85. A Night at the Opera (1935) - Sam Wood
Harpo (Tomasso), Ricardo, Chico (Fiorello), and Groucho (Otis B. Driftwood) at their lowest point - I love this posing.
What’s it all about?
A Night at the Opera is a full on jab at high society. Mrs. Claypool, Mr. Gottlieb, and Lassparri, who represent upper class and pompousness, play the enemies of the film. The film climaxes with an over-the-top disgrace of the high-society, sacred institution of the Opera. That’s about as deep as an analysis of a Marx Brothers’ film needs to be - what’s important is the comic genius.
Story - Establishing Villains and Good Guys
In order to root for the comical hi-jinx of the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera, it’s important to establish that the brothers and romantic leads are the good guys, and the upper class are the villains. This is done early on when Harpo’s character Tomasso, the wage-worker, is verbally and physically assaulted by Lessparri, the pompous tenor. By having Lassparri treat the loveable Harpo this way, Lessparri is instantly painted the bad guy. Immediately following this incident, Harpo is consoled by romantic lead Rosa, whom we then root for alongside the brothers. From this point on, those who affiliate with Lessparri, including Mrs. Claypool and Mr. Gottfried, are considered high society villains, and those who affiliate with the Marx Brothers and Rosa, including male romantic lead Ricardo, are the good guys. This is extremely important because we then support the motivation of the brothers - to make Ricardo a star, and revel in their desecration of the Opera.
There’s many great examples of comical plants in A Night at the Opera. Two examples come to mind that showcase how plants can be both anticipated and unexpectedly recalled: the ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ gag and the bearded aviators. As the climactic Opera scene begins, Harpo plants ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ within the Orchestra’s sheet music, and we eagerly await for the payoff. So while the chaos is in full swing, our anticipations are high for the moment ‘Ball Game’ will be discovered. When it does, it’s hilarious, and the Marx Brothers take the gag even further by starting a game of catch within the Orchestra pit. As for the other example, I just may not be perceptive to the Marx Brothers comedy, but when I saw the bearded aviators for the first time, it in no way crossed my mind that they would later on serve as disguises. It wasn’t until the scene where Harpo begins cutting off the sleeping aviators beards, that it struck me how brilliantly they had been planted, and would now be used as an escape method for stowaways Chico, Harpo, and Ricardo (further the plot).
Structure - One Scene Leads to Another
What’s brilliant about the structure of A Night at the Opera is how a seemingly shallow comedic bit always drives the plot forward. Take the musical segment, where Chico, Harpo, and Ricardo sing and play, and take part in classic MGM spectacle. This could be written off as audience escapism from the Great Depression, but the scene actually makes narrative sense and adds proper conflict - at it’s end, the three men are spotted and locked up for being stowaways. Similarly, after the men are locked up, there is a several-minute-long bit where Harpo escapes through a window and swings around the side of the ship on ropes, repeatedly dipping himself into the ocean. The comedic bit has a legitimate ending when, as mentioned before, Harpo finds himself landed in the stateroom of the three bearded aviators, and consequently discovers a way for him and the other stowaways to escape.