Monday, January 31, 2011

#31 A Night at the Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera (1935)

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

I love the Marx Brothers. I have for quite some time. This fact is quite remarkable in that my love of the Marx Brothers goes back at the very least to 7th or 8th grade, a time in which I disliked most old movies, and despised black and white. And yet in spite of this severe dislike of old movies, my love of the Marx Brothers remained. The first Marx Brothers film I can remember watching was the one I am reviewing right now, that is, A Night at the Opera. I have tremendously fond memories of this film, being not only my first experience with The Marx Brothers, but also being my favorite of the films they made. This fact caused confusion when voiced to a friend of mine, who couldn’t see how I could possibly like any Marx Brothers film more than Duck Soup. And while Duck Soup is a superb movie, the jokes are hilarious, and the three are in top form, A Night at the Opera brings something more, and that is an actually perceivable plot. While I’m sure there are many who would disagree with my viewing this as a good thing, I actually do, and it is my hope that by the end of this review you will too.

The film starts out with a scene at a swanky restaurant. Mrs. Claypool is waiting for the arrival of Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho), who is serving as her manager, charged with getting her into high society. Mrs. Claypool is upset because Driftwood has not yet achieved this feat, and he doesn’t appear to be putting any effort at all into the job. Driftwood interrupts her with a plan, by providing a large donation to the New York Opera, owned by Gottlieb; she will be instantly entered into high society. The two talk with Gottlieb, who tells Claypool that he will use the money to hire an opera singer named Lassparri, who is renowned as the greatest tenor in the world. Claypool and Gottlieb then visit the opera house where Lassparri is performing to see his talents, and hopefully hire him for the upcoming New York opera season. We are soon introduced to Lassparri, who turns out to be an arrogant, vain, and rude person. Lassparri, as it turns out, is in love with his female counterpart at the Opera, a woman named Rosa. She, in turn is in love with a man named Ricardo, who is a powerfully talented tenor in his own right, but just doesn’t have the right connections and notoriety to make it big. Ricardo meets with an old friend of his, named Fiorello (Chico), who vows to help him make it big in the Opera. The opera is performed, and Gottlieb and Claypool are sufficiently satisfied sign him for their own opera. Lassparri elects to take Rosa with him as his counterpart. The two depart, alongside Driftwood, Claypool, and Gottlieb on a steamer ship bound for New York. Shortly after settling into his cramped quarters, Driftwood soon discovers that Ricardo, Fiorello, and Lassparri’s recently fired assistant Tomasso (Harpo) have stowed away in Driftwood’s suitcase. After some crazy antics, the three stowaways are discovered, incarcerated in the brig, and subsequently escape, sneaking through customs into New York City. This escape is discovered, and the three spend the rest of the film evading police while attempting to get Ricardo into the Opera, which, through a complicated series of antics and machinations, they manage to achieve. At film’s end, Rosa and Ricardo sing a powerful duet, resulting in the disgracing and outturning of Lassparri, the successful union of Rosa and Ricardo, and Ricardo’s grand entrĂ©e into the opera scene.

The acting in this film is simply superb; the Marx brothers are in top form for this movie. Groucho’s lines are quick, witty, and uproariously hilarious. Chico is punny and riotously funny. Harpo is equally superb, though not quite as prominent as he was in others of his movies such as Duck Soup or A Night in Casablanca. The chemistry of the three Marx brothers is fantastic. Watching Chico and Groucho riff off one another is among the greatest comical performances of all time. But the Marx Brothers aren’t the only great performers in this film. Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), and Ricardo (Allan Jones) are both very compelling. The story of their romance, serving as a sort of undercurrent of the plot of the film is wonderfully performed. Also notable are Walter Woolf King, and Marx Brothers staples Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman who give excellent performances as straight men to the Marx Brothers. Walter Woolf King, who plays Lassparri, does a good job conveying the arrogance and vanity of his character, while also inviting an opportunity for sympathy for a spurned lover. Margaret Dumont, who plays Mrs. Claypool has been in a number of Marx Brothers films, including Duck Soup, and was excellent as always, serving as a platform for a number of insults from Groucho with appropriate indignation. Sig Ruman, who has also performed in several Marx Brothers films such as A Night in Casablanca, provides another sufficiently entertaining straight man, though I must say I preferred him in Casablanca, where he played an excellent straight man to Harpo. Nonetheless, it is not the Marx Brothers alone that make for an effective comedy; a good comedy requires an equally good straight man (or men), and A Night at the Opera achieves this end superbly.

The directing in A Night at the Opera is surprisingly very good. There are some very good shots in this movie, the most prominent in my mind is a very funny scene in which the Marx Brothers evade and confuse the head of police in New York by running around a two-room apartment. The cool shot I am referring to is when the camera draws back to show you the layout of the whole of the apartment, allowing you to see just what exactly all of the brothers are doing at one time without having to constantly cut around. One thing I particularly like about this film is that it feels improvised. For all I know it could have been, but the sense of the film is that much of it is done in one cut and many of the characters appear to literally be riffing off one another; coming up with jokes and retorts on the spot. Whether or not this is the case is irrelevant, the feeling it achieves makes the film all the more entertaining. One thing I am disappointed by in this film was the editing, which was not very good, and there are a lot of mistakes and poorly cut shots, resulting in repeated actions throughout the film. However these bad edits for the most part are either ignorable or simply add to the general hilarity of the film.

As I intimated earlier, I consider this movie to be superior to the earlier Duck Soup for the reason that it has an actually coherent plot. There are many who would disagree with me; many allege that the Marx Brothers are weakened by plot, which only serves to distract the movie from the hilarious antics of the brothers. This is simply wrong. Viewers need direction, they need to have a sense of where the movie is going, a goal for them to root for, and characters who are striving for an end which will result in euphoria in the viewer in the end is achieved, or sadness or catharsis when the end is not achieved. When this direction is not there; when the viewer is unsure of where the movie is going, the result is drag. The movie gets muddled, viewers get bored, and things such as checking run time against the DVD’s clock start happening. This is apparent even in a movie as good as Duck Soup, where, even though you are laughing from start to finish, you simultaneously find yourself looking for the end. This is not so with A Night at the Opera. The characters have a goal – for Lassparri it is to successfully perform in the New York opera, for Crawford it is to put on a successful opera and achieve status, and for Ricardo and the Marx Brothers, it’s to get Ricardo’s great talent as a tenor recognized by the general public. The result of these cogent goals is a superbly paced movie, and what’s more, I don’t feel there was a shortfall in antics. The flow of this movie is excellent, and I enjoyed myself from start to finish, and most importantly, I didn’t find myself checking the runtime.

Almost as excellent as the superb jokes of the Marx Brothers is the music. The performances of the extremely talented Chico on Piano and equally talented Harpo on Harp are a staple of Marx Brothers films and are performed stupendously in this movie. These two, however, are further aided by a wonderful cadre of singers, notably Allan Jones as Ricardo, who performs a trio with Chico on Piano, Harpo on Harp, and he singing. Equally compelling are the two or three duets between Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. These are all superbly beautiful performances. One potential shortfall of this film is you’re probably going to have to at the least be ambivalent towards Opera as there is a lot of Opera singing in it. Luckily for me, I adore opera, and greatly adored the Verdi music laced throughout the movie. For me the intermixing of Marx comedy and Verdi opera music was a match made in heaven.

So why is this film on the list? Well for one, you just have to give the Marx Brothers some love. To leave them out of a list of greatest and most influential film of all time would be akin to leaving out Charlie Chaplin or John Wayne; their great volume of work, and great notoriety as prolific actors and pioneers of film cannot be understated. Moreover, A Night at the Opera signified as monumental shift in Marx Brothers films, away from the undirected (and less popular), non story driven films like Duck Soup, and a change towards films containing story, usually featuring a pair of secondary characters who help to direct and keep the film moving. There are many, such as Roger Ebert who this as the end of the Marx Brothers, but I see it as the rebirth. There is a reason why I consider A Night at the Opera to be their best work; it is the great combination of the dialogue, jokes, and chemistry between the Marx Brothers with a cogent storyline to keep the viewer engaged which makes this such a great movie, and one which deserves to be placed on any eternal list of great movies.

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