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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 4: A Day at the Races (1937)

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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 Day at the Races (1937) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, A Day at the Races is referenced on page 28. Roger remembers the film as his first trip to the cinema. He says he was so young at the time that he had to stand on his seat to see the screen. He also remembers this occasion as the hardest he’s ever heard his father laugh & mentions that his father was a huge Marx Brothers fan, having seen them on the vaudeville stage before they were in motion pictures.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never had the chance to review the film proper, but he does recount the very same anecdote about watching A Day at the Races as a child in his “Great Movies” review of Duck Soup.

The seventh Marx Brothers feature film, A Day at the Races is par for the course in terms of the impossibly talented comedy crew/family’s brand of sublime silliness & rapidfire insanity. I’ve only ever seen a few Marx Brothers titles, leaning towards indisputable classics like A Night at the Opera & (my personal favorite) Duck Soup, but their comedic style is so instantly comfortable & genuinely funny that familiarity with their work is not necessary for enjoying their material. I have no qualms admitting that of all the comedic acts that spilled over from vaudeville to motion pictures, the Marx Brothers are an easy favorite for me, outshining even names like Charlie Chaplin and Abbott & Costello. I’d like to say that this is due to the quick, oddly sophisticated wit of Marx Brothers poster boy Groucho, but the truth is that it’s Harpo who steals my heart in every picture. Taking physical, slapstick comedy to deeply deranged, yet subtly masterful territory, Harpo is a one of a kind talent. Part of the reason I ended up liking the somewhat minor Marx title A Day at the Races so much is that Harpo is so damn funny in it. I was laughing at his madman antics as the criminal horse jockey Stuffy so hard that almost all of the film’s third act problems (of which there are many) ultimately felt meaningless.

The plot of A Day at the Races concerns a young couple in financial crisis. An entrepreneur owner of a sanitarium (a type of health resort) is struggling to keep her business alive & out of the hands of overeager financial vultures. Her bonehead beau is a musician who foolishly decides to get into the horseracing business without knowing thing one about what he’s doing. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx get caught up in both ends of this struggle. Chico & Harpo help the musician doofus evade the law & prepare his horse to race in competition. Chico & Groucho conspire to keep a wealthy hypochondriac, Mrs. Upjohn, enrolled in the sanitarium’s care, luring her into complacency through seduction & encouragement of her groundless worrying. Long story short, they all fail miserably. Groucho is ludicrously incompetent as Dr. Hackenbush (originally named Dr. Quackenbush, but subsequently changed due to fear that the dozen or so real Dr. Quackenbushes in the country might potentially sue), a veterinarian posing as a medical doctor, an easily recognizable hack/quack (it’s right there in the name, after all). When described as “a doctor with peculiar talents”, he retorts that he has “the most peculiar talents of any doctor around.” Harpo is a silent, deranged jockey who sends far more time running from the sheriff that he does wining races. Chico plays both sides of the coin as an eternal huckster who’s always able to scrape by on a quick buck, but rarely able to pull off any large scale schemes. Their collective incompetence brings the whole story down to the fate of both the sanitarium & the potential marriage of the central couple depending on the outcome of a single horse race. Its a tidy conclusion to a very messy farce that largely exists to support the Marx Brothers’ zany comedy antics, which are all top notch even when the film isn’t trying too hard on a formal level.

As I said, there are some major third act problems with A Day at the Races that keep it from being an entirely perfect product. The fact that it boasts the all-time longest Marx Brothers runtime weighs heavily on the proceedings. There’s a definite point towards the end where the laughter starts to die down & it transitions into time-to-constantly-check-your-watch territory. At first it’s endearing that A Day at the Races fits firmly in the kind of Old Hollywood variety show spectacle that tries to have it all: romance, suspense, comedy, musical numbers, etc. It’s the exact kind of expensive mixed bag that Josh Brolin’s overworked producer struggles to hold together in Hail, Caesar!. By the time it reaches its second song & dance number this variety is a little more trying. It’s time for the movie to wrap up its plot, so a sequence where Harpo plays a demonic pied piper to a poor black community who burst into a rendition of “All God’s Chillun’ Got Rhythm”that might normally be a welcome diversion in another context starts to  feel like wasted time. It also doesn’t help that this sequence is played like a long setup for an unfortunate punchline involving the Marx Brothers evading the law by donning blackface to “blend in”. All of this and a singularly terrible performance by an overacting oaf playing an indignant Dr. Steinberg that goes way too broad to remain endearing, perhaps even watchable, which is saying a lot for a comedy this zany.

With or without that mess of a concluding half hour, though, A Day the the Races is a finely tuned comedic act, one that values spotlighting the talents of its three sibling stars over telling a concise, well-rounded story. It’s no wonder that Ebert remembers his first trip to the cinema so vividly as the hardest he’s ever seen his father laugh. The film really is a laugh riot, especially in its early proceedings. Watching Harpo chew & swallow a thermometer (with a chaser clearly marked “POISON”) when Dr. Hackenbush takes his temperature in one scene & turn around to beautifully pluck the strings of a harp in  another is a treat I’ll never forget. Groucho’s proto-Bugs Bunny one-liners & Chico’s slick, smooth-talking scams are also pricelessly amusing, even if I’m heavily biased toward Harpo’s particular brand of comedic madness. A Day at the Races is widely considered the beginning of the end for the Marx Brothers’ cinematic winning streak, but for me the joke never felt stale in this film, just a little overlong & unfocused in the back end.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (4/5, 80%)

fourstar

Next Lesson: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

-Brandon Ledet

 

Big Business (1988)’s Old Hollywood Roots in Duck Soup (1933)

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During our Swampchat discussion of February’s Movie of the Month, the Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin swapped-twins comedy Big Business, we paid a lot of attention to the film’s roots in Old Hollywood farces. Although Big Business originates as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, its tone & setting are much more in line with a very specific era of 30s & 40s Hollywood comedy pictures. This makes total sense, since it’s the exact kind of stuff Tomlin & Midler would’ve grown up loving.

It’s easy to see the Old Hollywood love all throughout Big Business, but I think the most recognizable, highly specific moment where its homage to the era bleeds through is in the scene where Midler meets her estranged twin in a bathroom “mirror”. Besides being an exquisite display of physical comedy that recalls leftover tricks of the trade from the silent era & vaudevillian performance, it’s also a near-exact replica of a scene from my favorite Marx Brothers’ film, Duck Soup. Midler’s scene requires her to carry a full load of work that was shared between Harpo & Groucho Marx in its Duck Soup origins, so the dynamics of the gag are a little different, but I believe the sentiment shared between the two scenes is nearly identical.

See for yourself! If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Big Business or Duck Soup (and you really should), at least check out the extended “mirror” gag shared between the two films. They’re sublimely choreographed examples of physical comedy at its best.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, 1988’s Big Business, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet