Disciplined where it needs to be yet still anarchic at heart, disdainful of pretension yet not unnecessarily cruel, A Night at the Opera is the pinnacle of the Marx Brothers pictures I’ve seen. Or maybe I feel this way simply because it was the only film of theirs to truly make me guffaw.
Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, an unscrupulous business manager who hopes to improve the high-society position of a client (Marx Brothers stalwart Margaret Dumont) by getting her involved in the New York Opera Company. For various reasons, that also brings in Chico and Harpo, which is where the chaos begins to brew. Anchoring the plot is a romance between rising diva Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and aspiring tenor Riccardo (Allan Jones), though their musical numbers do little more than allow the brothers to catch their breath between antic gags.
Two of these are masterful comic set pieces. During the middle section set on a cruise ship (a setting that served the brothers similarly well in Monkey Business), Groucho finds himself in a stateroom that’s slightly larger than a closet. The tight quarters don’t keep him from ordering an elaborately complicated meal via room service (“Make that three hard-boiled eggs”) when Chico, Harpo and Riccardo appear. Soon various maids and repairmen also arrive and squeeze in, until you can’t imagine one more person being able to fit. Naturally, that’s when the four waiters with serving trays show up.
A Night at the Opera is Groucho’s flirtation with respectability and devilish realization that it’s much more rewarding to play the clown.
The other standout sequence involves a game of musical beds in an upscale suite (it’s better seen than described). Aside from the frantic physical hilarity, though, this sequence is also notable for the slight change of character you can detect in Groucho. Smug and insulting in most of his previous pictures, here he’s something of a desperate social climber attempting to make this luxury suite his own. (It’s almost as if the years of lampooning the rich have left a bit of envious residue.) Yet when he tries to play their game and follow the proper rules – a disastrous contract negotiation with Chico is one classic example – he proves incapable. It’s not only that his brothers’ silliness derails him (earning them that wonderfully bug-eyed stare of comic exasperation). It’s also his own inability to resist playing the jester. A Night at the Opera is Groucho’s flirtation with respectability and devilish realization that it’s much more rewarding to play the clown.
Since I’ve previously been critical of Harpo, especially in Animal Crackers, I should confess that I found him not only tolerable but almost charming here (the scene in which he plays a goofy little piano piece for a bunch of giggling kids is delightful). In general, his mania seems less mean-spirited – a particular problem in Duck Soup – and more akin to uncontrollable compulsion. Guzzling umpteen glasses of water when he’s been asked to make a speech; piling not only pancakes but teapots when offered a sumptuous breakfast, Harpo is like a dog that becomes easily fixated on a rubber ball. Put an idea in his head – ripping skirts! – and that’s all he can think about.
In A Night at the Opera, this all adds up to the sort of comic mayhem that speaks to my own sensibilities. I may never speak Marx fluently, but at least here I can appreciate the beauty of the language.