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Building My movie Posters Puzzle: A Night at the Opera

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

Following last week’s inspection of the great transatlantic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, comes one of the most highly praised efforts of the even more famous American immigrant comedy team, the Marx Brothers. Although there were five different brothers who joined the act at different times, the three most well-known show off the true depth and versatility of their talents in A Night at the Opera, an expression of sheer unadulterated entertainment. As is often the case with comedy, it is difficult to write a lot about this movie specifically without risking taking the air out of it. I’ll cover some of the background for the production and the history of the brothers in general, but to get a real sense of the thing, you’ll want to search out A Night at the Opera for your own viewing pleasure. It is one of those movies that it is entirely possible to smile all the way through.

One of the great strengths of the Marx Brothers was in how specific and disparate each of their developed stage characters were. Groucho appeals most to upper class intellectuals with his Bugs Bunny style disrespect for authority and high society and snappy stream of one-liners. Harpo, on the other hand, is pure childish id, with his innocently impish but unquestionably subversive dumbshow. Meanwhile, the most clearly immigrant of the three is Chico, who straddles the two others, alternately serving as support for Harpo’s physical clowning and adeptly participating in Groucho’s penchant for spoken dialogue and gags.

The brothers began their entertainment careers as youngsters, with most of their focus on performing musically. Groucho learned the guitar, and Chico became an accomplished pianist, but Harpo reportedly learned as many as six different instruments. Obviously, he became most associated with his mastery of the harp and took his stage name based on this proficiency.

It was not until after an episode at a public performance in the American southwest that the brothers and their manager mother decided to shift towards comedy. There is some disagreement between different sources as to where exactly this happened (either in Texas or Oklahoma), but the general story is the same. In the middle of a show, someone ran in and called out about a mule that was loose in town and causing mischief. Large portions of the attending crowd decided to rush out to view this new spectacle. Groucho responded by insulting these people when they returned to the theater, but his barbs were met with laughter, helping to spur the thought that comedy might be an important part of the act’s future. As their act gradually began to include more comedy, the brothers’ uncle Al Shean helped to develop the characterizations that each of them would become famous in.

Since the Marx Brothers’ act was so dependent on music and quick humorous dialogue, the popularization of sound in motion pictures just when they had become some of the most popular Broadway performers in New York City was a great boon to them. They signed with Paramount Pictures and quickly produced their first two films, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), which were both based on their previously existing stage shows. The following films continued to be popular with audiences and make good profits compared to their budgets. Their satire of the American university system, Horse Feathers (1932) was still inspiring top-selling posters for dorm rooms when I was in college.

Just as the brothers’ contract was running out at Paramount, their newest movie proved to be less successful than its predecessors. On top of this, Zeppo left the act to begin a career as a talent agent, leaving their future very much up in the air. They considered radio and going back t live performances, but somehow Paramount fumbled the ball and allowed them to sign on with competitors MGM. Irving Thalberg at MGM insisted both that their new movies follow more traditional storytelling beats and that their characters be more “helpful,” reserving their more anarchic attacks for the actual villains of the piece. Although these changes were disliked by some of their fans, some of the brothers’ best-loved gags emerged from the Thalberg film. This was in part due to a practice of testing scenes in front of live audiences before committing them to film. Perhaps the Marx Brothers’ most famous scene was included in the movie we’re covering here, A Night at the Opera which was their very first for MGM.

The “state room scene” builds gradually over a few minutes as passenger after passenger finds some reason that they must gain entry into Groucho’s already cramped room aboard a transatlantic cruiser. Very early on, he appears to recognize the humor of the situation and instead of turning any new person away, greets them in happily without any reservation. The most famous part of the bit is its denouement, when a high society matron who had been the only one originally invited, opens the door only to have all of the people spill out at her. The scene has been referenced or reproduced by a variety of other artists, including 90s favorites Seinfeld and Animaniacs. In fact, it’s hard to watch those television shows without recognizing their debt to the Marx Brothers. The Animaniacs in particular appear to have been inspired by the more random and anarchic nature of the Marx Brothers’ early films.

Groucho was initially very unhappy with the script for the film, demanding a change in writers. Thalberg’s insistence on including a romantic subplot played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones was clearly slowing down the brothers’ typical break neck pace. Making matters worse, an early cut of the film played to preview audiences twice with very little laughter resulting. Intense re-editing was undertaken, primarily to better match the rhythms of the original live performances. An opening scene showing everyday citizens of Italy singing portions of the opera Pagliacci to set the location and tone of the movie was also eventually cut. With roughly nine minutes cut from the original disastrous version, A Night at the Opera went into theaters and became a very big hit for the studio. Another scene which was created for the movie, but later cut was a parody of MGM’s roaring lion tag.

Unfortunately, Louis B Mayer objected to it, feeling that the ribbing would lower the value of the company’s well-known icon. Sheesh. Some guys have no sense of humor.

Some states were equally humorless about a short exchange between Groucho and a female character as they carry their things up a walkway to board the ocean liner. She asks “Are you sure you have everything, Otis” and he replies “I’ve never had any complaints yet.” Obviously this joke was considered too racy in some locales when it appeared in their previous movie Duck Soup, but apparently the censors let it pass just two years later.

Despite some objections to the new, more directed, style of A Night at the Opera, the movie and its follow-up A Day at the Races were box office successes and are widely considered excellent examples of the comedy of the era. Groucho himself proclaimed more than once that these were the team’s two best films and that Thalberg had been right to change their approach once they had left Paramount.

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Posted on September 1, 2017, in comedy, Movies, Music, reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. And now the Movie Poster Puzzle series arrives at a favorite of mine. While A Night at the Opera lacks the zesty comic anarchy of the Marx Brothers’ Paramount films, and I would rate it behind Duck Soup and only about even with Horse Feathers, it is the best of their MGM films and full of delights. The stateroom scene, which daffy notes above, is pure comic inspiration, while hopefully opera non-lovers can join with opera lovers like me in loving the big finale, where the boys make a wonderful hash out of Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

    Like

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