Thursday, 9 April 2009

A Night at the Opera


In Italy, Otis B. Driftwood's (Groucho Marx) position as wealthy Mrs. Claypool's (Margaret Dumont) business manager is threatened when Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) promises to get her into society through becoming a patron of the Opera. In his attempts to regain his position, he comes into contact with Fiorello (Chico Marx) and Tomasso (Harpo Marx), friends of an unpopular opera singer in love with the female lead. They stow away to follow the production to New York and try to reinstate their positions.


So, is it the best Marx Brothers picture? We are going to have to say the word "purist", (a word that crops into practically every review of this film), they would argue that once the brothers moved to MGM they lost the anarchic edge of earlier films - Animal Crackers, Monkey Business - and there was a change from humiliating the love interests, to assisting them.

Both of these points are true, implying that they had lost creative control of their movies, especially when you hear quotes such as that from producer Irving G. Thalberg, who called their previous film, Duck Soup, a "stinker". But it was also his suggestion that put the trio in an extraordinarily powerful position. He encouraged them to take the film out on the road, performing it before live audiences, therefore returning them to their vaudeville beginnings. They were able to fine tune the material in a way that few other actors are able.

This approach gives us the equivalent of the drastic cuts Airplane received, to ensure that no moment was wasted on self indulgent routines. There is a careful balance between the superb visual gags, and lightning fast patter from Groucho.

Of the two love interests, Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) and Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle), Kitty shines with a coolness and exceptional voice. Although you often find yourself wishing they were off screen, they do not detract as much from the laughs as they could, and they give a central premise for the plot to revolve around. The film flows effectively in a way that their previous films were unable to.

We are also blessed with some of the finest comic scenes in cinema: the dispute over the contract for Ricardo Baroni between Groucho and Chico - Fiorello: Can he live in New York on $3.00? Driftwood: Like a prince. Of course he won't be able to eat, but he can live like a prince.

Switching the beds in Driftwood's apartment to confuse a detective, and of course the crowed cabin scene:

Cabin Scene Marx Borthers

These very visual scenes show clearly the influence of the stage, especially when rearranging the furniture in the apartment. Two rooms are seen simultaneously, and you can imagine the audience's response as they see the policeman stumble from room to room trying to find the fugitive brothers.

A Night at the Opera is polished from start to finish, packed with quotable dialogue, and building to a satisfying crescendo. It also benefits from losing the fourth brother, Zeppo, sadly a dead weight to be carried in the previous pictures. It remains my favourite of their films, showing that their unique style could not be homogenised. It is also the perfect starting point for any who have not seen their films before, paving the way into the surreal insanity of the Paramount pictures.

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