The fifth day of the Decades Blogathon, being hosted by Mark of Three Rows Back and yours truly here at DSB, gives you a review from James, who runs the fantastic Back to the Viewer which you need to browse over if you haven’t before. James is taking a look at the 1935 comedy/musical A Night at the Opera.
A huge shout out to Three Rows Back and Digital Shortbread for hosting the first Decades Blogathon, a blogathon dedicated to films released in the fifth year of each decade since the turn of the 20th Century. There are some fantastic films up for review so be sure to check them out when the festivities kick off on Monday 18th May.
“And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined.
Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons,
and necking in the parlor.”
The Marx Brothers are up to their usual buffoonery in this timeless piece of comedic Americana.
Adored in the world of comedy for their slap-your-leg-laughing slapstick, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx bring a conventional tale of zero-to-hero to life with a whizz bang of one-line gags and a bucket load of nuanced charm.
Whisked straight into ‘High Society’ following opening credits of old, Margaret Dumont is seated alone in a lavish restaurant awaiting the arrival of one tardy Otis B. Driftwood. In the comfort of his own whimsy Groucho asserts himself in true Groucho style, with a leap from his chair, bend in his knee and one-liners on parole. Hired by Mrs. Claypool to make her a noteworthy member of the upper echelons of society Driftwood has a plan to satisfy her obtuse desire. Driftwood has agreed with Herbert Gottlieb, a representative of the New York Opera Company, that Mrs. Claypool will invest $200,000 into the signing of Lassparri, the next greatest opera tenor. As her life of high society flashes before her eyes Gottlieb whisks her away to the opera to see her investment in action.
Cutting to the stage we enter the opera house and catch our first glimpse of Harpo and Chico, as Tomasso and Fiorello respectively. Donning his typical zany allure, Harpo is quite aptly dressed in Lassparri’s clown costume. Returning to find Harpo bumbling about on his dresser Lassparri chases him out of the room as Harpo reveals costume after costume layered a-top his humble civvies. Stumbling out into the hallway a sympathetic Rosa, Kitty Carlisle, picks him up and dusts him down before returning to her dressing room. Ricardo, Allan Jones, soon comes knocking and the love interest is secured, simultaneosly establishing Ricardo as the down-on-his-luck character, the zero if you will. Carlisle and Jones have great chemistry and it soon becomes clear the rest of this whimsical roller coaster rests on their capable shoulders.
It’s when Chico returns that the whole affair receives a boost. Bowling into the opera house he engages in a little light raillery with the mailman when he spots Tomasso. Like a princess awaiting her knight he slides down the staircase and bounds into the arms of his comedic partner in crime. After a brotherly embrace they part ways and Chico makes his way backstage to find his long time friend, and adept tenor, Ricardo. Offering, partly in jest, to represent Ricardo as his manager Fiorello gets Driftwood caught up in a baffling scheme that sets the four of them off on a journey to New York.
Every film has its moments, the moments that define it as a classic, promote a cult following, cause a tickle, or downright have you in stitches. With a smorgasbord of comedic delicacies to gorge on A Night at the Opera becomes the best night of your life as Groucho jests, Chico schemes, and Harpo honks their way across the Atlantic, getting into all sorts of Marx Brothers mischief.
This is early talkie comedy at its finest, and following Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera had a lot to live upto. The Marx Brothers are defined by their comedic timing, individual character traits and wacky storylines, but A Night at the Opera serves up a healthy portion of charming sincerity when Chico, Harpo and Jones get caught up in musical festivities aboard the S.S. Americus. Laying low in Driftwood’s stateroom the three stowaways go on the hunt for food. Stumbling across a spread fit for King Theoden the faces of the three are a joy to watch as they shuffle excitedly over the ship’s deck before breaking out into spontaneous musicality. Harpo jumps on the Harp, Chico slides onto the piano stool and Jones rises as tenor. Rousing the deck into a right ol’ song and dance the trio capture the feel of the moment and treat the audience to moments of sweet sincerity and humour.
This combination of zaniness and charm elevates A Night at the Opera above lesser Marx Brothers tenements by building upon the established repertoire, fine tuning performances, and whittling the silliness down into a more human fuelled experience disguised beneath the recognised and revered trademarks.
Catapulting A Night at the Opera into the high society of classic comedies Groucho is on top form in his finest performance as Otis B. Driftwood, Chico plays off his younger brother’s quick wit and Harpo bounces around like a ball on a string. The best scene of the film involves all three crammed into a tiny stateroom, a scene which has become one of comedy’s greatest landmarks. For the sheer ambition combined with Groucho’s endlessly quotable introductions the execution is sublime and makes for hilarious viewing.
Culminating in an act that sees Chico and Harpo amusingly, inventively ruin an opera and Groucho play hide-and-seek with the opera ushers the film ends on a high note with Rosa and Ricardo united on stage while the bumbling contract neogtiations extend beyond the closing credits.
Without a doubt one of cinema’s greatest additions to the classics list, where it should remain as a Timeless Classic for generations to witness, adore, and remember.