#90. A Night at the Opera (1935)

Love it. Duck Soup, the only preceding Marx Bros movie on the list, rubbed me the wrong way because its humor was so mean-spirited, with Groucho being a constant asshole and the marble-eyed Harpo seeming like a legit sociopath, but – much as I hated the actors – I did laugh a lot in Duck Soup, kinda got lost in the setpieces, and also was occasionally just mesmerized by the brothers’ talent: the inventiveness, the timing, the wit and physicality. They were geniuses.

A Night at the Opera, as I learned from the DVD’s special features, marked the Bros’ adoption by MGM Studios. The boys worked under the tutelage of a precocious young producer, Irvine Thalberg, who helped to spark life into their career, following the box office failure of Duck Soup, by massaging their skillset into a more dependably formulaic vehicle. Thalberg said, for example, that the movie needed a romance.

Good idea. The romance is the heart of the movie, but not exactly its focus.

He said it needed a villain, too.

Right again. Our villain is played by Walter Woolf king and he’s an odious twat whose comeuppance at the end is cause for celebration.

Groucho actually plays a warm and avuncular role toward the female lead, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), and there’s a sweet innocence to Harpo, a charming aloofness to Chico – the whole movie chugs along with the trademark optimism of a 1930s musical-comedy.

night at the opera harpo.gif
Harpo, too, adopts a more affable personality than he had in Duck Soup.

Die hard Marx Bros enthusiast seem to be in agreement that Duck Soup, that young, petulant, box office flip, is the Bros’ greatest movie because it’s the most authentic. It’s messy, the plot is hard to track, the story goes in whichever direction allows for the most gags. It’s a comedy for comedy connoisseurs, maybe. If you like the Marx Bros’ voice, it’s probably fair to say that Duck Soup is the most unfiltered product of that voice.

Without saying that the follow-ups are bad, exactly, it’s hard to deny that the fingerprints of studio involvmenet are all over them. Since watching Night at the Opera I’ve gone and seen two other Marx Bros movies, Go West and The Big Store, both of which came after Night and neither of which are as funny, although they’re definitely good. The musical bits are drawn out, especially in The Big Store, and so are the gags. Maybe, later on, it would have been best to give the Bros total authority over their work again, after what Thalberg (and paying viewers) taught them with Night at the Opera.

Between Duck Soup and Night at the Opera, however, it’s clear that the Bros’ talent was huge, and manifold, but it was also clear that they were vaudvillians at heart who hadn’t yet adapted to the demands of mainstream Hollywood fare. Was it a compromise of their talent to embrace the Hollywood formula to some extent? No more than a journalist who accedes to her editor’s changes.

Night at the Opera is the first movie I showed for Thousand Movie Project’s series of free public screenings at a café in South Miami called Tea & Poets. About 45 people showed up and, with the exception of a few minutes where some kids in the back decided to play a boisterous game of Connect Four, they paid pretty good attention. The place was silent and rapt during the movie’s final act, a big spectacle of slapstick during the eponymous opera, and the modern audience comprised mostly of twentysomethings seemed to find it as amusing as you’d imagine a group of 1930s moviegoers finding it.

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