When Zeppo left the Marx Brothers team, MGM producer Irving Thalberg wanted to pay the remaining brothers less, but Groucho responded that without Zeppo, they were worth twice as much. You can judge for yourself when The News-Gazette Film Series presents “A Night at the Opera” at 1 and 7 p.m. this Saturday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.
“A Night at the Opera” (1935) was the Marx Brothers’ first film without Zeppo, who had decided he did not like always playing the act’s straight man and became an agent instead. It was also their first film for MGM. They had left Paramount after bitter contract negotiations with the studio and the disappointing box office for 1933’s “Duck Soup” (hard as that might be to believe today).
Inveterate gambler Chico reportedly negotiated their move to MGM with his friend Thalberg over a bridge game. Thalberg gave them a top-notch crew behind the camera (with the exception of director Sam Wood, who did not understand humor) and let them work their way through a dozen writers, ending with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, both of whom they’d worked with before on either the stage or film versions of “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.” And to test the material, he sent the Marx Brothers on a five-city tour, trying out bits for the film; the ones that got the biggest laughs stayed in.
Thalberg also gave them new direction and structure. Instead of being always on the attack (which he thought made them less sympathetic for audiences), here, they actually help young lovers Riccardo Barone (Allan Jones) and Rosa Castaldi (Kittie Carlyle) get together as a couple and also become the stars of their opera company.
In earlier Marx Brothers films, opera would have come under constant assault as an icon of high culture, wealth and the upper classes. Here, Chico and Harpo do disrupt an overture with an impromptu baseball game in the orchestra, and a wild police chase runs through and over a scene from “Il Trovatore.” But the film ends with a straightforward aria encore by Riccardo and Rosa, which crowns the opera’s pummeled performance.
Chief targets of the Marx Brothers do come from the opera world, but they clearly deserve what they get. Impresario Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) has the effrontery to court wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, of course) and her money, both of which Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho, of course) had seen first. Gottlieb also backs up his star tenor, Rudolfo Lassparri (Walter King), when he wants Rosa fired for rejecting his advances. Lassparri does even worse: He assaults his dresser, Tomasso (Harpo), and even whips him. Seeing Harpo lashed out of Lassparri’s dressing room and tumbling helplessly into the hall comes as a shock — it’s probably the most direct violence inflicted on a Marx Brother in any of their films that does not immediately get laughed off.
The film contains at least three Marx Brothers classic bits. Sketchy would-be entrepreneur Driftwood and Riccardo’s self-appointed manager, Fiorello (Chico), discuss Riccardo’s contract and tear out clauses they don’t like until the only thing left is the Sanity Clause, but as Fiorello objects, “There ain’t no Sanity Clause.” (Since contracts keep resurfacing throughout the film, you have to wonder if their rancorous contract disputes with Paramount were still on their minds during this filming.)
And then there’s Driftwood’s already-cramped ocean-liner cabin, which winds up stuffed with 15 people, several meals and 28 eggs until Mrs. Claypool opens the door and they all come tumbling out.
Harpo also has a literally swinging romp backstage during the opera as police pursue him through the flies hanging over the stage, sending random bits of scenery down around Lassparri as he tries to sing. In later interviews, Harpo claimed to have done most of his own stunts here, though he admitted he should probably have left them to trained stuntmen.
Also giving genuine performances were Kittie Carlyle and Allan Jones, who did their own singing. Carlyle had to argue with Thalberg for her own voice to be used, and her and Jones’ singing helped make the film a hit. The song “Alone” became a signature tune for both of them in subsequent years.
Note: Although Zeppo always played the straight man for his brothers and left acting after five films, his brothers regarded him as the funniest brother. On the stage, he understudied all of them and reportedly could do the Groucho character better than Groucho himself.