“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“I saw Mrs. Claypool first. Of course, her mother really saw her first but there’s no point in bringing the Civil War into this.”
Of all the old school, black and white, vaudeville born or inspired comedians, the Marx Brothers are by far my favourite. Laurel and Hardy have their moments, but very few of their jokes have aged well enough to still be funny today. Abbott and Costello had a little more edge, so they’ve stayed a little more relevant. And I’ve never seen the appeal of the Three Stooges at all. But the Marx Brothers brand of anarchy and subversion still seems anarchic and subversive now, decades and decades later. And more cylinders were rarely firing than when they made A Night at the Opera.
Over dinner in a restaurant in Italy, Otis B Driftwood (Groucho Marx) convinces the super rich Mrs Claypool (Margaret Dumont), to invest heavily in the New York Opera. They sign opera star and egomaniac Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) to their new show and it’s all aboard a cruise ship headed to the Big Apple. Lassparri has eyes for one of the supporting singers in the troupe, Rosa (Kitty Carslile). But Rosa’s in love with fellow low rung singer, Riccardo (Alan Jones). When Ricardo isn’t signed to the New York gig, he stows away on the ship with his manager, Fiorell (Chico Marx) and friend Tomasso (Harpo Marx).
Once all three Marx brothers are forced into each other’s orbit, the real madcappery kicks in. Like all Groucho characters, Driftwood is a fast talking, borderline con artist who loves nothing more than inspiring anarchy before taking a step back and watching everyone else get sucked into it. The combination of innocence and resourceful scheming from typical Harpo and Chico characters leads to its own form of anarchy. And as always, there’s a romance angle and a few songs thrown in there to act as speed bumps to the comedy.
I’d seen A Night at the Opera a few times before now, but it would be at least a decade since my last viewing. Seeing it now, it’s obvious why it’s one of the two Marx Brothers movies chosen by the AFI for their Top 100. It is a proto Marx Brothers movie, highlighting all the best bits of their post Zeppo filmography. They’re always at their best when surrounded by their social betters. No one takes down pretension and privilege better than the Marx Brothers.
Here, it’s not only the pretensions and privilege of someone like Lassparri, but also the opera going socialite audience. When Fiorelli and Tomasso somehow end up in the orchestra on opening night, it’s only a matter of time before the stuffy crowd is being treated to Take Me Out to the Ball Game while Chico and Harpo pass a baseball from one end of the pit to the other. It’s the kind of middle finger raising that may not be so subversive 80 years later, but it’s still charming and funny, never feeling dated, or corny, or out of touch.
Their first movie at MGM after leaving Paramount, the new studio insisted on more story and less anarchy. And while that approach leads to a little more coherence, it takes away some of the fun. Part of the charm of their earlier movies like Duck Soup or Horsefeathers is that the stories don’t just almost run off the rails all in the name of the joke, they gloriously fly off the rails if that’s what it takes to shoehorn in another solid gag. And that’s one of the main reasons that while A Night at the Opera makes this AFI list, it’s not as high as Duck Soup, which I can’t wait to write about in a few months.
Apart from Room Service, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bad Marx Brothers movie (I’ve actively avoided ever seeing Love Happy and A Night in Casablanca). Later stuff like Go West, At the Circus and The Big Store get a bad wrap, but I still think they offer plenty of funny. So when I say I don’t see A Night at the Opera as one of their masterpieces, it’s not because I think it’s not that good. It’s that I think almost all of their movies are that good.