The Marx Brothers have the reputation for producing some of the funniest movies of the 1930s and 1940s. This is in some ways deserved but it is by no means justified for all of their films. In addition, no one would claim that the entirety of any of the movies is consistently funny. After all, the number of people who would laugh through a three-minute harp solo is extremely small, probably zero.
But I consider A Night at the Opera their best effort. For that reason, I’ll start with a review of it and if I decide to tackle any of the others it will involve comparing them to the qualities of A Night at the Opera.
The story starts out in Italy with Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) trying to convince the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to donate $200,000 to the New York Opera in order to cement her place in high society. With the money, the opera company’s director Herman Gottlieb, can sign a famous Italian tenor Rodolfo Lassparri for the upcoming season production of Il Trovatore. There is a love triangle between the soprano Rosa Castaldi, an unknown but brilliant tenor, Ricardo Baroni and the villainous Lassparri.
Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and Fiorello (Chico Marx) work to get Ricardo Baroni signed by Driftwood to the New York Opera instead of Lassparri but fail and the two of them are forced to stow away along with Baroni on the steam ship heading for New York. Driftwood hides them in his closet sized stateroom and this gives rise to one of the funniest scenes in the movie when a troop of cleaning, maintenance and wait staff along with other miscellaneous persons end up crowding into the stateroom with the Marx Brothers and eventually explode out into the ship corridor when Mrs. Claypool opens the door. This scene contains one of Groucho’s trademark wisecracks. With about ten people already in the room a knock comes on the door and Groucho opens it to discover a young woman.
Groucho – Yes?
Girl – Is my Aunt Minnie in here?
Groucho – You can come in and prowl around if you want to. If she isn’t in here, you can probably find somebody just as good.
Girl – Could I use your phone?
Groucho – Use the phone? I’ll lay you even money you can’t get in the room.
The whole plot including the love story is a thin pretext for the Marx Brothers to sow chaos everywhere they go. The climax of the movie is the opera opening night and the three brothers doing everything imaginable to sabotage Lassparri’s performance and provide Baroni with an opportunity to sing as the lead tenor in his place. Harpo (or more likely his stunt double) ends up performing swashbuckling acrobatics in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and eventually kidnaps Lassparri right off the stage to allow the climactic aria duet to be sung by Baroni and Castaldi.
And just as it looks like the brothers will be carted off to jail by the NYPD, Baroni blackmails Gottlieb into hiring himself, Castaldi, Driftwood, Fiorello and Tomasso and calling off the police in exchange for Baroni and Castaldi agreeing to perform an encore that is being thunderously demanded by the overjoyed audience.
This absurd story line is actually one of the tighter Marx Brother movie plots. Their movies were sort of like a variety show out of vaudeville. In between dramatic scenes you would get Chico playing the piano or Harpo playing the harp. And most of the movies had several comic songs sung by Groucho. In this movie there is also a number of songs and arias sung by the Baroni and Castaldi characters. So, depending how you feel about songs in a movie will decide whether you can tolerate any Marx Brothers movie at all.
As indicated initially I like this movie. That is not to say I wouldn’t prefer to cut out the harp solo. And that is not saying all the comedy routines are equally successful for me. But taking the whole movie together I would call A Night at the Opera a funny movie. And I would say, compared to many of the Marx Brothers movies, the personalities of the brothers are much less obnoxious than they typically are. And it is notable that the production values for this movie produced by MGM are much higher than their previous movies for Paramount. If you are already a fan of the Marx Brothers and have never seen “A Night at the Opera” then I can unreservedly recommend this movie for you. For everyone else, especially those born in the 21st century your mileage may vary.