On Saturday the Channel 13 classic film was the Marx Brothers: A Night at the Opera. I think I saw it a long time ago, but nothing stuck except the infamous stateroom scene, so I went into this almost unspoiled. My knowledge of the Marx Brothers was, I have to admit, somewhat vague: Groucho, the smartass with the moustache and eyebrows and walk straight from Monty Python’s ministry; Chico, the Italian-accented straight-man, I thought; and Harpo, my favorite, best known from the I Love Lucy skit –
– the harp virtuoso and silent clown who set the stage for Teller of Penn & Teller (who then spoiled things by talking rather often). This was a bit like some of the other classic comedies I’ve seen in recent months, Pink Panther and M*A*S*H – it has not benefited by being so great a classic and staple in its genre. Groucho was so familiar a character, even not having seen much of his actual work, that it almost felt like an impersonation – it was hard to keep in mind that this was the Original, and, at the time, fresh and outrageous. (I hadn’t really registered how very much Bugs Bunny owes to him.) Neil Gabler’s intro told of how the Brothers’ contract with Paramount ended, and MGM made a bid for them, promising bigger and better things by, to start with, giving them films with actual storylines rather than just a string of gags.
Not that the storyline of Opera was exactly stellar: boy in opera chorus loves girl starring in opera (Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones), who is pursued by male lead; boy (of course) has better voice and virtue than lead, so of course she loves him back; girl and lead are recruited to leave Italy and star in NY opera; boy stows away with very weird friends and follows girl. Groucho plays Otis P. Driftwood the “financial manager” of Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) – meaning she inherited millions from her late husband and he would love to help her spend them. He talks her into donating a couple hundred thousand to the NY opera – which is a lot now; what did that sound like then?? – which leads to the hiring of Bad Guy Tenor, which leads to the hiring of the Girl … Harpo was the dresser for Bad Guy Tenor, who used to beat him, so now Harpo’s up for revenge; Chico is an old friend of Good Guy Tenor, and takes on the role of manager. I wonder – did the audience of the 30’s really enjoy opera so much more than the general public now? Were they really so much more familiar with it? Today there will never be a comedy in the slapstick lane (EVER) that allows so much screen time to seriously portrayed opera. Ever. I can see a comedy set around an opera production, but any attempts at performance would be constantly interrupted and sabotaged. The finale of NatO featured the full duet from Il Trovatore, straight up. It was a little bizarre. (Good Guy tenor really was very good – Starlet not so much, imho.)
Half the film was spent in Italy (apparently, though everyone but Chico (and Groucho) (and, naturally, Harpo) sounded Refined American) and on the ship to America – that was the best. The stateroom scene (“Is my Aunt Minnie in here?”) was nearly axed – isn’t that the way these things always happen? The most iconic moments of films are the ones that nearly didn’t make it? I saw somewhere a review that the shortcoming of this movie is that the Marx Brothers had lost the anarchic edge they had always had before (hello, storyline); I don’t know anything about early Marx Bros., so I can’t address that. They were fairly anarchic and unsocialized in this, though, and damn good at it. But my favorite part of the film, which became one of my favorite parts of any film, was the (to quote Gaelic Storm regarding their contribution to Titanic) Party in Third Class. The humor was comparatively gentle – the three stowaways being fed, thoroughly, for the first time in a while, etc. – but it was wonderful. It was a huge party among the Italians in steerage, counterpoint to the stuffier First Class party Groucho attended, complete with folk music – leading to another in the series of featured opera performances, by GGT. I’m allergic to opera, but this was not at all bad. “Cosi Cosa” – what was the French version again?? Ah! Comme çi, comme sa. Phew. It was right on the tip of my brain. Anyway. Following that song, Harpo and Chico slide into the seats at harp and piano left empty by the band going to get food. The musicians protest, but the crowd’s in a good mood and defend the boys, and Chico rewards them with the most joyous and delightful piano solo I’ve ever seen. Research shows it was “All I Do Is Dream of You” – no wonder it was familiar! I couldn’t place it. It was magnificent. He was surrounded by children who looked genuinely captivated, and played with a tiny smile and a quirky brilliance that was wonderful. Most pianists can’t play that well straight-faced; he flicked and poked and doinked the keys and was marvelous. And then he got up and Harpo moved in – and played with the stool and slammed the lid on each hand, alternately, and generally played up to the kids, who were slightly hysterical. Having had enough of the piano’s abuse, he shifted over to the harp – and … wow. He went from wild-eyed crazy man to the most beautiful harp solo I’ve ever seen – a variation of the film’s theme “Alone” – and back again without missing a beat. It was surprising – both performances – and did I use “marvelous” yet? Loved it. The funny parts were funny, the opera wasn’t dreadful, and that was perfect. I wouldn’t agree that it’s one of the Best Movies Ever, but it was pretty great. And now I want more Marx Bros.
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!