Thursday, October 11, 2018
Let Joy Be Unconfined
We can’t stop thinking about the past no matter how much we try. There are even reasons why we shouldn’t. Sometimes my dad took me to the movies, of course he did, and even if many of those memories are uneventful they’re what I choose to remember. And there were a few special occasions as well, almost as if he knew how important all this was going to be for me. Once he took me to the 57th Street Playhouse to see a few Jacques Tati films and this may have confused my 11 year-old self at the time but looking back on it I’m so grateful, almost like it was a small yet key event that helped open up my mind at that early age to what else was out there. Other days were more about the pure enjoyment of it all, like the Sunday afternoon when he took me to the late, lamented Regency for a double bill of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. It was the only time I ever went to that theater and though my memories are a little hazy—one thing I recall was actress Nedda Harrigan from the Chan film appeared before that film to talk about it—I may as well get extremely maudlin about the whole thing and say that this was probably the best day of my life. This past September marked 20 years since he died. I don’t know what that means. On the day of the anniversary I found myself more introspective than I expected to be, thinking about what was and what wasn’t, about memories that hadn’t come to mind for a long time. All those things I never got to tell him and never got to know. So that night for whatever reason I put on A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, thinking of him and what we could talk about after all this time if we watched it together again now, forgetting about everything else as much as possible.
Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), business manager for the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), introduces her to New York Opera Company manager Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) in order arrange for her to invest in the organization thereby giving her an entrée into society. In order to get a piece of all this action Driftwood attempts to sign the famous tenor Rudolfo Lasparri (Walter Woolf King) for the company but a chance encounter with piano player Fiorello (Chico Marx), best friend to unknown singer Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), leads to him signing up that tenor instead. As they all set sail for New York and the new opera season, Driftwood is shocked to find Baroni, Fiorello and their friend Tomasso (Harpo) stowing away in his steamer trunk which means Driftwood must do what he can to keep them from being discovered while somehow getting Baroni together with his lady love Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) the soprano in the opera company who Lasparri very much has his eye on.
Released in 1935, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA may be the best film the Marx Brothers ever made even if it’s not the greatest Marx Brothers movie. The much more anarchic DUCK SOUP which they made previous to this was possibly the high water mark of their earlier run at Paramount; some might choose HORSE FEATHERS (1931’s MONKEY BUSINESS doesn’t quite sustain itself for the entire running time) and it’s possible that either of these films brings me more personal hysteria than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA does and the unapologetic insanity found in them might be the greatest pure examples of their humor onscreen. DUCK SOUP was also their last at that studio after it underperformed and it was apparently Irving Thalberg, wonder boy head of production over at MGM, who had the idea of how to get people interested in them again when they went over to that studio. Except for the absence of Zeppo, who departed his straight man role after DUCK SOUP to become a Hollywood agent, the brothers remained more or less as they were (not entirely and we’ll get to that) but A NIGHT AT THE OPERA surrounds their comedy with an actual story, production values, high end songs, elaborate costumes; in other words, give people who don’t want to see a Marx Brothers film reasons to see a Marx Brothers film. And even if it is more ‘normal’ the film succeeds, combining these elements beautifully and even while speaking as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of the classic MGM aesthetic, in many ways this feels like a golden age masterpiece, playing now as the ideal of what a Hollywood movie circa 1935 could possibly be with all the entertainment value imaginable. It looks pretty, not that anyone sees a Marx Brothers film because it looks pretty, but it takes a mixture that shouldn’t work as good as it does and it all flows together, even if any sense of anarchy that was a key part of the earlier films is pretty much wiped away.
For one thing, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (Screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind from a story by James Kevin McGuiness) has a plot. This in itself would normally not be a surprise but compared with the past few Marx Brothers films at Paramount this warrants mention. Those are films which are never anything less than wonderfully random, scenes colliding together, costume changes out of nowhere, actions that make no real sense and a surreal mood always hanging in the air whether pondering what sort of country the mythical Freedonia is or simply how much Harpo really has concealed in his various pockets. OPERA, meanwhile, is firmly set in some version of the real world, at least a world set entirely on the MGM lot, where everything more or less makes sense. The story actually moves along from one scene to the next and the 3 Marxes become an integral part of it, even given reasons to care about what happens. Plus the main bad guy is an actual bad guy—he slaps around Harpo and even whips him, for crying out loud—not just somebody for Groucho to insult on the assumption that he’s a bad guy although he seems willing to do that anyway. It all makes me imagine a Paramount version of this film’s basic idea, maybe one where Groucho runs the opera house and whatever he does to save it would mostly be out of spite or fury rather than any concept of doing the right thing. Of course, nothing would make much sense and maybe even the music would be part of the joke (now I want to see this film) but A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, pausing for real musical numbers every now and then, plays that part totally straight which makes sense considering the setting but it’s also a reminder of how this is a musical comedy where the music actually matters, like it or not.
It helps that some of the music is better than average and of course the film doesn’t skewer opera as much as the pretension of everything surrounding it. Essentially it’s a story built around getting Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle to sing together which gives a reason for the mayhem, not that we need one even if the film does. The structure is both airtight and loose enough that it knows not to overcomplicate things since we know who the good guys and the bad guys are so it’s mostly about arranging them all into place for the big opening night climax. More than simple randomness, Groucho’s Otis B. Driftwood is always on the move given pointed insult dialogue that has a defiant and unapologetic approach whether needling Gottlieb, the incessant come-ons to Mrs. Claypool or even tossing out a familiar Garbo line (well, it is MGM) when questioned by a suspicious cop. What the film has is a balance of the impeccable wordplay mixed in with the sight gags and music so it always seems to know which one to focus on at any given moment.
Groucho’s surprise introduction at the start is one of his very best and feels like it’s toying with the expected anticipation after his delayed first appearance in DUCK SOUP. It’s one of the greatest unexplained mysteries in all of Cinema just why the various Margaret Dumont characters in these films submit to getting mixed up with Groucho and right from the start he wastes no time being indignant towards her at the very concept of being upset with him for dining just a few feet away while making it very clear he’s interested in her money as long as he doesn’t have to hear a minute of the opera. The persona of Groucho is someone who doesn’t care in a movie with a plot that sort of forces him to care but as long as he disrupts things and insults people, his job is done. Even when the plot forces him to suddenly be a nice guy it isn’t so bad and in particular I wish there had been more of Groucho just hanging out with Kitty Carlisle’s Rosa, lightly joking with her at a party while also keeping other suitors away until Allan Jones gets back. The parts given to Chico and Harpo are more strict supporting roles than they’ve had in the past with a little sanding off of their mischievous edges but they still get moments like Harpo’s endless drinking of water and Chico explaining how they flew across the ocean by taking a steamship when they try to pass themselves off as ‘the three greatest aviators in the world’.
Even Harpo is more grounded, no longer pulling steaming hot cups of coffee from his pocket or other such impossible feats and once their run at MGM begins it’s like he’s playing someone who can’t speak as opposed to someone who doesn’t speak—there is a difference, after all. Sure, Tomasso and Fiorello (nobody ever remembers their names, unlike Groucho characters) annoy Driftwood in his quest for Mrs. Claypool’s fortune but really all they want to do is help out Ricardo and Rosa and it somehow doesn’t feel like a betrayal of their basic persona. They’re just happy to help and do what’s right. Fortunately it also has Groucho and Chico dealing with each other in the classic contract routine with the recurring “party of the first part” refrain as they rip the contracts into shreds, one of those unexpectedly incisive explorations of Groucho’s persona as someone who prides himself on pulling it over anyone confronted by someone who is able to do the same to him, possibly without even realizing it. And, just so there’s no confusion, there is no Sanity Clause. When a film has Groucho and Chico debating something that makes no sense all it needs to do is find the right camera angle although that doesn’t entirely matter either. This just happens to be a film which cares about that sort of thing.
Which makes sense because MGM was kind of the Cadillac of studios back then, very pristine and safe and that style is very much in evidence, standing in contrast to Paramount which always had that silvery 30s look but never seemed to pay much attention to which way the cameras were facing or if there was any semblance of continuity between shots. At MGM everything is shiny, everyone is pretty and the filmmaking as evidenced by director Sam Wood (when it’s an MGM production supervised by Irving Thalberg it probably isn’t necessary to mention the director until the eighth paragraph) is always smoothly professional. It only really gets awkward when we become aware of how much the laughs are specifically timed for the audience which results in cutaways and inserts that stand out a little too much as placeholders before we can get to the next line of dialogue, making the film a little less elegant than it might be. But, of course, no one ever went to a Marx Brothers film for elegance. These pauses for timing were, of course, all part of the idea and the film’s history includes how they took it out on the road to perform the comedy sequences in a sort of “Scenes from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA” for audiences before filming in order to try out lines and gage the laughs they would get. And it worked although I can’t help but think that some of the best lines are the ones that feel the most offhand, like Groucho’s “We can tear up the Mayor’s speech when we get there,” during the aviator charade. I’ve seen this film countless times in my life and even now some of it gets me to laugh out loud with the famous stateroom scene a beauty of pure construction as if the runner of “two hard boiled eggs” is merely ramping up to the famous image of all those people crammed into that tiny space, never complaining as Driftwood encourages it all as much as possible. “I’ve got plenty of room,” Fiorello declares. This is the Marx Brother view of the world. Everyone crams in together. It’ll all make sense eventually.
I’m old enough now that the musical numbers aren’t as deadly as they used to be with several of them placed together anyway in the big setpiece on the ship filled with, I assume, peasants from some vaguely European nation who are traveling to America, strictly the MGM kind content to sing and dance forever (one imagines James Cameron struck with inspiration after catching this sequence on TV while writing TITANIC). Chico’s piano solos were always fun anyway and Harpo’s rendition of the recurring ballad “Alone” on the harp is one of his best solos, catching just the right mood and maybe more than any other point in the film here’s where I feel the MGM/Thalberg touch with that kindly old woman in the frame as he plays, as if assuring anyone out there who might be unsure that these boys aren’t so bad after all. Incidentally, they’re clearly traveling from Italy at the start of the film even though the country is never named—there were allegedly cuts made when it played during World War II that were never reinstated which would have specified the location and apparently this is why the opening of the film is so abrupt, although a few things like a close-up of Driftwood’s Milan hotel bill slipped through.
The best pure comedy sequences here move like clockwork, particularly when compared with certain scenes from HORSE FEATHERS or DUCK SOUP which are brilliant yet feel like they’re more about barreling forward to the next joke than the pace. The scene in Driftwood’s hotel room with beds being frantically switched around has expert farcical timing while the big climax at the opening night of “Il Trovatore” skewers every ounce of pretension brought to the occasion by Margaret Dumont and what feels like a theater full of Margaret Dumonts. The three of them attack all the pomposity and grandiosity they can find, whether through Groucho’s nonsensical introductory speech, the surprise appearance of “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” or Harpo’s unending glee at doing everything he can to bring this all crashing down. That all stops when we get to hear Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle sing but it’s the thrill of telling off an insufferable prima donna who just had an apple thrown at him onstage that really matters. The way it’s all laid out is mostly perfect, ideal enough that the film was paid homage to in the 1992 comedy BRAIN DONORS which starred a spectacular John Turturro as the Groucho-like “Roland T. Flakfizer” in a plot which substituted ballet for opera; it’s practically a remake and the ‘suggested by’ acknowledgement to this film buried in the credits makes me think someone in legal got worried it was a little more than just a tribute. Going too far in the other direction was the 1937 Marx Brothers follow-up A DAY AT THE RACES, never one of my favorites, which is loaded with extraneous musical numbers even though you’d think that wouldn’t be as necessary in a film set at a racetrack and hospital. What’s worse is even the comedy in that film never lives up to this one. But A NIGHT AT THE OPERA has a special flair that even now plays like total joy for me. Anyway, we love what we love. Whether it’s their finest film will never be decided since there are always going to be days when you might want to watch this one, you might want to watch DUCK SOUP. Sometimes it has to do with your mood. Sometimes it’s what you need to remember.
In some ways it’s Groucho’s movie and one of his best performances too, living up to the material as he lays out every possible insult and insinuation but sometimes doing the most when all he has to do in a scene in stand there, waiting for what he knows is coming. Chico’s happy stubbornness keeps things moving with his insistence that it’s all going to be just fine while it’s almost like Harpo makes an impression out of sheer force of will, even playing an active role in the stateroom scene when he’s supposed to be asleep. The likable Allan Jones takes on what is sort of the Zeppo role but not really since he’s more of a love interest and singer plus, all respect to Zeppo, he’s got more screen presence too and love interest Kitty Carlisle’s fragility becomes endearing which helps make you believe they’ll all do what they can to protect her. Margaret Dumont, declaring every effrontery to the heavens, and Sig Ruman, always gasping in shock, turn their foils into just the right dart boards for Groucho while almost getting you to believe that they’re still trying to make some sort of sense out of him. Hey, they’re not even really bad guys. Even Gottlieb is just trying to put on an opera, after all.
Of the two films I saw on that double bill long ago, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is definitely better than CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. Just for the record. Still, putting aside any issues of political correctness, that one’s kind of fun too and I once snagged a used DVD of it for the same sentimental reasons. To this day it’s still the only Chan film I’ve ever seen and I’m fine with that. At other times my father also took me to a double bill of HORSE FEATHERS and DUCK SOUP at the Metro, the same theater where Woody Allen saw the latter in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, as well as a trip to see the Marx Brothers/Hollywood homage A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE on Broadway, possibly on my tenth birthday. Of course, there are other memories not related to films or the Marx Brothers but they don’t really matter as much, not even some of the visits to Yankee Stadium. The pull and desperation to go back to those particular days just isn’t as strong. And some years later, when he was in a wheelchair, I took him to movies from DIE HARD to GOODFELLAS and even once to a Harold Lloyd series at the Film Forum. Some days I think about him. Some days I try not to. There’s no real end to any of this because the past always ends before you realize it. There are just things you remember about your father and things you remember because of him which will always matter. And I don’t need an anniversary to do that. The past stays with you, whether you like it or not.
September 10, 1939 – September 19, 1998