Friday, November 25, 2011

A Night at the Opera (MGM, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A Night at the Opera is the best film of the Marx Brothers after they were dropped by Paramount in 1933 and went over to MGM two years later. MGM studio head Irving Thalberg signed them and at first discomfited Groucho by insisting that their movies have elements that would appeal to female audiences. (Those looking for reasons why there were so many women-oriented movies in the 1930’s and are so few today need look no farther than the essential difference in movie audiences then and now: in the 1930’s movies were entertainment for the whole family, and it was typically the wife and mother of the family who determined what film they would go see; today movies are primarily a teenage date item and it’s the male who decides what film they see, with the result that studios emphasize violent action and other elements that will grab the testosterone of the ticket buyer.) Groucho said that women had just never liked their sort of comedy, and that’s all there was to it; Thalberg responded that that’s why their MGM movies would have to contain lavish musical production numbers and romantic subplots to give women things they would like.

The formula worked beautifully when Thalberg himself was around to make sure the disparate elements of comedy, music and romance were carefully balanced; unfortunately, A Night at the Opera was the only Marx Brothers movie made at MGM entirely during Thalberg’s lifetime. The follow-up film, A Day at the Races, was prepared by Thalberg and was a week and a half into actual shooting when he died, and the finished product shows the glitches in the formula — the dead stops the action comes to when it’s time for a musical number or a romantic interlude — that Thalberg was able to overcome on Opera. And the three films the Marxes made at MGM in 1939-41 — At the Circus, Go West and The Big Store — were done to Thalberg’s formula but without his input (and in the face of opposition by Louis B. Mayer, who seemed to make it his policy to hate everything Thalberg had liked for no better reason than that Thalberg had liked it), and simply creak along between the still-great comedy moments.

A Night at the Opera has it all, though: a tightly-knit script by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (whom Groucho always insisted were the best writers for the Marx Brothers), a first-rate physical production (there are actually shots in this film that are carefully lit by photographer Merritt Gerstad and directed by Sam Wood with at least some flair for visual eloquence — in the Marx Brothers’ Paramount films the cameramen seemed to be interested in little more than aiming the cameras in the general direction of the action and hoping they picked it up), and a great supporting cast including Margaret Dumont (in her fourth of seven Marx films), Sig Rumann (in his first of three), Walter Woolf King (inimitable as the arrogant bad-guy tenor) and the quite good voices of Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle as the nice singers whom the Marxes help to an operatic career. The witty script enables Groucho to dominate the screen for just about the last time in the Marxes’ career (as the quality of the dialogue deteriorated in subsequent Marx Brothers films, Harpo looked better by comparison if only because he didn’t have to speak any of the unspeakable and unfunny lines the Marxes’ later writers concocted for them all too often), and the film’s great comic set-pieces — the contract routine between Groucho and Chico, the infamous stateroom scene (written by gag writer Al Boasberg and shredded by him and stuck to his office ceiling before he let the Marx Brothers or anyone else see it), the scene in Groucho’s hotel room where he and the (unseen) other brothers make four beds dance about from room to room and drive the usually unflappable Robert Emmet O’Connor (playing — what else? — a cop) to the edge of a nervous breakdown, and the final disruption of the performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore — are as gloriously amusing as ever.

It’s surprising, in retrospect, that the Marx Brothers concocted a superbly funny sequence set in an opera house without doing much to satirize what one would think would be the most risible aspect of the opera scene, the high-class atmosphere of it and the number of people who are there just “to be seen” and who couldn’t care less about the music — as it is, they basically treat an opera performance much the way they treated Margaret Dumont’s high-class party in Animal Crackers (another Kaufman-Ryskind script), as an arena in which to run amok and disrupt things for the sheer joy of doing so. (The real comedown in the sequence is when they’re obliged to stop disrupting once good-guys Jones and Carlisle are on stage doing the “Miserere” — though they’re surprisingly good in it, it’s hard to watch them and keep a straight face after the previous five minutes have done so much to render the entire concept of opera utterly absurd.) When I read Joe Adamson’s book Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo I found myself regretting that the rejected Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby script for A Night at the Opera (which Adamson quoted at length) hadn’t been used, and indeed there are aspects of that script that are funnier than the movie that actually got made — but the movie that actually got made is quite funny enough, thank you. — 1/2/98


The film was A Night at the Opera, a movie that hardly seems to need any more comment — it’s become so integral a part of popular culture that in the episode of the TV show The Odd Couple featuring New York City Opera baritone Richard Fredericks (whom Tony Randall had insisted on including in an episode!), Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) growled out to Randall, “The only opera I ever saw had the Marx Brothers in it!” A Night at the Opera took two years to make — unusual for a film in the 1930’s — partly because the Marx Brothers were considered over the hill (their immediately previous film, Duck Soup, had been a box-office flop on its initial release; it didn’t really find its audience until the 1960’s, when young people began to distrust the government and rebel against authority, and they found in this 35-year-old movie a reflection of their anarchic attitudes and conviction that all politics were stupid and soul-destroying) and partly because MGM production chief Irving Thalberg wanted to be very careful in how he re-introduced them to movie audiences. Thalberg began their relationship by telling the Marxes he’d thought Duck Soup was funny but wasn’t a good movie — to which Groucho, being Groucho, replied, “Well, we didn’t think Grand Hotel was so hot, either!”

Thalberg patiently explained that you couldn’t make a great movie by just building gag on top of gag without any letup, and when Groucho asked why not, Thalberg said because women wouldn’t like such a film. “Women have never liked our kind of comedy, and that’s all there is to it,” Groucho said. Thalberg replied, “That’s why your film has to have romance and music in it, so there’ll be things in it women will like.” The obsession with appealing to women came from the fact that two-career couples were incredibly rare — indeed, one of the major cliché plots of the 1930’s was the poor but honest couple who can’t get married because the man isn’t earning enough money at his job to support both of them — and the theory was that while their husbands were away at work, wives would be scanning the movie listings in the papers and deciding what film the family would go see that night. That’s one reason why so many 1930’s movies have strongly etched female characters — whereas today the studios assume that most of the movie-theatre audience is adolescents and it will be the boys who decide what movies they will take their girls to, which is why so many of today’s films seem to appeal mostly to an audience of young men whose brains are being pickled in testosterone.

Anyway, getting back to the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera, Thalberg went through his usual incessant preparations — and as usual he kept the Marxes waiting for hours on end when they supposedly had appointments to see him (they literally smoked him out of his office at one point!) — and he accepted a story by James Kevin McGuinness dealing with a fast-talking swindler who wants to bilk a wealthy widow out of her millions by having her sponsor an opera. Groucho brought along a writer named George Oppenheimer and tried to get the story remodeled into an earlier version of The Producers — he would play a producer who would charge his backers 1,000 percent of the cost of his opera and put on a deliberately bad show, but instead it would be a hit (the premise had been an urban legend on Broadway for years and, well before Mel Brooks got hold of it, was used seriously in the film The Falcon in Hollywood). Thalberg turned it down and instead hired Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, principal screenwriters on Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, who came up with a really intriguing screenplay giving Groucho some of the wild, self-contradictory witticisms they’d written for him before and some elaborate pantomime routines for Harpo. Judging from the excerpts from it published by Joe Adamson in his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, the Kalmar-Ruby A Night at the Opera would have made an excellent movie — as good, certainly, as the one we have — but neither Thalberg nor the Marxes liked this script either.

Groucho then remembered that their two most successful stage shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — which both had been turned into hit movies — had been written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and though Kaufman absolutely loathed Hollywood, the promise of a large amount of MGM’s money was enough to lure him there. (It was during the writing of A Night at the Opera that Kaufman was assigned an office on the MGM lot. His door was kept closed and his only contact with the studio was that every week a minion would slip his paycheck under the door. Kaufman decided to take a vacation, and returned several months later to find that no one had bothered to contact him during his absence, no one at the studio had noticed he was gone, and the studio’s minion had continued to slip paychecks under his door until he now had an accumulation of nine months’ worth of them — an interesting tale of Kaufman’s life imitating his art, since he’d written a similar scene involving a Broadway writer brought to Hollywood, paid a large sum and otherwise ignored, in the play he and Moss Hart co-wrote, Once in a Lifetime, and Kaufman had himself played the writer in the play’s Broadway premiere.)

Kaufman and Ryskind duly turned in a script — with Al Boasberg called in as a gag man (it was he who wrote the celebrated stateroom scene — and shredded it, forcing the Marxes and Thalberg to reassemble it so they could read it) — but nobody was particularly thrilled with that version, either. So Thalberg and the Marxes hit on the idea of taking the movie, or at least parts of it, on tour, performing it before live audiences in vaudeville theatres and seeing which jokes went over, which ones didn’t, and taking writers along so anything that didn’t work could be punched up or totally rewritten on the spot. The Marxes also got the services of a visually inventive director, Sam Wood, and a marvelous cinematographer, Merritt Gerstad, with the result that this is the best-looking film the Marxes ever appeared in. By this time they were down from four brothers to three — Zeppo Marx had left the act to work as an agent — and A Night at the Opera emerged as a disjointed but brilliant movie in which, for the first and only time in the Marxes’ career at MGM, the comedy, music and romance reinforce each other instead of getting in each other’s way. The singing stars, Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle — providing the appeal to female audiences Thalberg insisted on — are attractive and personable, with great voices. (Jones had been offered the lead in MGM’s operetta Naughty Marietta and, in one of the most boneheaded career decisions of all time, had turned it down; instead Nelson Eddy agreed to co-star with Jeanette MacDonald, thus launching their fabulously successful series of eight films together.)

When I was at the height of my obsession with all things Marxist in the 1970’s I used to sit through the musical and romantic interludes of their MGM films with teeth gnashing in frustration, waiting for the comedy to begin again; now I find a lot of the music quite charming, and well filmed — “Alone” is a haunting song (both Groucho and Chico wanted it deleted; Allan Jones, of course, wanted it to stay in; and Thalberg told Jones, “The Marx Brothers know comedy. You know music. It stays in”) that became a number one hit, and “Cosi-Cosa” is an infectious number vividly filmed, with the beaming faces of joyous, transfixed children adding to the light, giddy appeal of this movie. Sometimes the transitions (especially between Groucho as romantic sentimentalist giving Kitty Carlisle Allan Jones’ love note and Groucho as remorseless swindler blackmailing Margaret Dumont into coming into his room on the boat) jar, but for the most part A Night at the Opera is a very funny movie that’s also genuinely charming. It’s a romantic triangle between established tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), aspiring soprano Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) and unknown tenor Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones); Lassparri gets an offer from Herman Gottlieb (Sig Rumann), manager of the New York Opera Company, to sing in New York, and he invites Rosa to join him in hopes that she’ll reward him for his favor to her by having sex with him. But, being the innocent heroine of a 1930’s Production Code-era movie, she only has eyes for Baroni. The Marx Brothers get shoehorned into this plot situation in a variety of ways; Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, smooth-talking swindler who’s trying to get into the fortune (and the pants, if he has to) of Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, in her fourth of seven films with the Marx Brothers) by serving as liaison between her and Gottlieb. Harpo is Lassparri’s valet (until the vain tenor fires him) and Chico is Baroni’s friend and manager.

There are lots of delicious comic highlights in the film, from the famous contract-tearing scene (just about everyone I know who shares my love of the Marx Brothers has at some time or other said, “The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part”) to the stateroom scene (preceded by a just as hilarious scene in which Groucho is ordering a meal for himself and the three people — Chico, Harpo and Baroni — who have stowed away in his trunk; he’s told Chico and Harpo to shut up but Chico keeps chiming in, “And two hard-boiled eggs,” whereupon Harpo honks his taxi horn and Groucho says, “Make that three hard-boiled eggs” — the punch line coming when Harpo emits a whole series of honks and Groucho says, “Either it’s foggy out or make that a dozen hard-boiled eggs”) and the finale in which the Marx Brothers disrupt the opening-night performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (a silly opera the Marxes had already parodied twice before!) to get Lassparri out of the cast and Ricardo and Rosa on. Their tactics include slipping “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” into the parts for the orchestra, so in the middle of the overture the music changes from Verdi to Albert von Tilzer’s baseball classic; going “booga-booga-booga” as a mezzo-soprano (Olga Dane) wretchedly made up to look like a hag sings Azucena’s aria “Stride la vampa”; tearing off the clothes of a dancer as she passes from one end of the stage to the other; switching backdrops on Lassparri so the tenor ends up singing “Mal reggendo” and “Di quella pira” in front of New York streetcars and a battleship; and finally kidnapping him just before the last act so a desperate Gottlieb agrees to put Ricardo and Rosa on for a surprisingly straight version of the “Miserere” duet. (In it, Kitty Carlisle adds an un-Verdian high note that is “wrong” musically but adds to the vertiginous excitement of the scene; it was a traditional interpolation and I believe Frances Alda took it on her record with Caruso.)

 A Night at the Opera is a lovely movie that hangs together surprisingly well for all its (deliberate) changes of direction, and it’s only a pity that the Marxes’ later films for MGM didn’t sustain its quality. Irving Thalberg died during the pre-production of A Day at the Races and the absence of his keen hand in shaping and reshaping a popular entertainment is missed, and in the three films the Marx Brothers made at MGM after that (At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store) the scripts seem thrown together with chewing gum and paste and the quality of the musical interludes descends from genuinely talented singers like Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle to people like Kenny Baker, John Carroll and Tony Martin.oHHoo Incidentally, MGM had so many pre-recordings of Verdi’s Il Trovatore left over from A Night at the Opera that they concocted a whole movie the following year, Moonlight Murder — a murder mystery set against the backdrop of a performance of Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl — just to be able to reuse them. — 11/25/11