The Set of 400: #43 – My Favorite Party of the First Part

Today! Because you should have come to the first party. We didn’t get home until around four in the morning. I was blind for three days –

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Directed by Sam Wood (x2)

Starring Groucho Marx (x6), Chico Marx (x6), Harpo Marx (x6), Margaret Dumont (x3), Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones (x2), Sig Ruman (x5), Walter Woolf King (x2), Edward Keane, Robert Emmet O’Connor, Billy Gilbert (x2)

So if you want to get really technical, the Marx Brothers have three distinct periods of their film career – The terrific Four Marx Brothers years (’29 through ’33) and the mediocre Three Marx Brothers years (’38 to ’49), bookending the shortest but most successful period, the two film set of great Three Marx Brothers pictures under Irving Thalberg, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. They are no longer the zany, joke-heavy antics of the early films, plus the romantic lead duties have fallen to non-relative Allan Jones, in lieu of Zeppo. There are more songs, slightly more runtime, bigger budgets thus larger set pieces, and far bigger box office receipts at Thalberg’s MGM than their Paramount films before or RKO/UA/non-Thalberg MGM ones later.

A Night in Casablanca was a disappointment on all fronts

And so successful and universally loved is Night at the Opera that it is widely regarded as the quintessential Marx Brothers film. It doesn’t have the aggressive satire of Duck Soup or the non-stop gag machine qualities of Horse Feathers or Monkey Business, but it does feel a lot more like a conventional big studio musical of the day, albeit one with plenty of Groucho/Chico/Harpo style comedy filling out the story. The Marx films from this point on are all a little weird, structurally, because of the limitations they placed on themselves, or had imposed from the studio. Figure, they’re the nominal stars of these movies, and they do occupy the majority of the screen time, but they rarely are the central figures in the plot. Here, the storyline (for what it is) revolves around the romances and career intrigues of the New York Opera Company, and the brothers circulate around this in various capacities. It was a formula that had such tremendous success – road testing jokes, breaking up the comedy sections with songs and romance – that they would employ it to diminishing returns in the rest of their movies.

But none of this is really to take away from Night at the Opera – the 12th funniest movie ever made, according to that AFI list from like 20 years ago. Never mind that the Marx jokes are at their tightest, that the sequences are timed out sorta perfect, that even the bits that aren’t uproarious are still incredibly solid – this movie features their hallmark as a group, the stateroom scene. If you know nothing about the Marx Brothers whatsoever, you probably still have some familiarity with this sequence, from the many homages and imitations over the years, or from it randomly popping up in clips forever.

“Is my Aunt Minnie in here?” “If she isn’t, you can probably find somebody just as good.”

It’s a simple enough premise, and probably gets a little more attention in this movie than it deserves, relatively speaking, but it is still an ingeniously constructed bunch of jokes and physical bits, between Groucho’s Otis P. Driftwood deciding to get a manicure to Harpo’s sleeping body being passed around. It’s a highlight, sure, but does not overshadow the rest of a very well rounded comedic adventure.

Okay, the climax is also terrific. Look at the bump Margaret Dumont takes!

A Night at the Opera is also one of the rare comedies to crack the AFI’s Top 100 films list, once it was revised in 2007, anyway. By the most generous count, you could say there are 18 “comedies,” if you stretch the definition a bit, and the majority of those are in the dramedy range, like City Lights and Forrest Gump. So let’s not pretend this formula cranked out a sub-par Marx outing – while I tend to prefer the earlier films more, these are still exemplary laughers of the first order.

And yes, there is still more Marx to come. This is the sixth film featuring Groucho, Chico, and Harpo – along with #261 The Cocoanuts, #55 Horse Feathers, #149 Monkey Business, #173 A Day at the Races, and #309 Go West, while also being the fifth movie for character great Sig Ruman, who popped up in a wide swath of comedies I enjoy from the era – #142 To Be or Not to Be, #190 Nothing Sacred, #345 White Christmas, and Day at the Races. Spotlight!

This is actually Sig Ruman with the brothers in A Night in Casablanca, too!

Coming tomorrow! Why does everybody forget about Hobo Joe? What am I, invisible?

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