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Mondays with The Marx Brothers: A Night at the Opera (1935)

Well, with the start of a new month, it’s time for a brand new theme. October 2nd marked Groucho Marx’s 131st birthday and with that, it felt like a perfect opportunity to dive into a series I’ve been excited to tackle: Mondays with The Marx Brothers.

I grew up watching Marx Brothers movies from a very young age and the comedians have always held a particularly strong place in my pop culture consciousness. While fans of the team certainly have different movies they’re drawn to, my first viewing remains my absolute favorite, the 1935 classic: A Night at the Opera.

A Night at the Opera finds the Brothers involved in the adventures of a young opera singer (Kitty Carlisle) and her undiscovered singer paramour (Allan Jones). Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont and Walter Woolf King co-star in the movie. Sam Wood directs the film from a script by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (among others).

Historically, A Night at the Opera comes at a period of historical transition for The Marx Brothers. At this point, the Brothers worked regularly on the big screen for a little more than five years over at Paramount after initially making their name on stage. The movies made during the Paramount tenure, especially Duck Soup, continue to be remembered as all-time comedy classics.

However, in 1935, the Brothers relocated to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where they found themselves under the reins of Irving Thalberg, the studio’s ‘Boy Wonder’ Head of Production. It didn’t take long for the Marx’s movies to evolve once they arrived in their new home. The zaniness of their earlier films remained, but the unrestrained chaos of Duck Soup and The Cocoanuts was tamed a bit by the presence of a structured narrative. Suddenly there were stakes and purpose beyond the occasionally thin (but still delightful) plots of the earlier works. This time out, A Night at the Opera focuses on the love story between Rosa (Carlisle) and Riccardo (Jones), overthrowing the villainous Lassparri (King).

Of course, while there are some notable differences (most notably the absence of baby brother Zeppo), most of the recognizable pieces remained, despite the change in studio. Perhaps most importantly, Margaret Dumont rejoined the team in A Night at the Opera. The actress shines as Mrs. Claypool, a widowed opera benefactor who has eyes for Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho).

Dumont is a fascinating figure in the Marx Brothers history whose name should be far more recognized than it is. Prior to A Night at the Opera, she co-starred in The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers and Duck Soup opposite the legendary comedians. She would go on to return for At the Circus, A Day at the Races and The Big Store.

Truthfully, Dumont’s skill as a ‘straight man’ ranks among the best in the history of comedy. Her work with the Marx Brothers is legendary and the resulting interplay, particularly with Groucho Marx greatly contributes to the humor shining as it does. It is unfortunate though that so much of her legacy has been diminished in the almost sixty years since her passing. This comes from interviews– including with Groucho himself– inferring the scenes only worked because Dumont herself didn’t understand the humor. Not the character, the actress.

It’s impossible to dispute the presented facts which have been swallowed into Marx Brothers lore. In saddling Dumont with this image, any acknowledgement of her talent as a performer is removed leaving the belief she was only good because she too (like her characters) wasn’t in on the joke. It’s difficult to say why this was started, but it’s disrespectful to Dumont and frankly to the talent of the ‘straight men’ in comedy… an often thankless and tricky role for even the most talented of performers.

The humor in A Night at the Opera shows Groucho, Chico and Harpo working at the top of their powers. Wether it be the iconic stateroom scene, the negotiation of Riccardo’s contract, or the delightfully zany final sequence at the opera, there are classic sight gags throughout the film making it a must see for fans of comedy the world over.

However, A Night at the Opera also stands apart in the supporting cast. Fans of studio comedies will know how tough it can be for a supporting player in these franchise comedy works to stand apart. The characters are often bland, unmemorable or just plain stuck in the background. A Night at the Opera though strikes gold with its entire cast, but particularly Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle as the film’s young lovers.

Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle are two performers who (like Dumont) frankly never received the love they deserve. Carlisle is perhaps best known to classic game show fans as a recurring panelist on To Tell the Truth throughout the 1950s and 1960s while Jones did his best work in similar supporting roles in the operettas of the 1930s. There could have been room for both Nelson Eddy and Allan Jones, darnit.

I digress… the musical sequences (like the one above) in A Night at the Opera show just why these two are so darn good. I will admit, I’m not an opera aficionado, but I have the comedy’s soundtrack on my Spotify… specifically for these two. They have such chemistry, likability and most importantly, they don’t weigh down the story. In fact, it’s the grounded nature of these performances which helps to sell A Night at the Opera. As the story plays out, there’s suddenly stakes for The Marx Brothers. You want these two kids to come out ahead… no matter how many stuffed shirts Groucho, Chico and Harpo must embarrass to do it.

As I sat down to write this piece, I found myself stunned at just how tricky it is to write about A Night at the Opera. This movie was my first Marx Brothers comedy and it is still my absolute favorite. Just how do you go about analyzing pefection? As far as I’m concerned, this one is an essential and it should be just as well-loved as Duck Soup.

Come back next week as I return to talk about my other favorite Marx Brothers movie from the MGM era, A Day at the Races.

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