A NIGHT AT THE OPERA: A New Era for the Marx Bros.

February 28, 2024 - 8:50am
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on A Night at the Opera were written by Lance St. Laurent, the Cinematheque’s Project Assistant and PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A DCP of A Night at the Opera will screen on Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. This screening is co-presented by the Cinematheque and Madison Opera. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

For scholars and critics, the films of the Marx Brothers represent the height of vaudevillian anarchy translated to movie screens. In their films at Paramount Studios, the brothers caused all manner of chaos and comic lunacy with almost no consideration for pesky things like plot or character. A Night at the Opera, the brothers’ 1935 classic and their first with MGM, represents a major turning point in their creative careers, and watching it in retrospect can be a somewhat bittersweet experience. It is one of the brothers’ most beloved and accomplished films, enshrined as a comedy landmark by both the AFI and the Library of Congress for its iconic comic set pieces and memorable songs—including “Alone”, a charting hit of 1936. However, it was also the beginning of the end for the esteemed funnymen, whose transition to a new studio home started with triumphant promise but was soon followed by a steady decline into formulaic and increasingly toothless comic trifles.

Real-life brothers Julius (Groucho), Adolph (Harpo), Leonard (Chico), and Herbert (Zeppo) Marx were born into a family of performers and Jewish immigrants, beginning their careers on the vaudeville stage from an early age. By the 1920s, the brothers had become a popular and highly regarded comedy troupe, well-known for their satirical and anarchic comedic sensibility that mocked the mores of upper-crust society. This was also where they each developed the comic personas for which they would become world famous screen icons. With the introduction of sound cinema in the late 1920s, the Marx Brothers were signed to a contract by Paramount Studios in hopes that their quick-witted comic repartee would translate to the talkies. The five films produced at Paramount successfully adapted the free-for-all absurdity of their stage shows into lean, loosely structured showcases for rapid-fire jokes, physical buffoonery, and goofy songs, only barely resembling traditional narratives. The last of these films, 1933’s political satire Duck Soup, was a box office flop which ended the Marx’s time at Paramount on a sour note and led to straight man Zeppo leaving the troupe, embarking on a lucrative career as a talent agent with fifth Marx brother Gummo.

With their careers in transition, the remaining trio were approached by producer Irving Thalberg about signing with MGM, who reportedly asked if three brothers would cost less than four. Despite Groucho’s characteristically pointed retort—“Don’t be silly, without Zeppo we’re worth twice as much.”—Thalberg signed the brothers, though his vision for their films would not align with the take-no-prisoners approach of their films with Paramount. At Thalberg’s insistence, A Night at the Opera began to soften the brothers’ personas and introduce a more formal narrative structure to their work. (Note that Opera is over twenty minutes longer than Duck Soup.) No longer would the brothers be equal opportunity troublemakers. Instead, the Marxes would become forces for good, aiding in the coupling of romantic heroes and limiting their buffoonish buffaloing to clear-cut villains and stodgy high society figures (including a returning Margaret Dumont, the brothers’ favorite punching bag). Thalberg’s rationale was that more story-driven films with more sympathetic brothers could appeal to a wider audience, “twice the audience with half the laughs”, a logic that the brothers, still reeling from the failure of Duck Soup, embraced with gusto.

For A Night at the Opera, at least, the adjustments made to the Marx formula proved extremely lucrative. The film was a sizable box office hit and helped extend the brothers’ film careers well into the 1940s. Critics, too, praised the film upon release. The New York Evening Post wrote, “None of their previous films is as consistently and exhaustingly funny, or as rich in comic invention and satire.” Groucho Marx himself was particularly fond of A Night at the Opera, writing in his autobiography that, of the brothers’ films, “The best two were made by Thalberg.”

Subsequent Marx films made at MGM did not fare nearly as well. The brothers’ follow-up A Day at the Races (1937) found box office success but was met with relatively tepid notices from critics. Things only got worse from there, and by the end of the 1940s, after 13 feature films, the brothers disbanded. Most historical accounts tend to place the blame for the brothers’ decline squarely on Thalberg and the MGM formula, which domesticated the brothers’ comic chaos into a more palatable mold. A Night at the Opera, though, raises questions about this long-held assumption. Opera certainly lacks some of the unbridled madness of their Paramount work, and the film’s romance plot sometimes sits awkwardly alongside the lunatic capering of the brothers, but it still showcases some of their most inspired comic bits, including a sequence set inside a crowded stateroom that remains one of their most famous. If they could produce such inspired silliness even when reined in by Thalberg, why couldn’t they keep it going? Were they truly stifled by MGM, or did the brothers—like most comedy stars—simply run out of steam?

Even taking into account their decade of decline, the Marx Brothers left behind a body of work that would be enviable for any comic performers, and A Night at the Opera remains one of their greatest highlights, despite adjustments to the formula. As with all the best Marx Brothers films, it overflows with life, energy, and comic invention that thumbs its nose at polite society and waggles its eyebrows suggestively at good taste. To watch A Night at the Opera is to immerse oneself in a film world where—to paraphrase Groucho—joy is unconfined, a place with dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor. The opera house didn’t know what hit them.