Directed by Sam Wood
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Jeremy Richards
Rosa and Ricardo are two aspiring opera singers and lovers. Rosa is close to fame, while Ricardo is forced into the background. Enter Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), an opera manager trying to marry the widowed Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), who is a large contributor to the opera. While spending a night at the opera, Otis runs into old friends Fiorello (Chico Marx) and Tomasso (Harpo Marx), who manage Ricardo’s career. Unwittingly, Groucho signs Ricardo as his client, but can convince no-one of his talent. The four men set off from Italy to New York in search of Rosa and fame; however, found out as stowaways, they become fugitives in America and lose all prestige with the opera companies. Their only chance is to sabotage the stage and prove their talent one night at the opera.
The Marx Brother’s comedic genius shines through in “A Night at the Opera,” one of their most popular films ever. Including some of the brother’s famous vaudevillian jokes, the film also went on to have two hit songs. The jokes are delivered with such speed and conviction that by the time you get one you may have missed the next. Brothers Chico and Groucho play off each other and the entire cast; all the while Harpo Marx delivers his unique brand of slapstick. The film has gone on to become a classic, so much so that the Library of Congress keeps this film preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry.
Made in 1935, this black and white movie may not hold up to the acting styles we are used to from today’s Hollywood stars. Then again, some Hollywood stars may find it difficult to keep up with the comedic timing the brothers perfected while working in Vaudeville. The jokes are usually a simple set-up and punch line style, with almost the entire cast playing straight roles to the brothers’ comedic fools. Particularly in this film, the brothers were encouraged to practice the jokes while they were performing their live stage show, to see what kind of laughs they could get from the audience.
This film also has a romantic sub-plot between two opera singers. Although uncommon today, a film like this would often have romantic sub-plots, songs, and of course the brothers’ comedy. This was also a common theme in Vaudeville, where there would be many different types of entertainment on one stage in an evening. Subsequently, two of the songs sung in this film later went on to become hits of their day.
Again this is an older style of film, so don’t expect many camera tricks or special effects. There are no rapid close ups and most of the scenes have few cuts if any at all. Despite this, there are still famous action sequences of Harpo Marx doing his own stunts, like hanging off the side of a cruise ship, and swinging on ropes behind the scenes during an opera.
In the early days of film there weren’t the same capabilities as today. Theatre was the only way to see this kind of show, so the films were set up very similarly. The brothers had perfected their characters on the stage, and were very simply transporting them to film. What film allowed the brothers to do was have an hour-and-a-half dedicated to their unique humour, as well as allowing the brothers to showcase their other talents. I don’t think there is a Marx Brother’s film which does not include a scene with Harpo playing the harp.
This film represented a few firsts for the brothers, such as switching to MGM studios from Paramount. Some of the suggestions made by MGM were to make the brothers’ characters more helpful to the two lovers instead of making everyone the butt of their jokes. This is also the first film were brother Zeppo Marx didn’t play the role of the romantic lead. Zeppo had left the group, feeling he didn’t have any more to contribute, as his character wasn’t well-fleshed-out. Zeppo became a talented Hollywood agent. Rumour has it though, that Zeppo could play a better Groucho than Groucho himself.
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