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A Night at the Opera

A Night at the Opera

Con man and "promoter" Otis B. Driftwood is trying to woo the wealthy Mrs. Claypool into investing in an opera company by promising to secure her entry into high society. The stars of the Milan-based company are the vain, mean-spirited Rodolfo and the sweet, talented Rosa. Rosa is in love with the tenor Riccardo, who has been consigned to the chorus by his rival, Rodolfo. Riccardo's agent, Fiorello, and Rodolfo's put-upon dresser, Tomasso, also become involved in Driftwood's scheme, which brings everyone together on an ocean liner bound for New York. Once in the States, Rodolfo has both Driftwood and Rosa fired from the company. They get their revenge, however, by totally devastating the company's production of Il Trovatore, kidnapping Rodolfo, and triumphantly substituting Rosa and Riccardo in the leads.

A Night at the Opera was the first Marx Brothers film without Zeppo. Feeling his talent was being wasted playing the bland straight man in their first five movies, he left the group shortly after the debacle of Duck Soup (1933). When Groucho, Harpo and Chico first met with Irving Thalberg to discuss working at MGM, the producer asked if three brothers would cost less than four. "Don't be silly," Groucho shot back. "Without Zeppo we're worth twice as much."

But despite all the games and pranks the Marx Brothers were fond of playing, Kitty Carlisle said the atmosphere on the set was "deadly earnest." She recalled how Groucho would come up to her from time to time, try out a line, and ask, "Is this funny?" If she said "no," he would "go away absolutely crushed and try it out on everyone else in the cast." On the other hand, Chico, she said, was always off in a back room playing cards. And Harpo would work very diligently until about 11 a.m. and then plop himself down on the nearest piece of furniture and begin yelling, "Lunchie! Lunchie!"

While some Marx Brothers fans prefer the earlier Paramount features like Horse Feathers (1932) to the MGM features they made, the majority opinion is that A Night at the Opera is their finest film. Here are some of the most famous Marx Brothers scenes: 15 people crowding into Groucho's tiny shipboard stateroom; Groucho ordering two hardboiled eggs from the ship steward, changing it to three each time Harpo honks his horn; Groucho and Chico agreeing on the terms of Riccardo's contract by tearing away all disputed passages until they're left with only a scrap of paper. And despite MGM's introduction of a "kinder, gentler" Marx Brothers, A Night at the Opera still contains many elements of their trademark zany, anarchic humor: Chico, Harpo and Allen Jones disguising themselves as rather strange and inexplicably bearded aviator heroes to escape the authorities; the brothers eluding a private detective by leading him on a mad chase through a hotel suite whose furniture they keep rearranging; and, of course, Groucho's one-liners, particularly those hurled at Margaret Dumont in what is half courtship, half character assassination.

Director: Sam Wood

Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Screenplay: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind
Cinematographer: Merritt B. Gerstadt
Editor: William Levanway
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Groucho Marx (Otis B. Driftwood), Chico Marx (Fiorello), Harpo Marx (Tomasso), Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), Riccardo (Allen Jones), Rodolfo (Walter Woolf King).
BW-92m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Rob Nixon