Sunday, November 30, 2008

Target #240: A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)

TSPDT placing: #196
Directed by: Sam Wood, Edmund Goulding (uncredited)
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (story), George S. Kaufman (screenplay), Morrie Ryskind (screenplay), Al Boasberg (uncredited), Buster Keaton (uncredited), Robert Pirosh (draft, uncredited), George Seaton (draft, uncredited)

The Marx Brothers were anarchists. They shunned order in favour of spontaneity and irreverence, and their early work – both onstage and in their films with Paramount – is characterised by this loosely-structured chaos. Story? The Marx Brothers didn't need a story: all that was required was a woman for Groucho to insult, a uptight bureaucrat to whom Chico could speak his own peculiar version of Italian, and an over-sized prop that Harpo might abuse in whatever manner he pleased. When the comedy team (minus Zeppo, who, tired of being the straight man, struck out for greener pastures) moved to MGM, producer Irving Thalberg decided that their style of comedy needed to be combined with the musical extravagance for which the studio had already required a reputation. The Marx Brothers were given creative freedom, glittering sets, elaborate musical numbers and, above all else, a story. Some fans of the comedy troupe view this as an inconvenience, the narrative merely getting in the way of all the jokes, but I think it works.

As a result of MGM's influence, A Night at the Opera (1935) bears a remarkable resemblance to an Astaire-Rogers style film (despite most of these being produced at RKO), the only difference being that the bright pair of young performers (here played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones) have the aid of three bumbling comedians to facilitate their happy ending. The tale revolves around young in-love opera singers Rosa and Ricardo, the latter of whom can't achieve the recognition he deserves, due to the overbearing influence of the stuffy virtuoso performer Rodolfo (Walter Woolf King). Groucho, proving that he does have something akin to a heart after all, agrees to help Ricardo achieve success in New York, though he takes a lot of coaxing from Chico and Harpo, who are really just along for the ride. Allan Jones fills in the void that would previously have been played by straight-man Zeppo, though Kitty Carlisle's dazzling opera singer is the highlight of the supporting cast. Also enjoyable is the ever-serious Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman.

I've never really been the greatest fan of the Marx Brothers, but I nonetheless enjoy their witty style of humour – particularly anything that Groucho has to say – and, in this film, I appreciated the greater degree of class afforded by the opera setting. In keeping with MGM's standing as the industry leader in movie musicals, A Night at the Opera even includes several genuine opera performances, and it's the real singing voices of both Carlisle and Jones that you are hearing. Chico and Harpo, likewise, don't miss an opportunity to show off their own impressive musical talents, with the former dancing his fingers across the piano keys, and the latter doing likewise on both a piano and his signature harp. While Duck Soup (1933) may have the greater rate of jokes-per-minute, fans of the Marx Brothers can do much worse than to sit down and enjoy the first of the trio's two most commercial successful films {the other being A Day at the Races (1937)}. Going to the opera has never been this chaotic.

Currently my #5 film of 1935:
1) Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)
2) The Informer (John Ford)
3) The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Raven (Louis Friedländer)
5) A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was my first Marx Brothers film and I instantly got why they are considered so great. I do, however, think Duck Soup is the better film.