Assistant Second Unit Director
Joined: Tue May 03, 2011 8:39 pm
Location: Juneau, Alaska
Re: 202 - A Night At the Opera
A Night at the Opera contains plenty of laughs, but it is the nature of these laughs that makes the film ultimately disappointing. This was the first film that the Marx Bros. (no longer using their full, original title “the Four Marx Brothers,” because they were now minus Zeppo) did for MGM, after their stint at Paramount from 1929-1933, and it was not only their name that was given an abbreviation. Their entire routine changed, and as a result, so did the fiery, anarchic genius of their Paramount films. The consequence is three guys hopping around who look and sound like the Marx Brothers, but are a mere shadow of their former selves. Certainly A Night at the Opera is funny, but this is NOT the Marx Brothers, and their earlier style is so sorely missed that the film falls flat.
I suppose that a decline in the Brothers’ comedy was inevitable. After all, once you’ve read the top, there’s nowhere left but down. Their path of destruction began with the hotel business in The Cocoanuts, continued onto summer parties in Animal Crackers, the mafia and ocean voyages in Monkey Business, the theater in I’ll Say She Is (a short suject from the larger promo-documentary House That Shadows Built), an educational establishment in Horse Feathers, and, at last, the entire world in Duck Soup. Once you’ve declared war on civilization as we know it (and won), is it possible to get any higher? The descent was probably unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean that we have to like it.
The main problem with A Night at the Opera is the obvious lack of the Marx Brothers’ trademark anarchy. What distinguished them in their Paramount films from all other comedians was their thumb-biting indictment of society. They were so separated from the concerns of the world that absolutely nothing shook them. They didn’t scoff at danger or social patterns—they ignored them, and reduced their sets to chaos and rubble (a perfect example: In one of their Paramount films, an angry mafia boss aims a gun at Groucho, and Groucho exclaims, “Oh, is that what Santa brought you for Christmas? I got a fire engine!”).
In The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, we were given seemingly standard plots in which the Brothers appeared to be involved and interested, but as the films progressed, we realized that they were just playing along to stabilize their own archaic agenda. In the other four Paramount films, there was no need to stabilize anything—the Brothers moved through the movies unaware and unhinged by the plot lines, thumbing their noses at establishment and—to our delight—getting away with it. I am reminded of the famous passage from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.” In the Paramount films, the Marx Brothers were the gods, and costars and storylines were their sport.
In A Night at the Opera and all of their subsequent films (which got increasingly dreadful), the Marx Brothers ceased to be gods. Irving Thalberg, the producer who financed their next string of pictures, got the ridiculous idea that the Brothers couldn’t sustain a film based on their own shenanigans and instead needed real plotlines inserted around them. These plots exist not to be broken under the weight of the Brother’s anarchy and social parody, but to keep the Brothers in order. Whereas the Paramount films were at the mercy of the Marx Brothers, the Marx Brothers here are at the mercy of the script. The film involves Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s attempts to reunite a love-sick tenor (Allan Jones) with his true love (Kitty Carlisle). Both are opera singers in lead roles, though eventually, Jones is replaced by someone else and has been shipped away to another job. The only way that the two can be together is if Jones can get back to the opera where he belongs and get on stage, proving his chops. The Marx Brothers agree to assist the lad, because A) they’re broke and B) they just really like him.
This plotline is more than enough for the Brothers to reduce the film to anarchy, and the upper-crust society that they are facing could have been a ripe, unsuspecting victim (though similar to Animal Crackers and Monkey Business). Yet in the end, it is the Marx Brothers themselves who are the victims. They have funny scenes (Groucho and Chico are up to their tongue-twisting arguments again, and the famous stateroom scene is a real howler), yet they never deviate from the confines of the storyline, and they come across as restrained and watered down in their familiar antics. The Marx Brothers are merely janitors in this story, helping this Jones fellow win his love and make it big. Jones himself is the backbone of A Night at the Opera, and the Brothers are simply a means to an end for his romantic adventure.
Even the stateroom scene, considered one of the funniest moments in motion picture history, lacks the chaos of their previous films. The scene concerns the Brothers getting jam-packed in a small room filled with dozens of people, who continue to walk in and get lost in the ocean of arms, legs, and faces. The cluttered group is only freed when someone finally opens the door and they all tumble out. This is certainly an amusing scene, but I have a feeling that the Marx Brothers of Paramount would have snuck out of the room early on, invited others in, waited for the room to fill up, opened the door themselves, and laugh at their victims. Instead, they are out of control of the comedy and are subject to the humor themselves—something that would have never happened in a true Marx Brothers picture in which they were the gods.
This is a sad decline for the Marxes, and it negatively affects their trademark personalities that distinguished them as the brilliant comics that they were. Groucho still is full of wisecracks and insults, but instead of being the fearless insulter and bully of the Paramount films (see the “fire engine” example above), he comes across as more of a louse—he schemes to make money for personal gain, he is afraid of bigger bullies, and he gets abused and beaten up. The Groucho of Paramount scoffed at monetary concerns except when to aid him in tormenting other characters, and it is frankly unnerving to watch him get tossed down a long flight of stairs the way he does here. Would the Groucho of Duck Soup or Horse Feathers ever allow such a beating? He was always untouchable because he was too busy flabbergasting the antagonists to allow them to react violently. Here, even Groucho’s immortal victim/foil Margaret Dumont gets the upper hand of the man, rendering him speechless as she hurtles her own insults at him! Sorry, but I just can’t accept that.
The other Brothers aren’t much better off. Chico still argues with Groucho and delights in stumping him with his bad English (“This contract has a sanity clause.” “Hey, you no-a fool me. I don’t believe in Santa Clause!”), but he is reduced to a wide-eyed straight man here, ambushing Groucho more out of ignorance than wit. Harpo, the woman-chasing scoundrel in disguise as an angelic-faced clown, becomes simply an angelic-faced clown disguised as nothing. He therefore loses his edge and becomes a pale, sugar-coated shadow of his former self.
A word must also be said for Allan Jones, who certainly fills the roll of Zeppo as the fourth-wheel juvenile role. An analysis of Jones’ part compared to Zeppo’s in the Paramount films will help us understand where exactly A Night at the Opera goes wrong. Zeppo’s parts were always intended to be a parody of the juvenile role often found in sappy musicals of the 1920s-30s era. Sometimes, he would just have a few lines, and he would otherwise be reduced to standing in the background with a big smile on his face. In these roles, he was a lampoon of the infamous extra, always grinning widely as a needless decoration, and always stiff and wooden. In other films, Zeppo would have a more significant role as the romantic lead, but he would still always be stiff, wooden, and, yes, with a big smile on his face. Either way, he could never be considered a REAL straight man. He was a sappy distortion of the real thing, and sort of the gateway through which we connected with the other Brothers. We perceived him as the “normal, good-looking” one of the bunch, but was he really? Wasn’t there something about that line from The Cocoanuts, “You can depend upon me, Mr. Hammer,” that was a little too….happy? Roger Ebert called Zeppo “superfluous,” and that is the point of his character in the six Paramount films. He was the straight man only in pure Marxian sense—while his Brothers spat on movie clichés, he imitated them, proving in his own way to be quite a brilliant comedian.
Allan Jones, on the other hand, is the real thing. There is no imitation. When he sings to his love, he really means it, and so does the movie. We aren’t supposed to care about Zeppo’s romantic roles on a somber level—we are supposed to realize that they are only there for the other Marxes to disrupt. A Night at the Opera asks us to be involved with Jones, to be concerned. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are also concerned, and it simply does not work. Jones’ replacement of Zeppo reveals the fundamental flaw in the film: The Marx Brothers’ archaic style is compromised for a conventional love story, when we expect them to be their usual, inflammatory selves and reduce the opera, high society, and, darn it all, the love story to rubble. They absolutely and inexcusably give into a formulaic plot undistinguished from any other comedy team's films of the era, and it is not the Marx Brothers that we know and love. As a comedy, A Night at the Opera is very funny. As a Marx Brothers film, it is an absolute failure.