The Marx Brothers’ first film for MGM and producer Irving Thalberg (and first without Zeppo), A Night at the Opera (1935), isn’t as wild or anarchic as the Paramount films that preceded it, but it’s still one of their best films—and gets my vote as probably the best introduction to the boys’ work for the uninitiated. Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, a dubious entrepreneur who has promised to get rich widow Mrs. Claypool (the indispensable Margaret Dumont) into society by having her sponsor the opera (“Don’t you see, you’ll be a patron of the arts and they’ll let you into society. Then you can marry me and they’ll kick you out of society.”). The trouble begins when Otis signs the wrong tenor (Allan Jones) and escalates when Otis becomes involved with the fellow’s equally dubious manager (Chico) and his friend (Harpo). The successful formula of the film was to make the Marx Brothers more sympathetic by having them help the romantic leads (Jones and Kitty Carlisle). While this formula would soon declaw the Marxes, it works here. A film with a famous “stateroom scene” and a magnificent sabotaging of a performance of “Il Trovatore” is well worth having.
This particular showing is something of an experiment for the Asheville Film Society—and me in particular—since it’s taking place in the wake of the underwhelming response of a film class to a screening of the Marxes’ Duck Soup (1933). I’m in the mood to see the boys get a little audience vindication. Plus, this will hopefully settle the—admittedly minor—dispute between Justin Souther and me as to the best way to introduce audiences to the Brothers. (While I find it unthinkable that anyone hasn’t seen a Marx Brothers film, I remember that not so long ago a good portion of the audience at the Asheville Film Society’s Mae West double feature had never seen any of her movies.) Justin is all for full-immersion baptism with one of the Brothers’ first five movies, and I’m more inclined to the insidious approach of easing the audience into their anarchic world. (And, in all honesty, I have a sentimental attachment to the movie as the first bootleg 16mm feature I ever owned—and my friends and I just about wore it out.) We’ll see.
Legend—not entirely borne out by fact—has always had it that the Marx Brothers’ previous film, Duck Soup (1933), had flopped and resulted in Paramount dropping them, whereupon MGM’s Irving Thalberg came to their rescue and showed them what they’d been doing “wrong.” Well, not quite. Duck Soup had the misfortune of coming out in 1933—the year when Paramount mostly survived thanks to Mae West. It wasn’t that it flopped—only that it hadn’t made the profit that Horse Feathers (1932) had. Considering that Horse Feathers looked like it was made for a buck and a quarter and Duck Soup was a slicker, glossier production, that’s easy to believe. (Granted some of Duck Soup‘s gloss came from standing sets, e.g. Louis Calhern’s office is the grand ballroom from the previous year’s Love Me Tonight.)
As was typical for studios at that time, Paramount wanted to monkey with the boys’ contracts with the usual “we’re asking everyone to take cuts” palaver (everyone rarely extending to studio heads, of course), so they were looking to get out of their alliance with the studio. This is really where Thalberg came in and made his pitch for “well-rounded” entertainment. The results were A Night at the Opera, which was for years considered the peak of the Brothers’ career. Critic Pauline Kael argued against the film’s status in the 1960s and got the earlier films a revisionist look at just the right time to propel Duck Soup to the top of the list. But in so doing, A Night at the Opera became undervalued. Maybe it’s time to give it another look.