Marx Brothers aficionados have argued for years over the relative merits of A Night at the Opera and the “purer” Marx movies such as Duck Soup. Certainly there’s no comparison on a point-by-point basis: Duck Soup is a classic of satire and nonsense comedy, offered at full-strength.
A Night at the Opera is a much more traditional Hollywood film, with musical numbers, a romantic subplot, and “straight” second leads to offset the comedy stars. Even so, it’s still a great film, and it contains some of the finest Marx Brothers’ comedy ever concocted. So, why bother comparing apples and oranges?
A Night at the Opera came about, in fact, because Duck Soup had failed so badly at the box office in 1933. The Marx Brothers’ earlier films had been successful, but this one, regarded today as a classic, had laid a giant egg in its own time. (According to small-town theater owners, grassroots America much preferred the homespun comedy of Joe E. Brown to the Marx Brothers in any case.)
It was Irving Thalberg, the brilliant production head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and erstwhile “boy genius” of Hollywood, who came to the Marx Brothers’ rescue. He became acquainted with Chico Marx on the high-stakes bridge circuit in Beverly Hills, and this led to a discussion about the brothers moving to M-G-M. “I can make a film with you that would have half as many laughs as your Paramount films, but they will be more effective because the audience will be in sympathy with you,” he told Groucho.
As Groucho told Richard Anobile some forty years later, “He was right. If you recall the opening of Night at the Opera where Harpo is trying on the costume of the lead singer, the singer comes into his dressing room and discovers Harpo, and begins beating him. This immediately established sympathy for Harpo, and puts the audience on his side. The plot of the film revolves around our helping two lovers, Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones, get together. The audience was in our corner. This is exactly what Thalberg wanted.”
The trick was to integrate Groucho, Harpo and Chico into such a story without diluting their own anti-establishment brand of humor—no mean feat, considering the insipid nature of most romantic subplots in films of this sort. But Thalberg wasn’t about to destroy the appeal of the Marx Brothers. In fact, he spared no expense or effort to make this film a success. He hired playwright George S. Kaufman and his partner Morrie Ryskind to work on the script. They were no strangers to Marx territory, having written both Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, but they were firmly established in New York (where they’d recently won a Pulitzer Prize for their play Of Thee I Sing) and had no particular desire to move West. Thalberg lured Kaufman to Hollywood with a salary of $10,000 a week! (And, in true M-G-M/Thalberg fashion, other hired hands were brought on board to improve and “doctor” the script. In all, the film boasted eight writers, though only three received credit.)
Thalberg made the unprecedented decision to test the finished material “on the road,” in a specially-prepared stage version of the screenplay. Every performance was a test: what worked, remained. What didn’t, was changed.
With the comedy honed to perfection, Thalberg made sure the other elements of the film were their equal. A recent M-G-M arrival named Allan Jones was hired for the juvenile lead, and a newcomer from Broadway named Kitty Carlisle was borrowed from Paramount, where she had appeared in two films with Bing Crosby. Their unaffected performances and attractive singing voices contribute a great deal to the “tolerability” of the straight material in A Night at the Opera. (And the songs aren’t bad, either. “Alone,” by M-G-M’s house songwriters Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, became a hit.)
The Marx Brothers are further aided and abetted by a hand-picked supporting cast, including the indispensable Margaret Dumont, the imperious Siegfried Rumann, the insufferable Walter King, and the incompetent Robert Emmett O’Connor. Perfect foils, all.
Last, but not least, it should be said that A Night at the Opera presents the Marx Brothers at the peak of their powers. Groucho and Chico never had a funnier encounter than the “party of the first part” contract negotiation. Chico never had a better double-talk showcase than his description of the aviators’ trouble-ridden trip to America. And the threesome never participated in a funnier single set piece than the stateroom scene.
So it was M-G-M, never noted for its contributions to screen comedy, that produced one of the greatest comedies ever made. Not by chance, or circumstances, but by gathering together a group of outstanding talents and channeling their efforts toward a goal of perfection. Best of all, their work has stood the test of time.
A Night at the Opera remains a joy to watch after more than half a century.