“Ocean Liners on Screen” is a brilliant idea for a film series, and it begins today and continues through Tuesday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. A Night at the Opera screens today at 5, and tomorrow morning at 10:30.
Directed by Sam S. Wood (who? Exactly) and, more to the point, produced by Irving Thalberg, A Night at the Opera, from 1935, is the Marx Brothers’ Maginot line: an elaborate structure constructed in hopes of avoiding the decline that inevitably followed.
Their loose-limbed, thrillingly anarchistic Paramount films had just peaked with Duck Soup when the box office flop of that masterpiece sent them scurrying to MGM, primed for grooming by prestige-happy Thalberg. Instinctively allergic to authority and entitlement, the brothers only bent over so far even for the Boy Wonder: After Thalberg made them wait for him once too often, he returned to his office to find himself locked out while the brothers sat inside, naked, roasting potatoes in his showy fireplace.
But MGM’s conventional plots and creamy production values eventually proved too much for the brothers, drowned them in a tub of canned corn, and the first few niblets started falling here. This is one of those movies that’s best seen at home, where you can fast-forward through the bit where Harpo and Chico play piano and harp for a crowd of condescendingly exalted salt-of-the-earth types in steerage, the camera ogling kitschily costumed cherubs who materialize to smile fixedly for the camera. And then there are all the sappy looks and highbrow warblings exchanged by teddibly sweet young Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and her hunky beau, Ricardo (Allan Jones). They’ll give your fast-forwarding finger a workout, since the plot revolves around Rosa and Ricardo and their thwarted romance/musical ambitions. (They just want to duet, you see, both onstage and off, but they keep getting thwarted by the evil star of their opera company.)
That effectively makes the Marx brothers supporting characters in their own movie, but their old pals George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ruskind give them plenty to do around the edges. Kaufman and Ruskind’s screenplay is full of brilliantly absurdist exchanges (“You remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips. Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you,” Groucho croons to Margaret Dumont in the opening scene), and the brothers’ horseplay occasionally erupts into the kind of choreographed chaos they did as well as anyone ever has, before or since. One of the best scenes in the movie, in which all three wake up in one hotel room, floats above the rest of the film like a blimp, with only a tenuous connection to the plot. The brothers seem loose and relaxed as they run through a series of farcical bits, starting with a breakfast at which Groucho watches in awe while Harpo eats everything in sight. (“He’s half goat,” Chico shrugs.) “You know, I’ve been looking forward to this breakfast. I’ve been waiting all morning,” Groucho says to nobody in particular, eyeing Harpo with a half-apprehensive, half-delighted fascination that looks unrehearsed.
The classic stateroom scene is in this movie, and it’s a classic not because of how many people are crammed into Groucho’s cramped cabin, all determined to accomplish whatever they came there to do, though that is pretty funny. What makes it great is how Harpo sleeps through the madness, winding up on a catering tray like a crowd-surfing stoner, while Groucho keeps welcoming more people in, as unflappably polite and bemused as the Dalai Lama.
The film ends with another prolonged sight gag as Harpo wreaks havoc backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, ruining the evil singer’s debut. Slashing his way down backdrops like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. riding his sword down a sail in Sinbad, Harpo’s impeccable timing and simian agility are genuinely impressive, but where they were always the point with Fairbanks, they’re just a lagniappe here. The real joy of this scene is in watching Harpo demolish the pious production onstage. It’s an exhilarating display of the triumph of the (un)common man.
If only he could have done the same thing in that steerage scene…