GROUCHO: …It’s the standard sanity clause.
CHICO: You can’t fool me. There ain’t no san-ity Claus.
The impact the Marx Bros. films had on cinema cannot be understated; even the Roger Moore-era Bond films might not have been the same had M-G-M’s vaudevillian trio of Groucho, Chico and Harpo not incorporated an OTT chase sequence in each of their final three films. And that’s before even mentioning the famous mirror sequence in Duck Soup, the last film made in the brothers’ earlier run with Paramount Pictures.
At the beginning of 1934, relationships had soured between Paramount and the original quartet (which included a fourth brother, Zeppo). And so, after the completion of Duck Soup, no new contract was offered. By the end of the year though, Zeppo had left, and the remaining trio, whose attempts to go solo had derailed miserably, were in desperate need of money to pay for the numerous debts accumulated from their frankly outrageous lifestyles.
Enter Irving Thalberg, “boy wonder” producer of M-G-M, and his dream of a new approach for the trio: the farcical comedy of the earlier films was still there, but each scene was designed to move the plot along. The first film of this new regime, A Night at the Opera, entered the cinemas in the autumn of 1935 to great acclaim.
What was immediately clear in comparison with the Paramount films was the brilliant handling of the plot: the original run’s storylines were generally non-existent, but Thalberg’s tale of two hopefuls dreaming of making a break for themselves at the opera – and succeeding with the “help” of the Marx Brothers – manages to keep the viewer rapt to the final curtain. Granted, the actual story may seem dated today (to the author, those serious scenes seemed a bit too clichéd, not to mention jarring in the comic context), but to the audiences of that time, those sketches would have been an excellent breather between the trio’s jaw-dropping antics.
And what antics! With a script that’s full to the brim with a stormy sea of comedy that constantly shifts from extreme heights – Groucho’s commentary and interplay with his antagonists, Margaret Dumont (“practically the fifth Marx Brother) and, of course, Chico (for example the Sanity Clause pun, quoted above), is a particular high – to farcical lows (namely the slapstick genius of Harpo and Chico, from rearranging the furniture of an apartment to inserting the popular song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” into an orchestral overture). It’s a miracle that the whole film doesn’t feel as much of a squash and a squeeze as Groucho’s crowded stateroom.
There are many who adore the earlier Paramount films, such as Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, with their relentless layers of comedy that bring to mind [Queen guitarist] Brian May’s multi-faceted guitar work. However, A Night at the Opera proves why those latter-day productions by M-G-M were so popular. In the words of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide: “Arguably their finest film. This is as good as it gets.”
Verdict: five stars (“and two hard-boiled eggs”).
Review by James Wood
Image courtesy of Tim Mossholder @unsplash.com