Over the years, the general public has had their guts consistently busted from the various comedic duos that can be traced back to the decades. Comedic duos like Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, Cheech & Chong, Beavis & Butt-Head, and so on and so forth. However, as the old phrase says, “The more, the merrier!” After all, why was I Love Lucy such a hit? Because aside from Lucille Ball, there were three other actors that fit into the comic spotlight. Why was Friends such a hilarious show? Because the main cast consisted of 6 people. That means 15 dynamics (counted them myself, folks) and infinite comedic possibilities. However, I’m getting sidetracked.
One example of a beloved comic duo that broke from the two-person shackles of Hollywood is the Marx Brothers, which was a family of five brothers, but only four of them shared a comedic link. While Zeppo was part of the group for a short run, the group hinged on the three prominent men: Chico, Groucho, and Harpo. What most people think of to be the quintessential Marx Brothers film…is Duck Soup. But A Night at the Opera is a close second. Of their large catalog of films, I’ve only seen this and A Day at the Races, the latter of which I need to re-watch. While this may be subject to change, A Night at the Opera is the better one of the two, though not an immaculate work of cinema.
Surprisingly enough, the plot of this film is kinda hard to describe. So, instead of me straining my mind in order to describe it, I’ll give you snippets from two different plot synopsizes. The first one is from the back of the MGM VHS release of the film and the second one is from IMDB:
- “Groucho’s outrageous business schemes bring Milan’s finest opera stars to New York, with some unexpected stowaways on board…”
- “The Marx Brothers take on high society. Two lovers who are both in opera are prevented from being together by the man's lack of acceptance as an operatic tenor. Pulling several typical Marx Brothers' stunts, they arrange for the normal tenor to be absent so that the young lover can get his chance.” (Written by John Vogel).
The Marx Brothers are simply on point in this film. They have impeccable timing, keen sensibilities, distinct quirks, and a rapport that acts as a deeply amusing call-and-response relationship. Chico is certainly serviceable, especially during the previously mentioned call-and-response sequences, but the other two encompass this film. Groucho Marx is equipped with a rapid-fire barrage of wisecracks and fulfilling punch lines augmented by his expressive, cartoony face and wry, ironic persona.
However, Harpo is the best of the Marx brothers. Not just in this film, but in general. He depicts and elicits a childlike innocence that no one can touch, with the exception of Lucille Ball. He never speaks, but his facial expressions are so flexible that, like the best silent comedians, any emotion he’s feeling is properly portrayed.
It is also phenomenal to see the Marxes’ versatility, particularly Chico and Harpo. Not only are they funny and sincere actors, but also musically, my fracking God are they incredible! When Chico plays the piano and when Harpo sits down at his harp, not only is the audience entranced (and I mean the people in the film, as well), but they, themselves, are entranced, as well. Not by themselves, but by the power of music and the feelings it can evoke. When they perform on their trusty instruments, they break out of their goofy, over-the-top personas and become themselves, passionate, steadfast, and honest. It always leaves me awe-struck.
However, as much as I applaud the Marx brothers on their comedic abilities, if a script wasn’t present, their abilities wouldn’t be worth a damn. They’d be just meandering through the movie while improvising and one-upping themselves, all in the name’s sake of a laugh. However, with sturdy direction by Sam Wood and a screenplay penned by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, scenarios are crafted that are broad, unrestrained, thoroughly inventive, and consistently funny. Scenes such as the stageroom bit and the Russian aviator moment are timeless comedic gold mines that will be beloved as long as there are people breathing here on good old Earth.
Now, the reason why this isn’t an unquestionable classic is because there actually are a decent amount of flaws. First of all, with the exception of the Marxes’ musical moments and the climactic opera scene, the musical sequences feel forced. Plus, they don’t have the stirring quality of a typical MGM musical. Even the opera scenes are less that compelling (yes, even the climactic opera scene). To my credit, though, I’m just bugged by opera, period.
Not to sound sexist, but when dudes sing it, I actually enjoy it, mostly because that deep vocal quality is more emotive, penetrating, visceral, vehement and gripping. There are very few times that I actually enjoy a woman singing opera. Not to say that women aren’t good opera singers, but I just hate that pretentious, gaudy, “look-at-how-many-high-notes-I-can-reach” style of singing; the style that is most typically possessed by women. It pulls me out of whatever emotion they are trying to communicate in whatever incomprehensible language they’re using. Again, no offense.
Even though I like male opera singers better, the male opera singer in this film wasn’t even effective. It’s doesn’t bug me that he’s a tenor. It just bugged me that he was toothless and polished. Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to go into depth about the romantic subplot involving Riccardo (the aforementioned tenor opera singer), played by Allan Jones, and Rosa, played by Kitty Carlisle. Actually, my decision to not go into depth with that subplot was preconceived. It never takes off; it brings the film to a screeching halt, and is not clearly developed for me to give two craps.
Also, at times, the editing is uncomfortably choppy. I understand it’s the 1930s and all, but the editing could’ve used a little tune-up. Also, call me an old-fashioned, status quo loving Conservative is you must, but I wish this film had a more cohesive story. It kind of takes me out of the film if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be rooting for or invested in. However, the main purpose of a comedy is to make you laugh. Did I laugh? Yes. And with its breakneck yet tentative pace, witty screenplay, and joyous performances, I definitely recommend spending A Night at the Opera.
RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four