The appeal of the Marx Brothers besides their wonderful one liners and crazy antics was their anarchy toward the establishment: the rich, the powerful, highbrow institutions like colleges and opera, gangsters, bullies, and the police. They were the champions of the underdog. They also had a perennial foil in actress Margaret Dumont who put up with the Marx Brothers antics and insults in seven Marx Brothers films including ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), DUCK SOUP, and A DAY AT THE RACES (1937). Unusual for comedies, the Marx Brothers films usually have one incredibly funny set piece that filmgoers still laugh out loud watching even today. The final football play in HORSEFEATHERS (1932). The mirror scene with Groucho and Harpo in DUCK SOUP. Or the stateroom scene on a ship in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935). It is that scene which compelled CrazyFilmGuy to watch A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.
I'm not sure I had ever seen A NIGHT AT THE OPERA in its entirety. I have to admit I'm not sure I've seen any Marx Brothers film from start to finish except for HORSEFEATHERS and DUCK SOUP (which my wonderful aunt took me to see at the Portland Art Museum theater back in the 70s). I had seen clips of their best scenes and read quotes from their best one liners. Directed by Sam Wood (who would also direct the Marx Bros A DAY AT THE RACES) and written by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind based on a story by James Kevin McGuiness, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, besides offering the usual Marx Brothers combination of madcap hijinx, music, and irreverence, turns out to be a sweet film with the Marx Brothers playing match makers for two young lovers. Oh, and then there's that stateroom scene, unparalled in cinematic comedy.
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA begins somewhere in Europe (possibly Milan, Italy). Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) is looking to bring the world's greatest tenor , the arrogant Rudolfo Lasspari (Walter King) back to America to perform at the New York Opera Company. Driftwood is also wooing the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to be a new patron for the New York Opera Company. Lasspari wants to make love to his co-star Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) who is not interested. Rosa is in love with unknown tenor Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) who's in the chorus. Lasspari's dresser Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and Baroni's friend/manager Fiorello (Chico Marx) try to convince Driftwood to pick Ricardo over Rudolfo to go to America with Rosa. Driftwood's boss Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), managing director of the Opera, chooses Rudolfo to be the new tenor in New York. The company heads off to New York via ocean liner leaving Ricardo, Tomasso, and Fiorello stranded behind.
But Ricardo along with his two goofy friends stowaway in Driftwood's enormous travel trunk, hiding in Driftwood's stateroom. The ship heads to New York. Tomasso and Fiorello hang out with the 2nd and 3rd class passengers on the ship's top deck, entertaining them with music. The ship's authorities catch the three stowaways and throw them in the brig. Tomasso escapes and sneaks into the room of three famous aviation pilots with long flowing beards. He cuts the beards off the sleeping pilots, disguising himself, Driftwood, and Fiorello as the esteemed aviators when they reach New York. The three men flee the ship pursued by Police Sergeant Henderson (Robert Emmett O'Connor).
Ricardo and Rosa reunite in New York. Rudolfo makes another pass at Rosa but Ricardo steps in, punching Rudolfo. Gottlieb fires Driftwood and won't allow Rosa to sing in the opera since she's associated with Ricardo and Driftwood. While hanging out in Central Park unemployed, Rosa walks by and tells them the news. The Marx Brothers decide to fight back against Gottlieb and help Ricardo and Rosa get on that New York opera stage.
Driftwood, Tomasso, and Fiorello plan on hijacking opening night at the opera. They knock out Gottlieb and switch the music from Verdi Il Trovatore to Take Me Out To The Ball Game. They kidnap Rudolfo and insert Ricardo in his place. Pursued by Gottlieb and Henderson, Tomasso and Fiorello disguise themselves as women and sneak onto the stage during the opera. Ricardo and Rosa perform to a standing ovation by the crowd. Rudolfo escapes his bondage and returns to the stage where he's booed during the encore. Gottlieb offers Ricardo the leading role in all productions. Ricardo won't take the offer unless charges are dropped against his friends. Gottlieb gives in. Ricardo, Rosa, and the Marx Brothers all live happily ever after.
So what about the famous stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA? Why is it so hilarious? It's a simple premise. See how many people you can jam into a small room with an oversized travel trunk. Besides Driftwood, Tomasso, Fiorello, and Ricardo in the room, joining them are two chambermaids, an engineer, the engineer's assistant, a manicurist, a young woman looking for her aunt, a cleaning lady, and four waiters (for a total of 15 people) climbing over one another to either offer their services to the Marx Brothers or repair something in the room. Finally, Mrs. Claypool opens the door and all the occupants spill out into the hallway. John Landis's ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) would try a similar gag in an alley involving a marching band and the parade following. Check out this clip to see why the stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is pure comic genius.
When you get right down to it, most Marx Brothers films have a fairly simple plot with several interludes for songs and music. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is no exception. Whether it's Ricardo singing Alone or Chico playing the piano or Harpo the harp (he is called Harpo afterward), Marx Brothers films are an extension of their vaudeville days with equal measures of pratfalls, music, and one liners. When Driftwood finds Tomasso sleeping in one of his trunk drawers, Fiorello tells him, "Don't wake him up. He's got insomnia. He's trying to sleep it off."
What's surprising is underneath all the one liners, sight gags, and comic mayhem, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is a sweet film where the Marx Brothers play cupid to Ricardo and Rosa. They just want to help the young opera stars and lovers be together on stage and off. Driftwood even delivers a love letter to Rosa from Ricardo. It's David (or in this case Groucho, Chico, and Harpo) against Goliath. The Marx Brothers fight for the little guy, battling a greedy opera director, an overbearing opera patron, a vain opera tenor, and the New York police department. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA both salutes opera and pokes fun at the seriousness of opera. If it's a sacred institution, the Marx Brothers will have fun at that institution's expense. Conductors dueling with their batons, Harpo hanging from the backdrop, and a tenor kidnapped right before a performance. Yes, it sounds like a Marx Brothers movie.
I mentioned at the beginning that Zeppo Marx was the fourth Marx Brother. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is the first Marx Brothers film that Zeppo does not appear. The film doesn't miss a beat with Allen Jones taking Zeppo's place as Ricardo, the young tenor in love with Rosa. Jones fits right in with the three zany brothers. Jones even resembles Zeppo. Movie fans my age and slightly older may remember Kitty Carlisle who plays Rosa but not from A NIGHTAT THE OPERA. We remember the older Kitty Carlisle from the night time game show TO TELL THE TRUTH? where she was a panelist on the show in its many incarnations from 1957 to 1977. She's beautiful in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Carlisle was actually an opera singer early in her career. In her later years she became, like Mrs. Claypool, a patron of the arts in New York, but much nicer.
Besides Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool appearing with the Marx Brothers in seven films, actor Sig Ruman, who plays their other foil Herman Gottlieb in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, did a total of three films with the Marx Brothers. Ruman would go on to play some great character roles in classics like Howard Hawks ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939) and Billy Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953). As for the Marx Brothers, there's really nothing to add. They are as funny and outrageous as ever. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo all have their comedic moments in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Not every gag works (disguising themselves as the bearded aviators when they arrive in New York is too long and unfunny). But the stateroom scene along with a set piece involving Police Sergeant Henderson chasing the brothers around two adjacent hotel rooms and the opera finale are comedy gold.
Ironically, Sam Wood who would direct A NIGHT AT THE OPERA was reportedly an unfunny man who drove the Marx Brothers nuts. He apparently did not have a sense of humor in real life and did not find the Marx Brothers off screen shenanigans around the set funny. Yet, opposites do attract and with the success of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (the Marx Brothers first film with MGM after leaving Paramount where they made their previous films), Sam Wood would direct another Marx Brothers movie A DAY AT THE RACES (1937).
Before watching A NIGHT THE OPERA, Harpo Marx was probably my favorite Marx Brother followed by Groucho. But after watching OPERA, Chico Marx may have risen to the Number One position. I found Chico both funny but touching as well. He's the bridge between anarchy and compassion in the Marx Brothers. But whichever Marx Brother is your favorite, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is another notch in the Marx Brothers canon of comedy films.