(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
I have what I call “The Pretty Woman Theorem.” Logic tells me I shouldn’t believe that with good luck, a hooker will be picked up by a rich man who will give her the life and love she deserves. But when it’s Richard Gere and Julia Roberts at their most charming, I’m willing to accept it…at least this once.
Similarly, for decades, movie-comedy lovers have debated whether or not MGM producer Irving Thalberg diluted the Marx Brothers’ zany style by making them cater to sappy lovers and elaborate musical numbers. But when you watch A Night at the Opera, somehow it all works…at least this once.
Indeed, Thalberg seems to have been the Marxes’ savior in more ways that one. Groucho was never shy about expressing his admiration for Thalberg and how he added a female audience to the Marxes’ movies without ruining their comedy. And Thalberg seems to have been the middleman between the Marxes and the Hollywood suits. Once Thalberg died, MGM plugged the Marxes into movies that seemed to follow the Thalberg formula but, as Roger Ebert might put it, knew the words but not the music.
The story — grandly constructed by former Marx scribes and revered playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind — concerns impresario Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) and rich widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). Claypool wants to get into high society; Driftwood wants to get into money. So he introduces her to Herman Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann, one of the most effective Marx villains ever), head of the New York Opera Company.
Gottlieb and Claypool get along famously–too famously for Driftwood, who still wants to keep his hand in Claypool’s bucks, his every appearance to the contrary. (Driftwood’s first scene shows him having eaten dinner with another woman while Claypool unknowingly sat behind him.)
Meanwhile, the opera troupe’s egotistical star, Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), has designs on the troupe female star Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). But Rosa is in love with Ricardo (Allan Jones, kind of a less wooden Zeppo), who has a great voice that is ignored because of his lack of celebrity.
Surprisingly, the Ricardo-Rosa romance isn’t laid on as thick as is Lassparri’s vanity. As if we hadn’t already gotten the idea that Lassparri is not a nice guy, he literally turns his lackey Tomasso (Harpo Marx) into a whipping post. Geez, did Harpo soak his feet in Lassparri’s lemonade or something?
Somehow, though, all of the elements mesh instead of clashing. In the scene where Driftwood delivers a love note to Rosa, Groucho is surprisingly effective without being maudlin. Chico and Harpo’s musical numbers feature endless shots of onlooking children laughing and cheering. That’s usually a bad sign in a movie; actors laughing at the comics is usually a desperate attempt to get the audience laughing as well. But Chico and Harpo really seem to enjoy entertaining the kids, and the joy really spreads to the movie audience.
Indeed, the trio are unusually chipper here; they seem buoyed enough by the fresh surroundings, as well they should be. The level of this movie’s comedic value is such that you only have to mention some of its scenes by name. The party of the first part. The stateroom scene. The bed-switching scene. And of course, the all-stops-out climax (one of the few Marx endings that doesn’t dribble away), where the Marxes make mincemeat of the opera and Lassparri.
When people try to name the Marx Brothers’ best movie, it’s either Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera. Why quibble? Be glad they’re both available to enjoy. After this point in the Marxes’ career, the gems were few and far between.
Here’s how the movie starts — with a bang: