A Night at the Opera: A Marx Brothers Retrospective

Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, and Chico Marx in A Night at the Opera. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Night at the Opera isn’t just the first Marx Brothers movie without Zeppo but it is their first film to be produced at MGM.

“It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.” – Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx)

“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!”- Fiorello (Chico Marx)

The Warner Archive Collection released the film on Blu-ray in September 2021. I’m a bit late in doing the rewatch but better late than never.

The 1935 comedy is among the best films that the three brothers made together. Sam Wood takes over the director’s chair and he would helm their follow up, A Day at the Races. Both films are among the Marx Brothers films honored in AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Laughs and rightfully so. They represent the best of what the trio did during their MGM years. Groucho Marx even wrote in his memoir, Groucho and Me, that their best two films were made by Irving Thalberg. Thalberg’s 1936 death came during production of A Day at the Races.

Mrs. Claypool’s (Margaret Dumont) business interests are represented by Otis B. Driftwood. Anyway, Otis introduces the widow to New York Opera Company director Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) since all of them just happen to be dining at the same restaurant. Through Otis’s influence, Mrs. Claypool is now investing $250,000 in the company. This allows them to bring on opera star Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) for $1,000 per performance

Meanwhile, Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) hires Fiorello as his manager. Ricardo is in love with Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle). He’s not the only one as Lassparri is also wooing the soprano. Anyway, Fiorello meets Driftwood–who thinks they’re talking about Lassparri–and talks him into signing Ricardo. It’s the type of comedy that one can only expect to find in a Marx Brothers vehicle.

Everyone soon sets sail for New York. What Driftwood doesn’t know is that Ricardo, Fiorello, and Tomasso (Harpo Marx) stowed away inside his two trunks. Driftwood already has a very small stateroom–how in the hell will four people be able to fit inside what is basically a janitor’s closet? Moreover, he’s planning to have Mrs. Claypool join him! Fiorello will not leave without eating and next thing you know, there are 15 people cramming inside the room. That is until Mrs. Claypool opens the door. Once they arrive in New York, anything that can happen will happen with nothing short of a happy ending for Ricardo and Rosa. The audience booing Lassparri is just the icing on the cake but again, it’s what we expect from the Marx Brothers movies!

Under Irving Thalberg’s eye, the Marx Brothers would take on a new direction after signing with MGM in 1934. They would no longer be the same anarchic characters that we saw in their Paramount films. No, they would be nicer except when taking on their foils. In this way, the audience would feel sympathetic for them. On paper, it doesn’t sound like a good idea to completely revamp their image. However, the box office results spoke for themselves–mind you, this was 1935 during the Great Depression. Of course, this wasn’t without some editing from the initial cut. Anyway, the film would set forth a formula that we see in all of their MGM movies.

While the stateroom scene is a classic, there’s a universe where it is not in the film. This is because the scene wasn’t getting any laughs while they were working it out on stage prior to filming. The film isn’t necessarily adapted from a stage show but the Marx Brooks t0ok to the vaudeville stage to work on jokes that would make it into the film. They would ultimately improvise the scene and the rest is history.

Allan Jones is basically standing in for Zeppo and playing the straight man here. While they manage to find something for Margaret Dumont, going to MGM opens up the Marx Brothers films to a new set of background players such as Sig Ruman. Ruman would make appearances in three of their films.

While A Night at the Opera is amongst the best Marx Brothers movies, it’s not the same without the anarchy that made their Paramount films so much fun.

Bonus Features

  • Commentary by Leonard Maltin
  • Documentary: Remarks on Marx
  • Groucho Marx on The Hy Gardner Show (1961 Broadcast)
  • Vintage Shorts
    • Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West
    • Sunday Night at the Trocadero
    • Robert Benchley’s Academy Award-winning How to Sleep
  • Theatrical Trailer

SCREENWRITERS: George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
CAST: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, with Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones

MGM released A Night at the Opera in theaters on November 15, 1935. Grade: 4.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.