Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
A Night at the Opera (1935)
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Background

A Night at the Opera (1935), a musical comedy, is the sixth of thirteen Marx Brothers feature films. A Night at the Opera is universally considered to be the Marx Brothers' best and most popular film, and it received critical acclaim when released. By bringing their comedy sequences, musical numbers, and plot line (a love story) up to higher standards, the film also proved to be a tremendous financial success. In homage to this film, the mid-70s raunchy, mock opera rock band Queen, with lead singer Freddie Mercury, named its fourth album after this film. [They also named their next album after another Marx Bros. film, A Day at the Races.]

The less anarchic, solidly-believable plot and slapstick comedy of this Marx Brothers film (the first one without straight-man Zeppo) was derived from a well-developed screenplay written specifically for them by two of their best writers ever, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (who had previously worked with them on The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930)).

Of course, this film again featured the three major members of the comedy team:

The material was, in part, auditioned and pre-tested before live audiences during a road-show tour. As a result, the revised film script was more than just a number of improvised sketches patched together. Rather, it consisted of many well-refined, polished scenes of classic romantic comedy and dialogue, flowing together smoothly with the story and the characters of the brothers, and timed to take into account reaction time for laughs. It was designed to appeal to female audiences, with less zany, surrealistic, and uninhibited behavior exhibited by the brothers.

The most famous of the comedy team's routines are included here - the crowded shipboard stateroom scene, the contract-tearing scene between Groucho and Chico, the rearranged furniture and bed-switching sequence to elude a private detective, the operatic finale (a lavish production number) with Harpo swinging Tarzan ape-like on stage flyropes in tune to Verdi's music, and sprinkled throughout - Groucho's zippy one-line insults and flirtations with his perennial nemesis - Margaret Dumont.

It was their first film for MGM Studios - under Irving Thalberg's production. This music-oriented film, by director Sam Wood (known later for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Our Town (1940), Kitty Foyle (1940), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Kings Row (1942), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)), followed the commercially and critically unsuccessful at the time Duck Soup (1933), the fifth and last film they completed for Paramount. The brothers had left behind brother Zeppo, and the more rampant, absurdist, and surreal antics that were characteristic of their first five films.

Paramount Studios
Marx Bros. Films
MGM Studios
Marx Bros. Films
The Cocoanuts (1929)
(Note: The Marx Brothers originally appeared on Broadway in The Cocoanuts in 1925, a stage hit)
Directors: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley

Filmed at Paramount's Astoria Studios in Long Island

A Night at the Opera (1935) Director: Sam Wood

Their first film at MGM (with producer Irving Thalberg), following the financial flop of Duck Soup (1933)

Their first film without Zeppo

Animal Crackers (1930)
(Note: originally, a smash hit Broadway musical starring the Marx Bros.)
Director: Victor Heerman

Filmed at Astoria Studios

A Day at the Races (1937) Director: Sam Wood

Thalberg died during this film's production

Monkey Business (1931) Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Their first Hollywood film
At the Circus (1939) Director: Edward N. Buzzell
Horse Feathers (1932)
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Go West (1940) Director: Edward N. Buzzell
Duck Soup (1933)
Director: Leo McCarey
The Big Store (1941) Director: Charles "Chuck" Riesner

Films for Other Studios
Room Service (1938) - RKO Radio - d. William Seiter
A Night in Casablanca (1946) - United Artists - d. Archie Mayo
Love Happy (1949) - United Artists - d. David Miller

The Story

In the opening, the wealthy dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) is seen dining by herself at a classy Milan restaurant. She complains to the waiter that her expected gentleman hasn't arrived and it is too late to dine. When she has Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) paged, thinking she has been stood up, Driftwood turns around from the table behind her and puts down the boy for calling out his name so loudly throughout the restaurant:

Do I go around yelling your name?

The seedy entrepreneur and swindler has just finished a meal with a beautiful blonde, with his back facing toward his dignified benefactress. She protests being stood up: "I've been sitting right here since 7 o'clock." The shifty con-man turns the tables on her, berating her for sitting with her back to him all evening:

Yes, with your back to me. When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at my face. That's the price she has to pay.

Turning back to his own table, he gets the inflated dinner bill and exclaims: "$9.40? This is an outrage!" and hands the bill to the blonde floozy: "If I were you I wouldn't pay it!" After totally alienating Mrs. Claypool, he joins her at her table. Now that it is too late for dinner, he asks the waiter for a breakfast meal:

Driftwood: Waiter. Have you got any milk-fed chicken?
Waiter: Yes.
Driftwood: Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.

Driftwood has been hired to bring her into society, but she complains that in the past, he's done nothing to help her. Driftwood attempts to flatter her and wriggle free of his predicament, explaining that he was dining with the blonde at the next table because of her likeness to Mrs. Claypool:

Mrs. Claypool: Mr. Driftwood, three months ago you promised to put me into society. In all that time, you've done nothing but draw a very handsome salary.
Driftwood (retaliating): You think that's nothing, huh? How many men do you suppose are drawing a handsome salary nowadays? Why, you can count them on the fingers of one hand, my good woman.
Mrs. Claypool (horrified): I'm not your good woman!
Driftwood: Don't say that, Mrs. Claypool. I don't care what your past has been. To me, you'll always be my good woman. Because I love you. There. I didn't mean to tell you, but you...you dragged it out of me. I love you.
Mrs. Claypool: It's rather difficult to believe that when I find you dining with another woman.
Driftwood: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her?
Mrs. Claypool: No.
Driftwood: Because she reminded me of you.
Mrs. Claypool: Really?
Driftwood: 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.
Mrs. Claypool: Mr. Driftwood. I think we'd better keep everything on a business basis.
Driftwood (appearing insulted): How do you like that? Every time I get romantic with you, you want to talk business. I don't know, there's something about me that brings out the business in every woman.

Driftwood promises to promote Mrs. Claypool's entry into high society if she invests $200,000 of her money in the New York Opera Company. He both woos her and insults her in his 'promotion':

Don't you see, you'll be a patron of the opera. You'll get into society. Then, you can marry me and they'll kick you out of society, and all you've lost is $200,000.

Driftwood introduces her to the head of the New York Opera Company, the dignified Herman Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann). They bow repeatedly to each other in an extended introduction. When Gottlieb kisses her hand, Driftwood immediately suspects that Gottlieb has dishonestly stolen her rings - he checks her fingers. Gottlieb flatters her by calling her charming and beautiful. Driftwood flares up and objects to Gottlieb's indecent behavior:

Now listen here, Gottlieb, making love to Mrs. Claypool is my racket. What you're after is $200,000. And you'd better make it sound plausible, because, as incredible as it may seem, Mrs. Claypool isn't as big a sap as she looks. How's that for lovemaking?

But Driftwood also allows Gottlieb to romance Mrs. Claypool European-style: "All right, Gottlieb, it's your turn. You take a whack at it, but keep it clean."

Gottlieb is pleased to accept Mrs. Claypool's financing so that he can hire the celebrated, but self-centered Italian tenor Rodolpho Lassparri (Walter Wolf King) - "the greatest tenor since Caruso." Gottlieb promises that she will receive all the credit for being a patron of the arts and sponsoring Lassparri to sing with the New York Opera Company:

Gottlieb: He will be a sensation. All New York will be at your feet.
Driftwood (after looking under the table): Well! There's plenty of room.

When Driftwood declines to accompany them, Gottlieb leads Mrs. Claypool to his opera box to hear the Italian tenor in a performance. As they leave, Driftwood reminds Gottlieb that he saw her first: "Nix on the love-making because I saw Mrs. Claypool first. Of course, her mother really saw her first but there's no point in bringing the Civil War into this."

In his dressing room in the Milan Opera House, the egotistical and mean-spirited Lassparri berates his valet and dresser Tomasso (Harpo Marx), who he has found trying on one of his clown costumes. The put-upon Tomasso rips off the clown costume and is seen wearing another costume underneath - a naval outfit; beneath that is a third costume - a dress with a close-fitting bodice, full skirt and short full sleeves; his fourth and final outfit is his natural clothing underneath everything else. Lassparri orders his dresser out of the dressing room and fires him, beating and whipping him out the door. But then, the two-faced Lassparri acts sweetly toward Tomasso when he finds young soprano singer Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle, best known as a regular panelist on the original 50s TV quiz show I've Got a Secret) comforting the cast-out, brutally banished dresser on the floor.

The famed opera tenor has a romantic interest in Rosa, but she is in love with another lesser-known tenor Riccardo "Ricky" Baroni (Allan Jones), a singer consigned to the chorus. Backstage, old friends Riccardo and Fiorello (Chico Marx) renew acquaintances - Fiorello proposes to be the agent/manager of the struggling singer Ricky.

During the performance in the Italian city, Driftwood rides around the park in an open carriage, yelling at the driver: "Hey you. I told you to slow that nag down. On account of you, I nearly heard the opera." When Driftwood finally arrives at the opera box to join Gottlieb and Mrs. Claypool for the performance, he cheers "Bravo, bravo..." but it is too late - the curtain has just come down. Gottlieb has connived to have Mrs. Claypool sponsor his New York Opera Company so that Lassparri can be signed to a $1,000/night contract. Driftwood complains to Gottlieb:

You're willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of Minnie the Moocher for 75 cents. And for a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie.

Because he represents Mrs. Claypool, Driftwood wishes to take a cut in the deal. He thinks to himself: "There must be some way I can get a piece of this" - but he must get to the singer before Gottlieb does.

Backstage after the performance, the despicable Lassparri desires Rosa's love interest through blackmail, but she departs, leaving him empty-handed:

...I have an idea he's (Gottlieb) going to invite me to sing in New York. And, uh, he may permit me to select my leading lady.

Driftwood runs into Lassparri (dressed like a clown from the opera just concluded) who is beating and threatening Tomasso once again:

Driftwood: Hey, you big bully. What's the idea of hitting that little bully?
Lassparri: Will you kindly let me handle my own affairs? (He slaps and pushes Tomasso away.) Get out! Now, what do you got to say to me?
Driftwood: Just this. Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?

Suddenly, a vengeful Tomasso whacks Lassparri on the head with a large gavel. Smelling salts are applied to Lassparri's nose. Driftwood urges a confession:

Driftwood: You're sorry for what you did, eh?
Tomasso: (He nods positively.)
Driftwood: That shows a nice spirit.

But then, Tomasso hits Lassparri again just as he begins to sit up and regain consciousness. This time, Driftwood takes credit for the knockout, putting his foot on the victim's chest, adding: "Get fresh with me - eh?" He boasts to Fiorello, Riccardo's new manager: "We had an argument and he pulled a knife on me, so I shot him." Fiorello joins him by putting his foot up on the victim's chest too. They treat the body like a bar-rail:

Driftwood: Two beers, bartender!
Fiorello: I'll take two beers, too.

Driftwood cannot remember Lassparri's name, but he knows that he is looking for "the greatest tenor in the world." That phrase matches the description of Fiorello's little-known client - "the fellow that sings in the opera here." So Driftwood negotiates a contract with Fiorello, but for the wrong singer (for Riccardo instead of for Lassparri). Without questioning who he is actually signing up to sing for the New York Opera Company, Driftwood agrees to a lucrative contractual deal for himself:

Driftwood: Could he sail tomorrow?
Fiorello: You pay him enough money, he could sail yesterday. How much you pay him?
Driftwood: Well, I don't know...(muttering to himself) let's see, a thousand dollars a night...I'm entitled to a small profit...how about ten dollars a night?
Fiorello: Ten? Ten dolla- ha ha ha ha ha! I'll take it...
Driftwood: All right, but remember, I get 10% for negotiating the deal.
Fiorello: Yes, and I get 10% for being the manager. How much does that leave him?
Driftwood: That leaves him - uh, $8.00.
Fiorello: Eight dollars, huh? Well, he sends a five dollars home to his mother...
Driftwood: Well, that leaves him $3.00.
Fiorello: Can he live in New York on $3.00?
Driftwood: Like a prince. Of course he won't be able to eat, but he can live like a prince. However, out of that $3.00, you know, he'll have to pay an income tax...

The terms are agreed upon: the singer will be paid $10 a night, but as managers, each of them plan to deduct 10% of the fee. That leaves the singer only $8. However, he will have to send $5 home to his mother, leaving him with only $3. Out of the remaining $3, allowances must also be made for additional income taxes:

Fiorello: Ah, there's income tax...
Driftwood: ...there's a federal tax, and a state tax, and a city tax, and a street tax, and a sewer tax.
Fiorello: How much does this come to?
Driftwood: Well, I figure if he doesn't sing too often, he can break even.
Fiorello: All right, we take it.


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