If Verdi collaborated with Mel Brooks on a comic opera, or operatic comedy, for Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, and Roberto Benigni, chances are the result would bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, but why take chances?
The fact is, A Night at the Opera is one of a kind, for which we can all be grateful. But it’s also something more. The most successful Marx Brothers film in their day both critically and popularly, A Night at the Opera is one of the two front-runners — along with Duck Soup, which was not successful at the time — for the best and funniest Marx Brothers feature ever. Opera was also reportedly Groucho’s favorite.
The Marxes’ first film for MGM after their run at Paramount (where they made Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, and Horse Feathers), A Night at the Opera benefits from a tighter, better developed storyline and script than their earlier work, and less wildly freewheeling behavior from the brothers.
There’s also a great deal of musical comedy, including Harpo’s and Chico’s lighthearted piano playing and an operatic finale with the brothers running amok in an opera house. A Night at the Opera also features a romantic subplot involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones as talented but unknown singers looking to break into the opera world. And of course Margaret Dumont is on hand as yet another rich dowager to be alternately insulted and flattered by Groucho.
The new level of polish gives A Night at the Opera broader appeal than most of their Paramount films, but also threatens to derail the Marxes’ special brand of anarchic comedy (as indeed happens in later MGM films). Fortunately, the Marx magic prevails in Opera, which features such comic gems as Groucho and Chico’s surreal contract negotiations, the overcrowded state room sequence, an energetic sequence involving much moving of furniture, and Harpo’s high-flying antics on the operahouse flyropes.
Groucho is in top form with his comic mugging — a term that usually means something different from what muggers do, although in Groucho’s case I’ll make an exception. When Dumont huffily protests his calling her "my good woman" ("I’m not your good woman!") he replies disarmingly, "Don’t say that, Mrs. Claypool. I don’t care what your past has been. To me you’ll always be my good woman. Because I love you." Classic stuff.
Probably the greatest and funniest film from one of the cinema’s funniest acts, Duck Soup is as absurdly nonsensical as comedy can be and still be about something.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.