I watched this Marx Brothers movie for two reasons. First, I wanted to see its hilarious stateroom scene (below.) Second, I needed some laughs.
The movie’s very light plot opens in Italy and is held together by a story of frustrated love and opera. A famous tenor, Rodolfo (Walter Woolf King) pursues a beautiful soprano, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle,) who loves another another tenor, Riccardo (Allan Jones,) whose fame and wealth are less.
Around the edges we have Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) alternately courting and insulting a rich widow named Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, of course) and encouraging her to donate money to his employer’s organization, the New York Opera. The pompous employer, for his part, wants the money to sign big-name Rodolfo (now clad in a Pagliacci clown costume, haha) to perform in America.
The opera leader gets his money and hires the Famous Tenor and Rosa. The other two scamps, Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo) arrive to rep the not-hired Riccardo and to act wacky, respectively and together.
The next morning the Famous Tenor, the soprano, Mrs. Claypool, the opera leader and Driftwood board a steamer headed for New York. The Lesser Tenor, Chico and Harpo stow away in Driftwood’s steamer trunk, and the crowding of Driftwood’s tiny stateroom ensues shortly afterward. Always a fun watch.
It’s easy to see where the story is going, of course, but it includes many diversions: Groucho and Chico discussing and shredding contracts, Chico and Harpo amusing the steerage passengers with piano and harp performances, the three castaways passing themselves off as bearded aviators to debark the ship and then finding themselves being feted, falsely, by the mayor of New York and exposed as frauds by the NYPD. The inventiveness of the story is impressive and always in the pursuit of broad humor.
The tour de force comes in the film’s final act when the Famous Tenor opens in a performance of Rigoletto for a black-tie-clad New York audience. Chico and Harpo sabotage the enterprise in various ways: Chico’s violin bow — baton duel with the orchestra conductor, the orchestral diversion from the overture music to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Chico and Harpo darting on and offstage during the “Anvil Chorus” while being chased by cops in opera costumes and, finally, Harpo’s swinging like Tarzan on the backstage ropes and tearing up the scenery.
Quite a production. The viewer may not laugh at every moment — and particularly the Groucho badinage, which has not aged well — but distractions aplenty are on offer from beginning to end.
What more can be wished in a moment like this?
This film was one of the last produced by Irving Thalberg, the most lauded figure in film from 1921 until his early death in 1936 at the age of 37.
In preparation for A Night at the Opera, Thalberg urged the Marx Brothers, who got their comedy start in in vaudeville in 1905, to take many of the movie’s set pieces on the road in live performances, which must have sharpened the timing and delivery.
In fact, the first two Marx Brothers movies were adapted from stage shows. Their wordy dialog appealed in the early years of talkies, and their skewering of snotty elites also resonated during the Depression.
The Marx Brothers’ stock in trade was making fun of snooty upper-crusters, but in this show they come to the aid of impoverished opera singers, if not of opera audiences attired in evening clothes. We associate opera with high-brow art now, but that may not have been so true in the last century.
In 1943, eight years after this movie was released, the New York City Opera was founded to provide an affordable alternative to the traditional Metropolitan Opera. It was dubbed “the people’s opera” by Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor at the time.
Over time, new genres competed for music audiences: swing, jazz, rock, country, hip-hop and, always, pop. The New York City Opera went bankrupt 2013.