(U.S., Sam Wood)
Though not the strongest Marx Brothers’ movies, A Night at the Opera still stands as one of the great movie comedies of the 1930s. Their move from Paramount to MGM didn’t dehydrate their creative juices the way Buster Keaton’s move to MGM did. Instead the Culver City studio polished the Marx Brothers’ subversive humor, though their rougher Paramount pictures still work better.
As always the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, and Chico) toss our expectations out the window. In the past Groucho often nipped at the absurdities of high society, usually embodied by Margaret Dumont, as an outsider tenuously holding on to society’s edges. In this picture, Margaret Dumont’s Mrs. Claypool is the one on the outside and she has hired Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) as the unlikely guide for her into the nearly impenetrable walls of New York society. Driftwood’s gimmick is for Mrs. Claypool to endow a fund for the opera. Throw into the mix an arrogant star tenor, a thwarted romance, and a raucous trans-Atlantic voyage and we have all the necessary parts for A Night at the Opera.
The comedy in this picture is more restrained than in Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, and Horse Feathers, but their ability to make a less anarchic movie work speaks to their versatility. Groucho is less edgy, less biting – he’s sacrificed the twinge of misanthropy for an increased level of benevolence, especially for the Allan Jones-Kitty Carlisle characters. Groucho’s character had often been rather indifferent to the romantic storylines, but here he actively helps the wayward lovers overcome the obstacles to their union appearing more as a fairy godfather than Captain Spaulding or Rufus T. Firefly.
This time around their anarchy has a point. It isn’t anarchy for the sake of glorious disorder. To get young Allan Jones’ struggling singer on the stage and facilitate his romance with Kitty Carlisle, the Marx Brothers disrupt a production of Il Travatore, blackmailing the opera manager into putting Jones on the stage. They exchange music with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the infiltrate the cast of extras, and monkey with the backgrounds. (“A battleship in Il Travatore?!”) All of this is quite funny, but we are left acutely aware that we are seeing a transition; their madness has been contained and co-opted making the Marx Brothers kinder and gentler for a broader audience.
These reservations don’t diminish the accomplishment of this picture. There are wonderful moments, including the rightfully famous cabin scene on the ship. This is also the last time the Marx Brothers would make a movie that really works. Their subsequent movies like A Day at the Races, The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca sought to recreate the success of this picture, but they mostly fell short. A Night at the Opera stands as the Marx Brothers’ last great movie.