A Night at the Opera, the Marx Brothers, and Two Hard-boiled Eggs *Honk*… Make that Three Hard-boiled Eggs

The best part about great comedy is that it lasts, and lasts…and lasts. Good comedy holds up over time; it makes a viewer today laugh just as much as it made someone laugh in say, 1935. It forces laughter at the same old jokes days, weeks, months and years later. Sometimes it’s even funnier days, weeks, months, or years later. Growing up in the 80’s, I saw very few of the 80’s comedies that everyone else saw 10 times before they turned 12. Seeing them for the first time twenty years after their release just isn’t the same. Some of them don’t hold up. I doubt some of today’s movies will hold up. The Marx Brothers hold up.
 

Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you.” – Otis B. Driftwood 

Otis B. Driftwood (Grouch Marx) is hoping to make money from the perfect business deal with the rich Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and Ricardo (Allan Jones) are opera singers in love; the only problem is that Rosa is a star, and Ricardo is still an unknown talent. Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) is a snobbish tenor, attempting to claim Rosa for his own. Fiorello (Chico Marx) is a piano player, and friend of Ricardo. Tomasso (Harpo Marx) is the mute who’s just sort of always around. Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) is the manager of the New York Opera Company who signs Lassparri for his first American opera. Naturally, Lassparri brings Rosa along, leaving her lovesick for Ricardo who’s been left behind…or so we think. Meanwhile, thinking Ricardo is the best opera singer in the world (no thanks to Chico Marx’s character Fiorello) Groucho er Otis B. Driftwood has “signed” him to become an opera singer in America. Driftwood and Gottlieb battle for Mrs. Claypool’s money and attention by setting sail with their respective talents for New York. There is baffling banter, happenstantial humor, and gags aplenty both aboard the ship and on the opera stage as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo cause their traditional chaos. This time, though, they’re doing it for their friend Ricardo to ensure that he gets to steal the show, and the girl.

Otis B. Driftwood: All right, I’ll read it to you. Can you hear?
Fiorello: I haven’t heard anything yet. Did you say anything?
Otis B. Driftwood: Well, I haven’t said anything worth hearing
Fiorello: That’s why I didn’t hear anything
Otis B. Driftwood: Well, that’s why I didn’t say anything.

It has come to my attention that I’ve rambled on quite a bit in my last several blogs, so I’m going to work on brevity this time. I could sit here and write all about vaudeville comedians, or how humor has changed over the years, or question whether it has. Then again, I could just let this film stand on its own. After all, what are moves if not entertainment? They make us think sometimes, they make us sit on the edges of our seats other times, and sometimes they just make us laugh. This made me laugh. It will probably make you laugh too. There is little reason, in this case, for me to dwell on why. What I will do is give a bit of insight into The Marx Brothers themselves.

This film featured Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx. In this day and age, I don’t think it’s beyond reason to assume that almost everyone knows who Groucho is, and very few would really recognize the others if he weren’t also present. Is that fair? There were two other Marx brothers; and they were in fact brothers. Zeppo Marx starred in several earlier Marx Brothers films, but unlike his brothers he always played the role of the dramatic character. He dropped out of the comedy team, because he got tired of playing roles he believed to be beneath his talent; he wanted to be funny too. There was also Gummo Marx, who was never in a Marx Brothers movie, but was a part of their vaudeville team. According to a documentary that came as a special feature on the DVD of A Night at the Opera, the brothers nicknames all had an “o” at the end, because in the nineteen teens nicknames that ended in “o” were popular. Thus, Adolph Marx became Harpo Marx, because he played the harp beautifully. Yes, that was really him playing the harp and piano in the movie. Leonard Marx became Chico Marx, because he was a girl chaser; he chased the chicks. Julius Marx became Groucho Marx either because he was a grouch or because he was often seen carrying a grouch bag, which was a small bag you wore around your neck to carry money. According to a Wikipedia entry that quotes Groucho live at Carnegie Hall, when asked to discuss the origin of his brothers names he got to his own and said,”My name, of course, I never did understand.”

Each brother had his own distinct character that was carried throughout all of the Marx Brothers films. Chico talked with an accent that wasn’t quite Italian and played dumb. Harpo never spoke and often used clown and pantomime acts. He usually played the harp at some point in the films as well. Groucho, of course, wore the famed mustache and eyebrows, wiggled his cigar, walked with a stoops, and offered up rapid-fire dialogue of the sort you’ll see in A Night at the Opera. According to the documentary on the DVD, The Marx Brothers launched a new style of comedy for the time. Comedy pre-Marx was full of crazy antics, but it was motivated craziness. The Marx, on the other hand, just did amusing things for the sake of amusement. There a scene in A Night at the Opera, for instance, when the orchestra begins playing “Take me Out to the Ball Game” and Groucho starts to sell peanuts in the aisle. Then, Chico pitches a ball to Harpo, who hits it with a violin. It’s ridiculous; it’s unmotivated, and it’s fantastic! You can watch it here if you’d like:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCgaZnnHB1I

In the earlier part of their career the Marx adapted many of their vaudeville stage routines to film. It’s my understanding that these films were funny, but lacked the dramatic storyline of their later films such as A Night at the Opera. Because of this, one of their now best-known works, Duck Soup, initially failed at the box office. This is almost impossible for me to imagine. As the only other Marx Brothers film I’ve seen, I can say with all certainty that it’s hilarious. We watched it as part of a black and white movie night in college, and everyone in the room was rolling with laughter the entire time. It’s number five on AFI’s list of 100 Years…100 Laughs. A Night at the Opera, by the way, is listed as number 12. I absolutely agree that Duck Soup is funnier, though sitting here now a few days after watching A Night at the Opera, I think I’m laughing more at the humorous moments than I was at the time. Yes, they’re just that memorable. But wait…what were we talking about. Oh yes, so after Duck Soup initially failed at the box office, the Marx switched to MGM studios under the guidance of producer Irving Thalberg. It was Thalberg that introduced The Marx Brothers to the idea of adding a dramatic storyline to their humorous style. He gave them original stories, and worked their antics into a more structured plotline. This combination of drama and silliness, according to the documentary, was more in line with the tastes of the time than the Marx’s former style.

Another addition that Thalberg made to the Marx’s normal film structure was to add impressive and sweeping musical numbers. This was MGM’s style at the time, and it shows in scenes like the one where Chico and Harpo are involved in a huge song and dance party after their last dinner on the ship. There was something about this scene that reminded me exactly of the scene from Titanic with the singing and dancing in the ship’s lower quarters. Of course, Harpo wasn’t there playing his harp; that was something truly unique. In any case, A Night at the Opera, became a huge success, and according to the DVD case: “Many say this is the best Marx Brothers movie.” You can judge that one for yourself.

Otis B. Driftwood: You didn’t happen to see my suit in there, did you?
Fiorello: Yeah. It was taking up too much room, so we sold it.
Otis B. Driftwood: Did you get anything for it?
Fiorello: Uh…dollar forty.
Otis B. Driftwood: That’s my suit all right

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
I think this is obvious. The film is funny, because The Marx Brothers are hilarious. The film was a success because MGM took a simple dramatic story based around the very serious opera, and added Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and all of the hijinks they brought along for the ride…literally.

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
I think this is obvious. The film is funny, because The Marx Brothers are hilarious. The film was a success because MGM took a simple dramatic story based around the very serious opera, and added Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and all of the hijinks they brought along for the ride…literally.

Otis B. Driftwood: It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause
Fiorello: You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Claus!

Is it re-watchable?
No, no, don’t watch this again, unless you want to laugh even harder the second time. I mean it might be a health risk…

 “Last night, I counted five thousand sheep in those three beds, so I had to have another bed to sleep in. You wouldn’t want me to sleep with the sheep, would you?”

Why I watched this film in the first place?
Once again I was browsing the library shelves, and picked up a random pile of old movies. Knowing that I’d only seen one other Marx Brothers film, I picked this one up. Knowing I was in more of a comedy mood, than an Invasion of the Body Snatchers mood, I went with the Marx Brothers.

If you liked this, you might also like:
As previously mentioned, Duck Soup was hilarious. My guess is that most Marx Brothers movies are darn funny and worth watching, though. My grandpa had almost all of them, which is good enough for me. If you like The Marx Brothers  you might like some films by the other great comedy teams too, such as oh I dunno…Abbott & Costello. If I’m remembering correctly, I found every Abbott & Costello movie with the words “meet the” in the title to be particularly funny. It occurs to me that I was about to say that you might also like Laurel & Hardy films, and while that is probably true, looking at the titles I don’t know which if any I’ve actually seen. This is bothersome. I suppose Babes in Toyland both counts, and doesn’t count. Huh.

Final verdict – in claps
Why clap when you can start swinging from the rafters at an opera? Go all out on this one. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t actually try that, so… You most definitely may clap, but put on your Groucho mustache glasses first. It’ll be great!

Otis B. Driftwood: It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause
Fiorello: You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Claus!