Seen: On film at the Brattle Theatre.
Weirdly, I haven’t caught up with the Marx Brothers. I saw Duck Soup years ago, that one episode of I Love Lucy when I was a kid, and that’s about it. An unexpectedly free night and some Marx Brothers screenings at the Brattle lined up perfectly to make my first film of 2014: A Night at the Opera. A wacky musical farce, the film stars Groucho Marx as Otis B Driftwood, a fast-talking business manager who worms his way into the opera scene, making some enemies along the way. He teams up with theater agent Fiorello (Chico Marx) and stage assistant Tomasso (Harpo Marx) on a cruise from Italy to New York, all in a wild gamble to make down-on-his-luck singer Ricardo (Allan Jones) an opera star and reunite him with his love Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). A lot of silliness ensues, and sometimes people break out into musical numbers.
Oh goodness, well, I guess you generally know what you’re getting into with a Marx Brothers movie, as far as I can tell, and that boils down to a zany affair. You’ve got Groucho spouting clever one-liners, Harpo clonking jerks on the head in wide-eyed innocence, and Chico doing his fake-Italian thing. They disrupt all manner of snooty-rich-people events, because fuck rich people, and cause general shock across the board through their wild antics. Overall this is a ridiculous, funny movie that allows each brother to show off their talents while following a basic plot outline so the action keeps moving. For me it wasn’t 100% successful as a comedy because some of the bits don’t quite work or are drawn out too much (Groucho and Chico’s over-elaborate reading of a contract sticks out as the worst offender), and the romantic subplot between Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle is mostly dull, but there are so many scenes that had me laughing out loud that they must be doing something right. I absolutely loved the crowded ship bunk scene, my goodness, who knew that throwing a bunch of people into one tiny room could have me in stitches. I was also very impressed with Harpo’s gymnastics at the end, some death-defying rope tricks going on there.
Though I knew the story centered around opera, somehow I didn’t realize this would be so… musical. Now, you know me, I love musicals, but I’ve never been a huge fan of opera, and I generally enjoy musicals more when the songs serve the story somewhat. Here, the prolonged serenade between Rosa and Ricardo when the ship is departing was just boring, and the multiple performances of opera numbers on stage were a bit much. I did like the impromptu sequence with Ricardo singing on the ship’s deck during some totally unexplained folk festival(?) that involved bouncy costumes and heaps of spaghetti, especially since that allowed Chico and Harpo to break out into delightful piano and harp solos, respectively. But I could have done with fewer operatic sequences, I’ll be honest. Some of them just slowed things down, and took me out of the film’s otherwise fast-paced comedy. A minor complaint though, and one that betrays my own naive preconceptions; this is a vaudevillian 1930s comedy about the opera, so really why wouldn’t it have a strong musical component?