Film Flick: A Night at the Opera

Friday, April 14, 2017

I'd never had A Night at the Opera- or any other night with the Marx Brothers- before now. Considered one of the most enduring and unique set of voices to movie comedy (or lack of voice in Harpo's case), the Marx Brothers are something unlike anything I'd ever seen before.  And despite the fact that A Night at the Opera was not the Marx Brothers first film, it was still  unlike anything movie-going audiences of time had seen before either.

A Night at the Opera was the brothers' first movie at a new studio, MGM, and it was also the first picture to feature only three of the brothers, rather than four. Due to these changes, A Night at the Opera would develop what would become the basis of all their following movies. When they had filmed previously at Paramount Studios, the plots to their movies were barely existent, and all who crossed paths with the brothers were sure to fall victim to their aggressive brand of comedy. However, MGM producer, Irving Thalberg insisted on a more coherent plot. He also sought to make the brothers more sympathetic to audiences, so, while the brothers' trademark chaos was still very much the center of the picture, that chaos was only unleashed on deserving bad guys. Instead, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo's characters would seek to aid the heroes of the story. Thalberg felt this way, they could get "twice the box office with half the laughs."

Still, Thalberg was taking no chances on what was comedic in A Night at the Opera. The film
underwent multiple rewrites with multiple scriptwriters. The first two were so bad all that remained of their work in the final film was two characters' names! Another scriptwriter was better, but got so fed up with the producer and brothers' constant hounding that, when they went to meet about the final script, they found the writer had left the building, leaving behind only a torn up script. According to Groucho's memoirs through, they were pleased with the work once they'd be able to piece it back together! 

Beyond just establishing the script, Thalberg also insisted that the Marx Brothers take the comic routines that would be used in the film to the vaudeville circuit to be tested before live audiences. Unless something got uproarious laughter, it was reworked or cut from the film. After the filming was completed, there was again extensive audience testing, and recutting of the film in order to make sure the pacing was perfect.

It is satire on a grand scale. The movie lampoons high society and Opera culture, while at the same time celebrating its beautiful music with multiple songs throughout. Obstinately, A Night at the Opera is about two young opera singers who are in love, and about a wealthy dowager bankrolling an New York opera production. While Groucho's character, Otis B. Driftwood, attempts to romance the dowager, played in the most elegant manner possible by Margret Dunmont, the audience is introduced to Harpo and Chico's characters when they stumble upon the young couple in trouble!  One is going to New York to sing, so, with help from the Marx Brothers, the intrepid hero sneaks on board the steam ship carrying everyone to America. Zany misadventures happen and their presence is revealed. Even more hijinks result as they attempt to evade justice and deportation. People are fired from the opera, and desperate measures are taken to ensure a happy ending. Nearly all following films would be modeled after this same formula:a friendship is established between the romantic couple and Chico, Harpo's character is always displayed as sympathetic,  the comedy happens amidst elaborate surroundings, and there is a fall from grace followed by grand scale chaos where everything is righted. The three brother's characters were also further refined and defined. Groucho- known for stinging one-liners- makes more sense. Chico's character gained a bit more intelligence to be able to have verbal tennis with his brother. Harpo's persona here- and in subsequent movies- take on more child-like behaviors (except when pursuing the ladies, that is!) 

Though some Marx Brother fans were not well pleased with the changes that came with MGM producing, the film never comes off as overwrought. Instead, it was a success, and one of Groucho's two favorite films they ever made (the other was A Day at the Races, also an MGM production). And there is good reason for it being a favorite with such moments as the famous stateroom scene (interestingly, this scene was nearly cut, and the version we see on the screen was a last minute ad-lib). In fact, A Night at the Opera is so popular that it placed at number 87 in the American Film Institute's revised list of Top 100 American Films. With that for a recommendation, don't you want to experience A Night at the Opera too?

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