Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Night at the Opera (1935): “and one duck egg”

“For the first time in the Brothers’ cinematic careers, they had pulled in a large portion of female fans. The price for this widening appeal could not be fully calculated at the time. Only much later did the cost become apparent.  In A Night at the Opera Harpo remained as silent as a stone, Chico kept his accent and his pianistic style, and Groucho still walked the walk and talked the talk. Some of their bits were among the funniest ever written and performed on screen. Yet a close examination shows that the old fire was banked. Instead of making sport of romance, they now facilitated it. Instead of whacking away at the powerful institutions of government or the military or education, they battled the toothless enemy of grand opera.  At [Irving] Thalberg’s insistence the crew of maniacs had become hilarious but harmless uncles, like the later Laurel and Hardy. They were not outrageous anymore, they were only frivolous; they were not surreal, they were only foolish; they were not daring, they were only impolite. Not that the Brothers minded. They were the first comedy team to become a box office attraction in the sound era. MGM proudly announced proudly announced plans to put them in another glossy vehicle, complete with ten-week road tryout.  Thalberg had been proven correct on all counts, the Marxes were flush, and the receipts kept pouring in.”
- Stefan Kanfer, Groucho (2000)

- Are you sure you have everything, Otis?
– Well, I haven’t had any complaints yet.

The Marx Bros. had not been a hit with women when Irving Thalberg took them on for Sam Goldwyn’s MGM.  Thalberg gave them a plausible narrative, a big budget, and the best writers for A Night at the Opera, their first MGM movie.  A slick production with great gags and set pieces delivered one of the studio’s biggest hits and a gross of $5 million – big money in 1936. The scenarios had been honed on the road across America, with the famous stateroom scene and other key scenes played to live audiences before production began.  The soppy romance delivered the dames and the boys’ antics the rest of an appreciative crowd, with only one major critic giving the film the thumbs down.

- That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
– Really?
– 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. How do you account for that? <If she figures that one out, she’s good.>

A Night at the Opera is a very funny movie and includes many memorable scenes and lines, and with a sincere ring of pathos.  The chaotic stateroom imbroglio, the opera finale with Groucho spruiking for dough from the balcony and Harpo literally ripping up the scenery, the wonderful  sanity clause stand-up between Chico and Groucho,  the achingly funny moving hotel beds routine, the sparks that fly between Groucho and Margaret Dumont, and the wonderfully irreverent takedowns of the great character actor Sig Ruman as Gottlieb,  the pompous opera impresario.  Fittingly the ‘last’ musical interlude, on deck with the Italian migrants heading for the New World, has a real dignity and pathos that gives the melodrama a harder edge.

 - Hey you. I told you to slow that nag down. On account of you I almost heard the opera.

Is Kanfer right though? Were the Marx Bros. tamed by Thalberg?  I think he makes a strong case, though which side you come down on is a matter of perspective.  A Night at the Opera is a great, very great Hollywood comedy, and on those terms there is more to celebrate than lament.  If however we compare the movie to their earlier pictures, the Marx Bros. are no longer subversive, they are no longer protagonists but facilitators in a narrative that, if we are truly honest, is as hackneyed as they come – a totally predictable romantic triangle that maintains its claim to seriousness despite the best antics of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo to expose its banality. The Marx Bros. were no longer radical, and A Night at the Opera marked the beginning of a lamentable decline. The team had been co-opted by the establishment, and it had been so easy.
- Never in my life have I received such treatment. They threw an apple at me. 
- Well, watermelons are out of season.