A Night at the Opera is by no means my first engagement with the beloved Marx Brothers, for whom all comedic film is to thank, and rightfully so considering that they were the veritable grandfathers of every comedic styling imaginable, aside only from toilet humor it appears, but even that manages to sneak in occasionally. As part of my relatively recent discovery of the film podcast Filmspotting, I have come to appreciate not only their gloriously terrible "Massacre Theater," but their ever impressive film viewing marathons, and while I found myself incapable of following along with their blaxploitation marathon, I assured myself that I would at least engage within one film in their Marx Brothers marathon. I was able to catch up with A Night at the Opera and despite the seeming dissatisfaction the duo appears to have had with the classics of comedy, I could not help but still adore this film, even with their criticism of the other works in the back of my head. Sure some of the jokes fail to land in the films, but much of that is, undoubtedly, a result of contemporary viewer's considerable distance from the material, yet one must truly consider that nearly all of this film is engaged in humor, almost all of which is uproariously hilarious and well-delivered, even layering upon itself, to make, dare I say, meta-comedy. One is also reminded, while watching this particular Marx Brothers film, that the group was necessarily tied to vaudeville performances, particularly the fact that often in their routines they did more than just crack jokes, but could actually deliver some rather stellar music performances and choreographed dance/acrobatic numbers. Furthermore, while much of the film is focused primarily on the gags and insanity of the Marx Brothers' characters, it also does have a larger overarching story, which only passingly involves the comedic trio, and considering that it is a secondary element of the narrative it is, nonetheless, a decent offering. Also, as appears to very much be the case for Marx Brothers works as a whole, A Night at the Opera is incredibly anarchistic and completely dismissive of any sort of social guidelines or rules, and it is perhaps in this clear consideration of all that is to be maddening that it is to be adored.
A Night at the Opera begins in an non-descript European country in which opera is highly praised, it was, of course, intended to be Italy, but due to its date of release censors demanded that references to the country be removed. Regardless, in this country exists one Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) who has made a living by playing on the beliefs of one Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) that he has the power to make her a relevant figure in the high class society, however, Driftwood is merely a very well-spoken con man and manages to take her for money, while making her believe that she can achieve prevalence by becoming friends with the local opera managers. All the while, Driftwood seeks another means to gain money and finds it through a burgeoning opera star named Riccardo (Alan Jones) who is managed by the wry and slightly abrasive Fiorello (Chico Marx). Driftwood and Fiorello strike up a contract, or lack thereof, in which they obtain money for Riccardo's performances, although they both seem quite aware that to assure this success they must dethrone the opera company's shining star Rodolfo (Walter Woolf King), which also means Driftwood losing his ties to the higher end opera figures. Also within the mix is the wardrobe/stage/sound manager and mute Tomasso (Harpo Marx) who seems more content with showing how he can ruin a job than actually complete it with any degree of proficiency. The entire opera troupe ends up taking up a job performing in The United States leading to a portion of the narrative occurring on the ship, during which time, the sly ways of Driftwood, Fiorello and Tomasso are brought to attention, yet their ability to think on their feet allows them to evade arrest and eventually shack up in an decent apartment until the opera season begins, at which time they use the opportunity to create chaos within the theater allowing for Riccardo to gain prominence, while also destroying the image of Rodolfo. In the closing moments, everyone seems to have won their desired possession, except of course Rodolfo, but the narrative clearly makes him the bad guy and a person deserved of criticism.
I mentioned the anarchistic elements of A Night at the Opera as something rather present in much of the work of the Marx Brothers. I mean to say this both as a narrative device and, in some regards a cinematic sense, while the stylistic elements are certainly not as intentionally undermining as something done by Godard or Tarkovsky, they certainly exist within A Night at the Opera, particularly the act of speeding up images, or cramming the space within as many bodies possible would reflect this, especially as we see within the scene staged within the lower deck of the ship. Language, is, undoubtedly, a part of the anarchy of a Marx Brothers film, obviously rooted within Groucho whose sure fire and every ready wit have become a bit of an iconic thing within cinema and cultural history. Yet he is not the only one reconsidering language, Chico's purposeful misunderstanding, or, more importantly, refusal to understand certain terms could be their own place of anarchy within the filmic narrative. Then, of course, there is Harpo whose refusal to say even the simplest phrase makes his use of language absolutely, and, undeniably, anarchistic. If these elements are not enough to sway a reader as to the anarchistic nature of the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera specifically, the complete dismissal of everything bourgeois and sophisticated certainly should. One can see this in a super specific situation when looking and Driftwood and Fiorello attempting to create a contract, only to completely destroy it in the process, however, this also absolutely and obviously occurs within the final opera sequence when ever sense of normalcy and class separation is deconstructed through acts of acrobatics, bringing a working class game of baseball into the space, or by completely throwing of the staging of the play by dropping different scenery onto the stage. It should be acknowledge, however, that not even the Marx Brothers believe that everything is a justification for insanity and even they can find moments of serenity and poetic transcendence.
Key Scene: This serenity actually becomes the films highest moment, when viewers are treated to a Truffaut-like scene of Harpo and Chico playing music for children on board the ship that is a thing of legitimate cinematic beauty.
This DVD is relatively easy to come by and with no apparent bluray release in the future it is well worth the investment.