A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)
Imagination of the sort exhibited by the Marx Brothers reminds me why, as a Nick at Nite-watching slash Mel Brooks-renting youngster, I regarded comedy as my favorite genre. Their musty routines, broad but intelligent slyness, old-world slapstick ironically make me feel young. And in contrast to certain other passed-down-through-the-ages post-vaudeville entertainments, the Marxes exhibit something beyond the hallowed Comedy of Pain: far afield of simple cynicism, they reveal a joy in their performing — Groucho’s cigar-chewing verbal acrobatics, playful and ageless; Harpo’s calculatedly wide eyes, delighted confusion, avant garde pantomine; and Chico’s scrappy fuck-you-over directness all complement and expand on one another elegantly. A Night at the Opera was a turning point in their films and you’ll read a lot about its historical significance and how it supposedly marked, in 1930s Hollywood, the equivalent of a punk band moving to a major label, but rip up that clause in the contract for just a second — the basis of everything to follow may as well be: Watch This. You Will Laugh.
The question I’ve always had with the more unreservedly celebrated Duck Soup remains valid in this film, which infamously marked the Marx Brothers’ move to illustrious MGM and the green pastures of Irving Thalberg’s eternal populist but slightly idiosyncratic sympathies: Why in the hell did they try to wedge a story into this? It’s fucking embarrassing. The popular reputation is that pre-MGM Marx was anarchy, but even in Duck Soup I recall thinking that the attempts at plotting were an annoying distraction. The comic routines in A Night at the Opera are (even) funnier, though unavoidably not as spontaneous and wild. Thalberg and director Sam Wood felt that the Marxes would prove an easier sell to audiences in a feature film setting if they calmed down a bit. In contrast to their earlier work, this features beats after the laughs, even in absolutely batty sequences like the overstuffed stateroom; you can take a breath once in a while. But the opera sequences and the “story,” a thing about a Romantic Relationship between People, will wear anyone down — especially, sadly, on a second or third viewing. What makes it especially rough going is that its substandard joinin’-the-company star-crossed lovers stuff doesn’t even hold up to any kind of scrutiny, making its loftiness irrelevant; the tenuous and vaguely nonsensical relationship the Marxes have to the lovers doesn’t help.
That’s the paradox, though: the sheer presence and vitality of the three of them is enough to conquer anything that MGM and Thalberg throw at them… and to come out on top with routines they’d workshopped meticulously well before ever committing them to film. Immaculately crafted sequences like the aforementioned stateroom, the priceless contract exchange, the balletic kitchen-bedroom switcheroo, the orchestra fiasco, and the business with the imitation of the three bearded men (you know these scenes if you’ve seen the film, and if you haven’t, better descriptions wouldn’t do them justice) all seem so disconnected from the plot as to attain nearly the fever-pitch absurdity of Duck Soup, and this in turn necessitates bizarre linking material — Harpo and Chico secretly stowing away in Groucho’s luggage, for instance — that only makes the entire enterprise stranger and more memorable, thus finally justifying the strange juxtaposition at the heart of the picture.
When you get to the good stuff, it’s godlike; these are some of the most hilarious moments ever recorded on film, and they have not even begun to show their age seventy-two years later. The Marxes had a perfect formula, neither highbrow nor low — how anyone could fail to be seduced by it is beyond me. But again, every time the lame as all hell love story involving other characters intrudes, you’re left snoring, waiting for the next setpiece to happen. They are worth the wait — even the poignant scene of Harpo playing his, um, harp — but it’s still more of an obscenity than what Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello and others had to deal with in their pictures, which generally did not cop to sentimentality. I don’t blame director Wood, a competent stylist, nor do I blame Thalberg, whose idea it was to make the Marxes “nicer,” because again, I had the same issue with Duck Soup.
I don’t mean to rag on the movie or bitch about it too much. In fact I wouldn’t be so miffed about it if it weren’t so good. It improved my mood considerably both times I’ve seen it; I laughed loudly enough to wake the neighbors, and mid-crisis too (problems at work). But it’s so close to being so much more, and I feel like if somebody took the goddamn structure out of all their films and plunged the comedy bits together into one epic feature, it would be a masterpiece of unheard-of proportions, potentially the greatest achievement of 20th century mankind. I’m serious. But alas, we are left with a few damn good movies instead of a couple of great ones. That’s a presumption, though; the takeaway from all this is that I feel more than ever a need to see the rest of the Paramount films. Bring me DVDs, please. And two hard boiled eggs… three hard boiled eggs.
[Expanded from a review originally posted at another venue in 2007.]