Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 40: A Night at the Opera (1935)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where A Night at the Opera (1935) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I am not one of those purists who believes the talkies were perfect and sound ruined everything. To believe that, I would have to be willing to do without Marilyn Monroe signing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and Groucho Marx saying, ‘This bill is outrageous! I wouldn’t pay it if I were you!'”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he did reference it in his Great Movies series review of Duck Soup. He wrote, “A Night at the Opera (1935) [the Marx Brothers’] first MGM film, contains some of their best work, yes, but in watching it I fast-forward over the sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In Duck Soup there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end.”

Like all great comedians, the Marx Brothers were social anarchists. Blatantly disinterested in the pomp & civility of the modern world, the legendary comedic team would only create stuffy, rules-obsessed backdrops for their intensely illogical, confrontationally flippant vaudeville routines to break them down into total chaos. It would be presumable, then, that the self-serious world of the opera would offer one of the most perfect targets for their antics imaginable. The wealth & propriety that surrounds the opera is an inspired choice for a stuffy backdrop for the Marx Brothers’ slobs vs. snobs brand of social anarchy. Unfortunately, A Night of the Opera arrived at a later, transitional period in the Marx Brothers’ cinematic path, just before they became burdened with studio bloat in A Day at the Races, so it never really had a chance to use its conceit to its full anarchic advantage the way they would have in an earlier, freer work like Duck Soup. Luckily Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx are some of the funniest people to have ever walked the planet (especially Harpo), so the movie is wildly funny anyway. A Night at the Opera is only vaguely disappointing because it’s very funny, as opposed to being the funniest movie of all time, something that very easily could have been achieved with its exact plot & cast under less studio control.

The first film marking the Marx Brothers’ transition from Paramount Pictures to MGM, A Night at the Opera is somewhat burdened by the limited imagination of its producers. In particular, MGM exec Irving Thalberg made a point to oversee & reshape the comedy troupe’s schtick to make it more palatable to a broader audience. He wanted to enhance the Marx Brothers brand’s appeal by strengthening their movies with more story structure and more sympathy for the three goofball leads. Thalberg aimed to achieve this sympathy by reserving their social terrorism only for “deserving” villains, as opposed to everyone in sight. It’s an impulse that fundamentally misunderstands what people love about the Marx Brothers in the first place, overloading their usual light touch of illogical transgressions with increasingly sprawling plots & runtimes. Every moment dedicated to giving the brothers a reason to drive their victims mad with slapstick & wordplay is wasted time that could just as easily have been replaced with more comedic gags. A Night at the Opera is a story about two opera singers who love each other, but struggle to connect because of the distance created by their disparate levels of success. Instead of tearing down the civility of the opera world, the Marx Brothers’ main function in the film is to bring the two lovers together, across the boundaries of class. That’s their function in the plot, anyway, which despite what Irving Thalberg believed, does not matter in a film like this. Not for a second.

That’s enough obligatory nitpicking from me. This movie is hilarious. Harpo Marx remains the funniest man who ever lived, transforming the art of slapstick humor into a deeply deranged subversion that’s since been unmatched (even appearing briefly in drag for an early gag here). Groucho & Chico are as impressive as ever in the circular logic of their conman wordplay, scamming the rest of the world and each other into a luxurious position just above the poverty line. One elaborate gag even recalls the total chaotic meltdown of a Duck Soup by piling every character possible into a single, cramped state room on an already crowded ship, a bit that comes so naturally to their comedic style that Harpo effectively sleepwalks through it. As always, the Marx Brothers’ quality in comedic craft remains unchanged; it’s just the vessel it’s packaged in that feels questionable. I really enjoy A Night at the Opera as a stately showcase of vaudevillian comedy, even if its focus on plot, romance, and musical interludes greatly distracted from what the Marx Brothers could have achieved in an operatic setting without MGM supervision guiding their work. I mean, even A Day at the Races was an easily lovable MGM-era Marx Brother comedy, and that film was saddled with a bloated, plot-driven runtime & a deeply disappointing blackface gag. Left to their own devices, the Marx Brothers could have made A Night at the Opera an anarchic masterpiece. Under Irving Thalberg’s supervision they made it a very funny, naturally endearing comedy instead, something to still be grateful for.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

-Brandon Ledet

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