(This is my contribution to the CMBA’s Comedy Classics Blogathon. Please visit http://clamba.blogspot.com/ for more great comedy classic articles.)
Imagine if you will a world in which a nation finds itself weighed down by hard economic times—a world where a select few have much and the majority of people struggle to make ends meet. In this type of world the masses need something or someone to make things seem less dark and hopeless. In 1935 the world was a dark place for many Americans. The Great Depression saw unemployment and homelessness ascend and people’s spirits and dreams descend into despair. Most people didn’t go to the movies to be reminded that their lives were filled with worry and uncertainty. No, they went to films to escape—at least for a few short hours—from the unpleasant times in which they lived. Just that one simple act of sitting side-by-side in a darkened theater with people just like themselves and laughing at the absurdity of it all—the jokes, the actors, and the world itself—what a release it must have been! That is what the Marx Brothers brought to the American people—comic relief from a very unfunny world.
The Marx Brothers made thirteen films (really fourteen, but Humor Risk  doesn’t count, as it was never released); A Night at the Opera (1935) was their sixth film and their first for MGM. They, like the American people, had suffered some setbacks. Their previous film, Duck Soup (1933), had not fared well at the box office or with the critics; thus, effectively ending their working relationship with Paramount. While the world might have seemed insane to most people, they didn’t want to go to movies where nothing made sense. Irving Thalberg knew this, and so when he took the brothers on at MGM he proposed that they remain as insane as they already were but that there be an actual plot that ran the insane asylum. What emerged was what most critics consider to be the Marx Brothers best film.
While they no longer carried the keys to the asylum, the Marx Brothers still got Thalberg to allow them to choose their writers, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and to showcase their individual talents. Groucho still got to deliver his quick one-liners. Chico still played the wily ethnic, as well as the piano. And, Harpo was still a silent, childlike figure who could play the harp like an angel and leer at women like a pervert. Yes, Zeppo was gone, but while his good looks would sorely me missed, the brothers no longer needed him to play the straight man as they now had the ultimate straight man—an actual story plot!
By all accounts, the Marx Brothers were viewed as over-the-top, absurd characters. Well, what better world to place them in than the world of opera? And, not just any opera, but Verdi’s Il Travatore—one of the most ridiculous (and revered) operas ever. In the words of NPR, “opera has always been easy fodder for jokes. Even the greatest of operas often seem to teeter on some weird edge between the profound and the preposterous.” What a perfect setting for a group of men who took great pride in being profanely outrageous. That is what A Night at the Opera is.
There are three things that are profanely outrageous about this film: 1) People are starving to death in America, but Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) is willing to pay $200,000 to the New York Opera Company if it gets her name into society. 2) The reputation and arrogance of tenor Rodolpho (Walter Wolf King) is more respected than the talent and industriousness of tenor Riccardo (Allan Jones). 3) And, everything else. That’s right, everything else.
While the story is held together by the love story of tenor Rodolpho and soprano Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), the film is really nothing more than a cornucopia of Marx Brothers’ gags wrapped in the guise of a romantic musical comedy. The plot, which they somewhat abide by, is what allows them to do what they do best—run anarchically amok. Three things stand out in this regard.
First, you have the famous stateroom scene where Groucho’s character, Otis P. Driftwood, finds himself sardined into a very small room with three stowaways: Riccardo, Tomasso (Harpo), and Fiorello (Chico). The plot says that the stowaways are in the tight space because they can’t afford tickets and because Riccardo can’t be separated from Rosa. The reality is that the Marx Brothers (with the help of Buster Keaton) saw an opportunity to pack as many people as humanly possible into that small space under the pretext that all fifteen people who eventually end up in it are there for a perfectly reasonable reason.
The second example is the bed-switching skit in Groucho’s hotel. Again, Groucho finds himself playing host to the three stowaways, but now they are illegal immigrants wanted by the police. When Detective Henderson (Robert Emmet O’Connor) comes looking for them and sees three cots in Groucho’s hotel he knows something isn’t right. What ensues is a ridiculous ruse in which Henderson is used as a human carousel to seamlessly transfer an entire bedroom to another room without him knowing. By the end of the ruse the poor detective is thoroughly convinced that he is in an entirely separate room.
The last example, of course, is the final sequence, where Harpo and Chico find themselves in the most unlikely situations: playing catch in the orchestra; playing gypsies in the chorus; and, finally as (for Harpo at least) rope pullers and set changers for the scene backdrops. The fact that the show would go on when so much chaos is so obviously taking place before the audience’s own eyes is beyond profanely outrageous.
I have always thought of the finale as a reflection on America’s upper class citizens in the 1930s—the whole world is obviously on fire, yet they sit passively by and don’t even attempt to throw a glass of water on it! Perhaps I’m a bit subversive in this thinking, but I wouldn’t put it past the Marx Brothers. Maybe this was their small glass of water to an American public thirsting for a bright and hopeful future.