A Night at the Opera (film)
|A Night at the Opera|
|Directed by||Sam Wood|
|Produced by||Irving Thalberg|
|Screenplay by||George S. Kaufman
|Story by||James Kevin McGuinness|
|Music by||Herbert Stothart|
|Editing by||William LeVanway|
|Running time||96 minutes|
A Night at the Opera is a 1935 American comedy film starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx and Harpo Marx, and featuring Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman, and Walter Woolf King. It was the first film the Marx Brothers made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after their departure from Paramount Pictures, and the first after Zeppo left the act. The film was adapted by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and Al Boasberg (uncredited) from a story by James Kevin McGuinness. It was directed by Sam Wood.
A smash hit at the box office, A Night at the Opera was selected in 1993 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It is also included in the 2007 update of AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies, at number 85; and previously in AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs 2000 showing, at number 12.
The film opens with Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) missing a dinner with his client, the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), in favor of another lady in the same restaurant. When they find each other in opposite tables, Otis joins Mrs. Claypool, and introduces her to Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) of the New York Opera Company, also dining at the restaurant. Gottlieb tells the two of Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), the “greatest tenor in the world”, whom he plans to sign to his contract. Otis is enlisted to meet with Lassparri at the theater once the opera has finished, but is once again late.
Meanwhile, fellow opera singer Riccardo Baroni (Alan Jones) wishes to be just as good as Lassparri, and hires his best friend Fiorello (Chico) to be his manager. He also spends time with Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), and keeping her away from Lassparri, who is also in love with her. Otis finds Lassparri attacking his ex-dresser Tomasso (Harpo), and insults his Pagliacci costume (oblivious that he's Lassparri), while Tomasso knocks Lassparri unconscious by hitting him on the head. Fiorello enters and tricks Otis into signing Riccardo to Gottlieb’s contract, which ultimately fails because Fiorello doesn’t know how to write, and the contract has been torn down to the Sanity Clause. Gottlieb finds Lassparri, but he too is hit on the head by Tomasso.
On the dock where the boat for New York is to leave, Riccardo tries again to get noticed by Gottlieb by singing a duet with Rosa. Gottlieb likes his voice, but suggests that he should wait until he has made a reputation. Without any money for a ticket, Ricardo, Fiorello, and Tomasso stow away in Otis’s trunk. Otis has troubles already, since he is expecting Mrs. Claypool in a while, and the stateroom is too small. (see Stateroom scene below)
In New York, to protect their identities, the three stowaways pretend to be three famous aviators. They are forced to make a speech, however, since Harpo is mute, he fails to do so, causing people to get suspicious. Tommaso's identity is quickly revealed when his fake beard falls off. They hide in Otis's apartment after escaping. Otis finds out from a newspaper that the stowaways are being pursued by the police for entering the country illegally. Otis ends up losing his position with the opera to Gottlieb. When they find out that Rosa has been fired for siding with Riccardo, the boys spring into action, sabotaging the opening night performance of Il Trovatore by throwing it into total chaos. With the police and Gottlieb after him, Tommaso turns off the lights. While the lights are off, Lassparri and Otis end up in a box. Tommaso pulls the box up before the lights turn on. Finding that Lassparri has disappeared, Gottlieb desperately asks Riccarrdo and Rosa to sing. As they finish singing, the box Otis and Lassparri are in drops to the ground. Lassparri tries to perform, only to be booed by the audience. Riccardo and Rosa once again sing.
The film ends with Otis and Fiorello telling Gottlieb that because they signed the contract, they get ten percent each from the profit Ricarrdo and Rosa make from singing.
This scene, one of the most famous comedy scenes of all time, was developed with participation of silent comedy great, then gag writer, Buster Keaton who took inspiration from a simpler precursor in his own film, The Cameraman.
Driftwood plans a rendezvous with Mrs. Claypool in his stateroom; then he finds out how small it is, and that he, his trunk, and the bed barely fit in it. Fiorello insists on getting something to eat ("We getta food or we don't go"). So Driftwood calls a steward ("I say, Stew") and orders dinner.
Driftwood: And two medium-boiled eggs.
Fiorello: (inside room): And two hard-boiled eggs.
Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs.
Tomasso: (inside room): (honk)
Driftwood: Make that three hard boiled eggs.
This continues until Fiorello and Tomasso have ordered about a dozen hard-boiled eggs and Driftwood has ordered about everything else—including coffee to sober up some stewed prunes. However, this is just to set the viewer up for the famous "Stateroom Scene", which sees a total of 15 people in Driftwood's tiny ship's cabin, already containing a bed and a big wardrobe trunk.
The scene starts with Driftwood finding out that Fiorello, Tomasso, and Riccardo Baroni managed to sneak onto the boat by stowing away in his steamer trunk. Fiorello and Tomasso have to hide out in the room while a parade of people walk in, asking to either use their cabin for something, or to perform their appointed tasks. Crammed into this little space at the end of the scene are: Driftwood, Fiorello, Tomasso, Baroni, two cleaning ladies who make up the bed, a manicurist, a ship's engineer and his assistant, a girl looking for her aunt, a maid ("I come to mop up." "You'll have to start on the ceiling.") and four waiters with trays of food (prompting Driftwood's classic line: "Is it my imagination, or is it getting crowded in here?"). The mass of humanity tumbles out into the hallway when Mrs. Claypool opens the door.
The contract scene between Driftwood and Fiorello ("the party of the first part ..."):
Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause that's in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don't know...
Driftwood: It's all right. That's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!
- Groucho Marx as Otis B. Driftwood
- Harpo Marx as Tomasso
- Chico Marx as Fiorello
- Kitty Carlisle as Rosa Castaldi
- Allan Jones as Ricardo Baroni
- Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool
- Siegfried Rumann as Herman Gottlieb
- Walter Woolf King as Rodolfo Lassparri
- Robert Emmett O'Connor as Sergeant Henderson
- Edward Keane as The Captain
- Purnell Pratt as The Mayor
In an interview with Richard J. Anobile in The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, Groucho said he was so appalled by an early draft of the script—which was reportedly written by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby—that he screamed, "Why fuck around with second-rate talent, get Kaufman and Ryskind [to write the screenplay]!" 
At the suggestion of producer Irving Thalberg, the film marked a change of direction in the brothers' career. In their Paramount films, the brothers' characters were much more anarchic: they attacked anybody who was so unfortunate to cross their paths whether they deserved it or not, albeit comically. Thalberg, however, felt that this made the brothers unsympathetic, particularly to female filmgoers. So in the MGM films, the brothers were recast as more helpful characters, saving their comic attacks for the villains.
Though some Marx Brothers fans were appalled at these changes, Thalberg was vindicated when the film became a solid hit. It helped that the film contained some of what fans consider to be the brothers' funniest routines. These routines were honed on stage, as the brothers performed the new material on the road before filming began.
However, according to Oscar Levant, the first preview was a "disaster", with "hardly a laugh" as was the second. Thalberg and George S. Kaufman spent days in the editing room, adjusting the timing to match the rhythm of a stage performance. About nine minutes was cut from the running time, and the result was a hit.
True to its title, the film actually includes adaptations of some real opera scenes, especially from Il Trovatore, with a duet sung by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. The opera setting also allowed MGM to add big production song numbers (which were one of this studio's specialties), such as the song Alone, with the departure of the steamship, and the song Cosi Cosa with the Italian buffet and dancing.
Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones, who were both trained in classical singing, sing for themselves in the movie. Walter Woolf King was also trained in classical singing, but he was a baritone, and the music for his character in Il Trovatore was written for a tenor. His aria, Di quella pira, was sung by New York Metropolitan tenor Tandy MacKenzie.
The film originally was to have begun with each of the Marx Brothers taking turns roaring instead of Leo the Lion (MGM's iconic mascot); Harpo Marx was to have honked his horn. For reasons unexplained, this unique opening was not used in the released film, although it would turn up years later in a re-release trailer.
According to MGM's dialogue cutting continuity and Leonard Maltin's audio commentary on the current DVD release, the film originally began (after the opening credits) with the image of a "boat on canal". A superimposed title read, "ITALY - WHERE THEY SING ALL DAY AND GO TO THE OPERA AT NIGHT", and was followed by a musical number featuring bits and pieces from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci performed by "everyday" Italians: a street sweeper sings part of the prologue ("Un nido di memorie...") as he greets a man who then hands out opera tickets to a group of children emerging from a store; the children respond with "la-la-la-la-la, verso un paese strano" (from "Stridono lassù"); a "captain" comes down a set of steps, salutes a sentry, then bursts into "Vesti la giubba"; then, a lap dissolve into a hotel lobby, where a "baggage man" is rolling a trunk and crooning about "nettare divino" ("divine nectar"); a waiter joins the baggage man in song, enters the dining room, and sings as he serves a man who for a few notes also sings; the waiter then crosses the dining room to speak to Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), marking the beginning of the film in existing copies. Maltin stated the scene was cut during World War II to remove references to Italy, and unfortunately, the main negative was cut as well, so the scene is now lost. This notable cut, with several other small ones made at about the same time, is why the stated running time of the film (95 minutes) was three minutes longer than that of existing prints.
A persistent rumor concerning A Night at the Opera involves the presence of the Marx brothers' father Sam Marx (also known as "Frenchy") on the ship and on the dock, waving goodbye. Both Groucho and Harpo stated this as fact in their memoirs, and Leonard Maltin repeats it in the DVD commentary. But this could not have occurred, because Sam Marx had died in 1933, during pre-production of Duck Soup, two years before A Night at the Opera was released. The rumor arose because Frenchy had had such a cameo appearance in the Marx brothers' earlier Monkey Business. There is, however, a reference to the Marx brothers' mother, Minnie Marx, during the stateroom scene, in which a woman asks, "Is my Aunt Minnie in here?"
Part of the concept of casting the Marx brothers as stowaways on a ship was recycled from Monkey Business. As Groucho Marx's and Margaret Dumont's characters are boarding the ocean liner, Dumont asks Groucho, "Do you have everything, Otis?"; Groucho replies, "Well, I haven't had any complaints yet." In two different interviews with Dick Cavett on The Dick Cavett Show - Comic Legends DVD, Groucho claimed that that exchange of dialogue was banned in a majority of states when the film was released because it was too suggestive, although the number of states varied with different tellings of the story.
In 2008, a film student reported that the Hungarian National Film Archive possesses a longer print of the film. While the print does not contain the opening musical number, it does contain several excised lines referencing Italy that had been cut upon the film's re-release in the 1940s. With the opening number still missing, it may be that this scene was cut after its original preview screenings during the 1930s rather than during its re-release, as previously thought. However, the discovery of the Hungarian print has not yet been independently verified, and Warner Brothers, who owns the rights to the film, has not indicated that any restoration is forthcoming.
In the scene where the three stowaways are impersonating Russian aviators, Driftwood seems to talk gibberish with the dignitaries. As a matter of fact, it is English; if played backwards, it can be heard what they are saying ("This man is accusing you of being impostors", etc.). It was recorded normally, then reversed and dubbed over the scene in post-production.
- "Alone" (Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed)
- "Santa Lucia"
- "All I Do Is Dream of You"
- "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"
- Prelude to Il Trovatore
- "Anvil Chorus" (from Il trovatore)
- "Stride la vampa" (from Il trovatore)
- "Di quella Pira" (from Il trovatore)
- "Miserere", (From Il trovatore)
- "Stridono lassù" (from Pagliacci)
A Night at the Opera began a new era for the Marx Brothers' style of comedy. Whereas their previous comedies at Paramount Pictures consisted of a constant barrage of zany, free-for-all jokes sandwiched in between something resembling a plot, A Night at the Opera was calculated comedy. Producer Irving Thalberg insisted on a strong story structure, making the Brothers more sympathetic characters, interweaving their comedy with romantic plots and non-comic spectacular musical numbers. The targets of their mischief were largely confined to clear villains. Thalberg's logic was that the Marxes could get "twice the box office with half the laughs," believing their films would attract a wider audience. Groucho himself agreed with Thalberg's rationale. In his autobiography, Groucho and Me, he wrote of the Marx Brothers' 13 films, “Two were far above average. Some of the others were pretty good. Some were deplorable. The best two were made by Thalberg"—a reference not only to A Night at the Opera but A Day at the Races.
Another idea of Thalberg's was that before filming would commence on an upcoming picture, the Marx Brothers would try out its material on the vaudeville stage, working on comic timing and learning what earned a laugh and what did not. He was keen to plant gags accordingly so the laughs could be timed correctly. Interestingly enough, the famous "stateroom" scene was nearly eliminated because it was not getting any laughs. One evening the Marx Brothers threw away the script and ad-libbed the whole thing. As a result, a weak scene was transformed into one of their all-time classics.
In A Night at the Opera, the Brothers' characters were refined. Groucho made more sense, and less trouble. Chico gained intelligence, and Harpo regressed into more of a child. The film dives straight into a plot and accompanying comedy, with every scene having a definitive beginning, middle, and end. The end consisted of a grand finale in traditional MGM musical fashion, something lacking from the Brothers' Paramount efforts.
Perhaps most notably, A Night at the Opera established a formula that would be used for every subsequent film the Marx Brothers made at MGM:
- opening scene with Groucho
- a friendship created between the romantic hero and Chico
- Chico and Groucho going through several verbal routines
- Harpo joining as Chico's partner
- lush surroundings as a backdrop to the Brothers' lunacy
- a fall from grace
- a rebound on a grand scale in which everything is righted
Reputation and legacy
A Night at the Opera is widely regarded as a classic and is arguably (along with Duck Soup) the Marx Brothers' most-recognized film. As of October 18, 2008, the film scores a 97% "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Internet reviews take a revisionist approach and suggest that the film is "a very funny movie slowed down by MGM’s expensive production values and idiotic songs." Ken Hanke calls it "hysterical, but not up to the boys’ Paramount films." Mark Bourne concurs: "[The Marx Brothers] still let the air out of stuffed shirts and barbecue a few sacred cows, but something got lost in all that MGMness when the screen's ultimate anti-authoritarian team starting working the Andy Hardy side of the street."
Roger Ebert admits that, while A Night at the Opera "contains some of their best work," he "fast-forward[s] over the sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In Duck Soup there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end."
Danel Griffin says: "A Night at the Opera is funny, but this is NOT the Marx Brothers, and their earlier style is so sorely missed that the film falls flat. The main problem with A Night at the Opera is the obvious lack of the Marx Brothers’ trademark anarchy. What distinguished them in their Paramount films from all other comedians was their thumb-biting indictment of society.
American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs - #12
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes - Nominated:
- OTIS B. DRIFTWOOD: "It’s alright, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause."
- FIORELLO: "You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Claus."
In popular culture
- Stateroom scene
- The Belgian singer Jacques Brel was inspired by the famous stateroom gag in the film when he wrote his song "Le Gaz" (1967) which depicts several men all crowding together in one room to meet a courtesan "for the gas."
- Cyndi Lauper featured a similar overcrowded stateroom gag in her music video for the song "Girls Just Want To Have Fun".
- Sting also recreated the overcrowded stateroom gag in his music video for the 1991 song "All This Time".
- The Warner Bros. animated show Animaniacs also paid homage to the stateroom gag in the short "Hercule Yakko".
- Though not one room, Mr. Mom also paid an homage to the stateroom gag in its finale.
- In the Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, a scene almost identical to the stateroom scene occurs in the Martins' closet.
- An 8th season episode of Seinfeld titled "The Pothole" features a homage to the stateroom scene in which the four main characters all cram into a small janitor's closet that Elaine is using to get Chinese food delivered; they all end up spilling out after Kramer spills ammonia.
- Mystery writer Jeffrey Cohen paid tribute to the stateroom scene in his novel A Night at the Operation (2009). The book's title also parodies the name of the movie.
- Sanity clause
- The British punk band The Damned used Chico's quote ("There ain't no sanity clause") as a title for a 1980 single.
- Detective Comics #826 pays homage to the film. In it the Joker captures Tim Drake, the third Robin, and takes him on a mad spree in a car, running over anyone they encounter over the Christmas season. When the Joker plans to kill a street Santa Claus, Robin distracts him by saying "You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Claus." The Joker laughs and the two get in an argument over which Marx Brothers film the gag is from, with Robin claiming it is from The Big Store. The Joker is distracted long enough for Robin to punch him out and escape. The Joker himself uses the line in The Killing Joke.
- The British rock group Queen paid homage to this film by naming one of their most famous albums after it.
- The film's script is credited as the basis for the 1992 film Brain Donors, produced by David Zucker and Jerry Zucker of Airplane! and The Naked Gun fame.
- At the end of the 1990 film The Freshman, Rodolfo Lassparri is the alias used on Matthew Broderick's passport.
- The German power metal band Blind Guardian paid homage to this film by naming one of their albums after it.
- Brown, Gene (1995). Movie Time: A Chronology of Hollywood and the Movie Industry from its Beginnings to the Present. New York: MacMillan. p. 125. ISBN 978-0-02-860429-9. The film opened at New York's famed Capitol Theatre.
- A Night at the Opera at AllMovie. Rovi. Retrieved April 13, 2012.
- List of National Film Registry (1988-2003).
- Analysis of A Night at the Opera by Tim Dirks at Filmsite.org.
- Gill, David, Brownlow, Kevin (1987). Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. Thames Television. pp. Episode three.
- Oscar Levant, The Unimportance of Being Oscar, Pocket Books 1969 (reprint of G.P. Putnam 1968), p. 67. ISBN 0-671-77104-3.
- A Night at the Opera trivia at the Internet Movie Database.
- Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers (Hardcover) by Simon Louvish. Thomas Dunne Books; 1st U.S. edition (2000), ISBN 0-312-25292-7.
- Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World, Joe Adamson. Simon & Schuster, Paperback (1983), ISBN 0-671-47072-8.
- Mitchell, Glenn (1996). The Mark Brothers Encyclopedia. London, England: BT. Batsford Ltd.
- Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx. ISBN 0-306-80666-5
- Marx, Harpo (1961). Harpo Speaks!. New York: B. Geis Associates; New York: Limelight Editions, 1985, ISBN 0-87910-036-2.
- Timphus, Stefan. A Night At The Opera: The Hungarian Discoveries.
- Stables, Kate (1992). The Marx Bros. Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, Inc. ISBN 1-55521-793-1.
- "A Night at the Opera". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on 19 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-18.
- Roger Ebert’s review of Duck Soup at Rogerebert.com
- Danel Griffin’s review of A Night at the Opera at "Film as Art".
- Todd, Oliver Jacques Brel: Une Vie
- Elisabeth Buxbaum: Veronika, der Lenz ist da. Walter Jurmann – Ein Musiker zwischen den Welten und Zeiten. Mit einem Werkverzeichnis von Alexander Sieghardt. Edition Steinbauer, Wien 2006, ISBN 3-902494-18-2
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- A Night at the Opera at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Marx Brothers Night at the Opera Treasury
- A Night at the Opera at the Internet Movie Database
- A Night at the Opera at the TCM Movie Database
- A Night at the Opera at allmovie
- Full description of A Night at the Opera from Filmsite.org