A Night at the Opera

A Night at the Opera. Metro Goldwyn Meyer 1935.
A Night at the Opera. Metro Goldwyn Meyer 1935.

Before watching the movie:

I was a little confused by the box description of the Marx Brothers skewering the “schemes” of a pompous opera singer when an arts patron is already going to pay him the exorbitant amounts just because he’s such a big star and great singer. It makes a lot more sense to think about it more like a feature-length Bugs Bunny cartoon, with the Marx Brothers skewering the powerful to empower the lowly.

This is widely regarded as the best Marx Brothers movie, but I don’t remember it being on the same list of great comedies that brought Duck Soup to my attention. A spot of research shows that it’s on there, I just didn’t remember it.

After watching the movie:

Otis B. Driftwood has been contracted as Mrs. Claypool’s business manager with the mission to get her into high society circles, which he’s taken as an opportunity to drain her pockets and try to wrangle a marriage from her, but one actual bit of work he does is to arrange for her to donate $200,000 to the New York Opera Company, gaining her the ear of Herman Gottlieb, the opera director. Gottlieb plans to use the money to contract the great Rodolfo Lasparri to star  at $1,000 a night. Driftwood wants to get a manager’s cut of that, so he tries to get the contract, only to mistakenly sign unknown Ricardo Baroni due to a miscommunication with Ricardo’s manager Fiorello. Ricardo is in love with Rosa Castaldi, but Lasparri wants to court her and offers her his costarring role in New York, so she goes for the sake of her career.  While Gottlieb conspires to get Driftwood’s business manager job for himself, Driftwood finds on the ship for New York that the contents of his luggage has been replaced with Baroni, Fiorello, and Fiorello’s brother Tomasso, and now he’s stuck with these stowaways.

Somehow the plot is both very complex and also just a framework for several comedy and musical bits to hang on. The fact that I still get bored or annoyed by musical numbers in movies from the 30s and 40s that aren’t billed as musicals is probably mostly my fault for not learning to expect that, but there is also that they weren’t presented to me that way. Of course, it’s about the opera scene, but that doesn’t mean the opera needs to stop the show, and there are other even longer sequences that are just about giving the performers a chance to have a solo. The music is very good, but not what I was prepared for and so not what I wanted.

I guess this complicated plot is what happens when you give the Marx Brothers somebody to champion. I definitely like them as good guys though. They aren’t pure anarchists, but they are still anti-establishment. They’re just pro-justice. They’re Bugs Bunny with a (medium-stakes) cause.

I have a little trouble seeing the Marx Brothers as a unit, since each of them has a completely different shtick. I’m not sure that they really go together as an act. Particularly in this movie, which has Chico and Harpo as brothers, but doesn’t put them together much, and connects them to Groucho through completely non-blood ties.  It also doesn’t help that I’m looking at them from a point where I’ve probably seen Groucho more in his solo career than with his brothers.

This was fun, with very well-written dialogue, but I’m having trouble finding anything to discuss about it. It’s an artistic work for a night’s entertainment. A night at the opera.

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