Genre: Slapstick and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.
Release Date: November 15th, 1935 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Sam Wood Actors: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Walter King, Siegfried Rumann, Margaret Dumont, Robert Emmet O’Connor
he esteemed Mr. Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) is late for his dinner engagement with Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), a woman to whom he promised a formal introduction into society – in exchange for a handsome salary. He’s so overdue, in fact, to this appointment that he scheduled, that the whole meal has been ruined. As it so happens, he was dining instead with a young blonde, directly behind Mrs. Claypool. When the check comes, his unfortunate companion is stuck with the bill, while he repositions himself at Claypool’s table, suggesting that they now have breakfast – right then and there.
Thus begins one of the fastest-paced, verbally-perplexed, mania-inducing comedies of all time. Driftwood is a scammer, whose latest ploy involves coercing Mrs. Claypool into investing $200,000 into the New York Opera Company, directed by Herman Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann), so that she can become a genuine patron of the arts. Meanwhile, opera star Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) and self-proclaimed chorus-boy Riccardo Barone (Allan Jones) are madly in love, though fellow star Rudolfo Lassparri (Walter King) hopes to get in their way. And getting in everyone’s ways are Rudolfo’s dresser Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and hopeful manager Fiorello (Chico Marx), who team with Driftwood to destroy just about everything in their paths.
“Take off that dress, do you hear me! You dumb idiot!” The rapid-fire dialogue is mostly comprised of insults, childish pranks, and repetitious rants, thrusting jokes left and right into the faces of the seemingly oblivious supporting roles, who all play it straight against the ludicrousness of the Marx Brothers. In many ways, the leading troupe behaves as if operating in another universe (or a parallel dimension), unaffected by the sincerity around them. Yet it can’t be denied that some of the best bits involve Groucho and Chico sputtering back and forth to one another in tongue-twisting skits that break up the seriousness of operatic interludes. Though “A Night at the Opera” is primarily a comedy, it makes time for its non-Marx stars to exhibit their singing talents (on more than one occasion), not unlike many of their peers at the time, as if wrongly conceding that slapstick can’t entertain on its own.
The main love story, what little of it there is, exists solely to set up locations and interactions for laughs, eventually moving the characters to New York for the big show. Even the ocean voyage there features one of the film’s greatest pieces, involving a virtually innumerable host of people cramming themselves into a closet-proportioned stateroom (followed by a rather impressively-sized song-and-dance number on the top deck, fully choreographed despite initiating by an impromptu croon). And later, Harpo gets an opportunity to sit down with a harp (it is, of course, never explained where a transient-looking, mute dresser learned to play such a specific, complicated instrument). Multiple talents outside of slapstick are stuffed into the picture, reinforcing the notion that “A Night at the Opera” is a patchwork of vaudeville routines.
No strangers to visual humor, the trio’s routinely outrageous dialogue is perfectly supplemented by sight gags that are surely some of the brothers’ most creative arrangements. Unfortunately, even with its spurts of hilarious slapstick (including a swordfight with conducting batons, a disappearing bed act, and a distracting – then destructive – infiltration of “Il Trovatore”) and gibberish-laden wordplay (with other sequences resembling material more fitting for a Three Stooges short), “A Night at the Opera” isn’t always a smoothly executed affair. The fantastical lengths it goes to ensure that the show must go on, however, are still timelessly entertaining.
– Mike Massie