Quest for the Classics: A Night at the Opera

by Tom Ingram

All the movies I’ve looked at so far in this series have been rather serious. Casablanca and Kane had some humour in them, and Strangers on a Train was hard to take seriously at times, but in general they’ve dealt with themes like murder, personal tragedy, heartbreak, and existential crises. Good movies, but hardly lighthearted entertainment.

To abruptly switch gears, today’s classic movie is one of the funniest of all time.

The Marx Brothers were vaudeville comedians before they went into movies. The kind of humour characteristic of vaudeville is lowbrow, with a lot of slapstick, ethnic stereotypes, and wordplay. The popular image of a vaudeville comedian is of someone who talks fast–if you don’t get a joke, another one comes immediately on its heels. All of this is certainly in evidence here. The first scene of this movie has about a dozen memorable lines, each one a good laugh. Groucho Marx has the best lines. He’s on a level with Oscar Wilde for the sheer number of quotes attributed to him.

The plot of this movie, if you could call it that, centres on a group of opera performers. The leading lady, Rosa, is in love with the tenor Ricardo Baroni, but she has to constantly rebuff the advances of the leading tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri, who’s a bit of an asshole. The three buffoons played by the Marx brothers are all involved with the opera company in some capacity, and they work to ruin Lassparri’s reputation and make Baroni famous.

It’s easy to see the influence of this movie on other, later forms of comedy. Chico and Harpo are especially cartoonish. Groucho’s fast speech and penchant for messing with stuffed shirts is reminiscent of Bugs Bunny. He even says “of course you know this means war!”

It's a long story

The Marx Brothers’ earlier films were less structured and more madcap, but when they switched studios to MGM, their new producer insisted on a stronger plot. A Night at the Opera has been criticized for this, but I think it works better. They’re funny enough that they don’t need a plot to make a passable movie, but it does add a lot.

It might seem odd to go this deep into a Marx Brothers movie, but bear with me. Harpo and Chico’s characters are so stupid, and Groucho’s so unpleasant, that they’re almost otherworldly. With their strange costumes, small stature, and overall funny look, they don’t seem like they belong in the world of the rest of the characters. Instead of simply messing around with people for the hell of it, their antics are mostly directed at people who deserve it. When they pull pranks on unsuspecting innocents, it’s usually something harmless.

They could be seen as instruments of divine retribution. This type of character dates back at least as far as that original vaudeville writer William Shakespeare. The parallels between these characters and Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing may or may not be intentional, but they’re too similar to ignore.

That is what makes the plot so satisfying. At the end of the movie, the opera house is a mess and the show is ruined (albeit in an awesome way). But the romantic leads are together, and the villain has been properly humiliated, and the Marx Brothers’ characters have been rewarded for their efforts. The anarchic shenanigans of the Marx Brothers are directed at someone who clearly deserves it, with an apparent goal in mind. There’s a low point in the movie where everything seems lost, which makes the ending even more effective. We’re left with the feeling that the Marx Brothers’ intervention has left the world a slightly better place.

Shakespearean or otherwise, this is a perfect comedy. It was made by a trio of masters whose skill at the craft of humour will never be matched.

Moments to watch for: The scene on the boat where Chico plays the piano. He’s not pulling a Sam. He was actually that good.

Quotes: Quite a lot. This movie is chock full of great one-liners. I won’t give away every single joke, but here are some good ones.

Groucho’s chivalry while dining with a lady: “Let me see that. 9 dollars and 40 cents? This is an outrage. If I were you I wouldn’t pay it.”

While talking about the salary for an opera singer: “You’re willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of Minnie the Moocher for 75 cents. And for a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie.”

Chico, after being told about the “sanity clause” in Ricardo’s contract: “You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Claus.”