For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
Born in the late 19th Century, they would start as vaudevillians, transition to film, and finally move to television. The 1935 “A Night at the Opera” came roughly in the middle of their film career, and is a stellar example of why these brothers are unquestioned geniuses.
Though “A Night at the Opera” may be less political than some of their other works, it still has elements of class struggle, and a healthy play on the haves and have-nots. Chico Marx’s Italian accent is a nod to the immigrant families he grew up with in New York, while Groucho Marx’s slouch-walking, fast-talking persona is always trying to wheel and deal his way to fortune.
The realm of social inequity and the clash between people of differing affluence and culture was as ripe an area for comedy then as it is now.
“A Night at the Opera” follows Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) as he pursues the fortune of wealthy widower, Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). They are in Italy to see the renowned opera singer Lassparri (Walter King), but along the way Driftwood runs into Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo Marx), who are friends to the unknown but very talented Ricardo (Allan Jones). Mrs. Claypool signs Lassparri, and in the scene below Driftwood accidentally signs Ricardo:
Claypool and Driftwood depart via steamship to New York. It is only after they have departed that Driftwood discovers that Fiorello, Ricardo, and Tomasso have stowed away in his luggage. They agree to leave once he secures a meal for them.
We have come across a number of films from the 30s so far, and what I find compelling about them is how modern they feel.
Unburdened by the coming Production Code that would cripple films in the 40s and 50s, these 30s comedies could more freely explore racier subject matter. Groucho’s comments about Harpo’s sleepy groping of the maid are never vulgar, but are openly sexual in nature.
It makes you rethink the movies your grandparents and great grandparents were watching, and perhaps the time they were growing up in.
The wordplay and comedic timing of the Marx Brothers are impeccable, but not all of their comedy was cleverness and wit. Chico could play the piano and often incorporated his playing into the act. The scene below shows off his capacity for physical comedy as well as his musical ability:
As with “Bringing Up Baby”, you aren’t going to find well fleshed out characters and a cohesive storyline, but you will find plenty to giggle at.
The Marx Brothers were some of the smartest, funniest fellas around, and “A Night at the Opera” offers a great time. If you do check out or revisit this movie, I’d bet even money that you’ll find yourself running through some of the cleverer and more memorable lines the next day.
Up next #84 Easy Rider (1969)