AFInity: A Night at the Opera
By Kim Hollis
September 11, 2009

What a party!

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#85: A Night at the Opera

It's highly unlikely that we'd ever see a movie like A Night at the Opera in theaters today; moreover, even if we did, I can't imagine audiences flocking to see it. The Marx Brothers extravaganza feels very much like a product of its time, though I'm not really noting that as a real criticism. Prior to viewing A Night at the Opera, I'd never seen a Marx Brothers film, yet it felt as familiar and comfy as a favorite old pair of pajamas.

There's a reason for this. The comedy of the Marx Brothers has become so ingrained into pop culture that most people surely don't even realize it when something that makes them laugh has their humor at its root. Their influence can be seen in Looney Tunes shorts, movies like Mr. Mom and The Freshman, television shows such as M*A*S*H and Seinfeld, and even in comic books. The infamous "Groucho Glasses" (the classic glasses, eyebrows, nose and mustache combo) continue to be a Halloween staple to this day.

In essence, the Marx Brothers are human cartoons. Their humor and action is almost completely anarchic. For some people, I can see that this would be a little annoying. The onslaught of gags, insults and one-liners is relentless. Subtlety is not part of their repertoire. Their approach to their art is to hit the viewer over the head (in the case of Harpo, this is quite literal). I have to think you'll either love them or hate them - grey area isn't something that exists in the world of the Marx Brothers.

A Night at the Opera is the first movie that the brothers made with MGM after departing Paramount Pictures - and features only three of them: Groucho, Harpo and Chico. This new partnership apparently had a significant impact on the final product. Where previous Marx films were apparently more frenetic and mean-spirited, MGM became more active in participating in the creation of the movie. A love story was injected (with the brothers dancing around its fringe) along with a heaping helping of musical interludes. After all, the movie's title does tell you exactly where the story takes place, and we all know what happens at the opera. Arias are sung, overtures are played and pompous tenors get their comeuppance. Okay, maybe not the last one, but it certainly happens in A Night at the Opera.

The movie doesn't have much of a plot, but there is a little skeleton there that helps provide the characters with a reason to mug at the camera. Groucho portrays Otis B. Driftwood, who simultaneously woos and insults a widow named Mrs. Claypool as she enlists his aid in ascending to the upper echelons of society. When he helps her to settle on investing in the opera, he goes off to sign the leading tenor for the New York company. This brings Otis into contact with Riccardo (Allan Jones) and his manager Riccardo (Chico Marx). Riccardo is in love with the leading lady of the opera, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), and though she loves him back, his talent is considered far inferior to that of the great Lasspari (Walter Woolf King). Not only is he hogging the limelight with regard to fame and fortune, Lasspari also wants Rosa as his own. Ultimately, the three Marxes team with Riccardo to help the two lovers be together both on and off the stage.

The honest evaluation is that the "story" actually detracts from the movie quite a bit. When Groucho, Harpo and Chico are onscreen, the experience is dynamic, fun and frantic. As a viewer, you feel like you're being hurtled through the movie, but that's not a bad thing. A Night at the Opera gets bogged down, though, when the Riccardo/Rosa/Lasspari story is the focus. There are long, extended scenes where we see nothing but Carlisle and Jones singing at each other. Although this sort of thing can work in a real movie musical, here it just feels out of place and it's a case of the studio trying to force the issue. One wonders what might have been had the brothers not been restrained to some degree.

Usually in this column, I talk a fair amount about the acting, directing and even the music as they all work together to create a movie that can be truly considered classic. A Night at the Opera is not a film that is remarkable in any of those areas. You can't really point to Groucho's Otis as a grand performance, and the direction of the film doesn't add anything special. The music is in fact critical to the film and features some solid talent, but it is once again there to buffer the comedy.

And that comedy almost comes in sketch format. The movie feels like a variety show, with each scene working as a self-contained short piece. There's the intro scene where Otis torments Mrs. Claypool at the restaurant, there's the contract negotiation, there's the crowded stateroom, and there's havoc at the opera. My favorite moment in the film involved hard-boiled eggs, and it's so good I had to link it below.

All of these scenes are hilarious on their own, and I certainly laughed a lot even as I found myself thinking about how much my beloved Looney Tunes owe to the Marx Brothers and their brand of comedy.

While I wouldn't recommend A Night at the Opera for everyone, I do think it's an important cultural touchstone. Groucho Marx is one of our enduring cinema (and television) icons, and seeing him ham it up is a genuine pleasure. I've found over the years that I enjoy these classic comedies a great deal, from A Night at the Opera and the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope "Road" movies to Bringing Up Baby and Some Like It Hot. In fact, I wonder whether the really fun assignment wouldn't be to cover the AFI's 100 Laughs list, but I suppose it can wait until I see this original project through.

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