my shirt then! Say, you haven't seen my suit, have you? "
Chico: "Yeah, it took up too much room so we sold it"
Groucho: "How much did you get?"
Chico: "$1.40 "
Groucho: "That's my suit all right!"
Then there's Chico Marx, Harpo's best friend in most of the films who's always trying to help people who suffer from problems, and it is his unbreakable determination and excellent musical talent (he plays the piano with admirable finesse, as seen in one of the musical numbers) that make him a truly memorable character. There aren't any other specific qualities in him, but there's always this glint of hope in his eyes, this look of nothing-can-go-wrong that somehow seems to work very effectively. But it is in the classic contract-shredding scene with Groucho ("Hahaha. Ha. Ha. You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!"), seemingly devoid of any cuts, which makes him truly shine. Harpo Marx, the innocent and dumb individual whom you can't help but root for, has to be my undisputed favourite. Since he's not capable of talking, the visual gags of his are the source of his humour, and this works wonderfully. In the film's ending, in the absolutely unruly performance of Verdis Il Trovatore, he is the major cause for all the bedlam and hubbub produced, as he fences the conductor before the concert, changes the music to Take me Out to the Ball Game, swings from place to place in a Tarzan-like manner, puling up ropes that control the backdrops, surreally climbing up the stage set, and thus ensuing unimaginable havoc which results in one of the most extraordinary comedic sequences ever filmed, as well as turning out to be a consciously deliberate and satiric attack on the operatic form. This has to be no doubt one of the films greatest scenes and it is because of Harpo's comic abilities that it all works (and surprisingly so).
However, not everything is as positive as though it may sound. In an effort to include several breaks in between the film;s comedy, the filmmakers put in some tedious and (in my opinion) downright inappropriate and silly musical numbers sung by the two lovers. And it's all for the detriment of the pace, as it slows down the whole film. Perhaps it was merely done in order to further lighten the viewer, but, I can tell you, every time I saw (and heard) one of those, I felt the tempting urge to get my remote control and press the fast forward button. The love story between Ricardo and Rosa is not decent or credible enough; it can only be described as soppy, clichéd and enormously unhelpful for the picture's rhythm. It may have been necessary because of the script's necessities, but all it does is make the viewer not care for it (or about the two lovers, for that matter) by any means. At least, this is how I felt. Thankfully, the Marx Brothers do not have much to do with this.
Despite that minor quibble I have about the film (it doesn't ruin it, oh no, but once you see it you will find out that it's plain redundant), one could easily say that A Night at the Opera is a film for the ages. We have to bear in mind that it was made almost seventy years ago (70!), and it has stood the test of time startlingly and remarkably well. It continues to be enduringly appealing, even for nowadays' audience, and that's quite a feat. This timeless quality which surrounds the film in an invisible veil is mostly omnipresent, but it is all the more palpable in the haunting, mind-etching, delirious overcrowding of a ship's matchbox-sized cabin, which includes a sleeping Harpo who gets passed around the room, Ricardo, a bulky trunk, Groucho and Chico, two chambermaids who come in to make the room, and engineer to turn off the heat, a manicurist to trim off Driftwood's nails, the engineer's big assistant, a inquisitive woman who's looking for her Aunt Mannie and who asks to use the phone, a cleaning washwoman to mop up, and a gargantuan number of staff stewards, carrying trays loaded with hard-boiled eggs and dinner. And the whole worst case scenario gets all the more worrying when, as each of the 15 occupants is trying to find a suitable space in the minuscule room, Mrs Claypool (whom Driftwood had called ten minutes earlier) shows up and decides to open the door. As a consequence, a torrential inundation of the aforementioned people is let out onto the corridor, resulting in a hilariously belly-turning scene which I'll never forget.
"Am I crazy, or are there only two beds here?" At the end of the day, A Night at the Opera is a masterpiece of the comedy genre, a very well illustrated painting of obliteration, tomfoolery and strange havoc. Not only did it introduce us to a new sense of comedy altogether - it has improved with age, too, and the picture's qualities are as persistent and visible as they were sixty eight years ago. Without a doubt one of the Marx Brothers' very best of the best, A Night at the Opera does not disappoint; instead, it wraps you in a blanket of fast-paced comedic situations, all as good as the ones before, ironic dialogue and crazy set-ups. And I knew that this was a most brilliant film, as when I turned off the TV and took the tape out of the VCR, I could not help it: there was still a big smile on my face, from ear to ear. A Night at the Opera does what few other films dare to do: it provokes, it amuses and it entertains, while at the same time being a sublime piece of work. Simply sensational, there's no other way to describe it.