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‘A Night at the Opera’ at 80: An Experiment in Compromise

‘A Night at the Opera’ at 80: An Experiment in Compromise

By 1935, the Marx Brothers already had five movies to add to their already extensive Broadway and Vaudeville resume, among them the legendary Duck Soup and the near-classics Animal Crackers and Monkey Business. As we’ve often seen, however, some of our most beloved Hollywood favorites flopped upon first release. 1933’s Duck Soup, specifically, was the last of a five-picture deal the Brothers had at Paramount, and its commercial failure would spell a parting of the ways between the studio and the iconic comedy team.

Enter Irving G. Thalberg, the wunderkind who helped build MGM into a powerhouse. Perhaps best known today for the namesake honor given to producers at each year’s Academy Awards, Thalberg left an indelible mark on Hollywood before his untimely death in 1937 at the age of 36. In addition to launching such innovations as the first production code and the use of audience response questionnaires to hone or even reshoot movies in progress, he had an uncanny knack for identifying great material (he was nominated for 13 Best Picture Academy Awards in 10 years, winning three) and talent (he brought Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and the Barrymores to the screen, among others).

When Thalberg met the Marxes, they were in need of guidance to restart their movie career, and he wanted to try his magic touch at comedy, never MGM’s strong suit. Both sides were game, but this match made in heaven almost didn’t occur: Thalberg was known for making people wait outside his office while he took meetings elsewhere on the studio lot. The second time he pulled this stunt with the Brothers, they broke into his office, and he returned several hours later to find them sitting – completely naked – around his fireplace, roasting potatoes. He never kept them waiting again.

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American movie audiences were getting more sophisticated, Thalberg argued, and wanted more than just freewheeling, anarchic humor of the style the Marx Brothers had mastered on the Vaudeville stage. It was why their last few films had floundered at the box office, he believed. His stated mission behind the new film, which seems unthinkable of the team’s legacy, was “twice the box office with half the laughs.” A Night at the Opera would be unlike anything the Brothers had done before: a film with a structured narrative, a cast that would feature popular singers Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle as well as add new villain Sig Ruman to regular Marx comic foil Margaret Dumont, and a budget that would allow for the kind of glossy, showy spectacle MGM was known for. Each of their films for Paramount had at least one brief musical number, but Opera would feature several original songs as well as a few scenes from the opera Il Trovatore. It would also mark the Brothers’ first film without Zeppo, their built-in straight man, who had moved on to a career as a theatrical agent. His duties in the film would fall to romantic lead Jones, which meant MGM could cut the team’s salary as well. In short, the Marx Brothers were getting dressed up and trotted out to headline a topline, classy entertainment.

George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who’d written the stage versions of the Marxes’ first two films, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, drafted a screenplay. Long before cameras rolled, the boys hit the theatrical circuit with the material, testing the scenes to see which jokes worked and which didn’t, and perfecting the timing of delivery to account for audience laughter. By the time production began in June 1935, A Night at the Opera was field tested and ready to go.

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The finished product is precisely what Thalberg had intended: a Marx Brothers comedy dressed up with fancy trimmings. The boys deliver some classic moments, including the scene in which more and more people pack into an impossibly tiny stateroom, and the contract negotiation between Chico and Groucho that gave us “You can’t fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause.” But they also become sympathetic characters as they work to unite lovers Jones and Carlisle. “The audience was in our corner,” Groucho Marx later reflected. “This is exactly what Thalberg wanted.” The romantic leads sing the original tune “Alone,” Chico, Jones, and Harpo lead a peasant singalong to “Cosi-Cosa,” and Verdi’s opera gets plenty of screen time (as well as a good amount of ribbing). The film was released in November to critical acclaim and, to Thalberg’s relief, $3 million at the box office (more than $88 million when adjusted for inflation).

Hoping to build on Opera’s success, the same team assembled a year later for A Day at the Races, which was virtually the same film, only set at a sanitarium and neighboring race track. It proved an even greater success, grossing $4 million. After that Thalberg’s magic formula seems to have lost its steam. Although he died during production on Races, MGM used his basic template for three more pictures. But whether public tastes were changing again, or fans were just longing for the earlier hijinks of undiluted Marx Brothers, their remaining films for the studio, At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941), were lifeless imitations. Poorly received by critics and the public, there’s not a single moment in any of them that stands out as classic.

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Fans and film historians split on what Opera did for the Marx Brothers’ legacy. While inarguably a classic that gave them a new life on the silver screen and the advantage of MGM’s lavish production values, it also gave them less screen time and toned down the frenetic gag-a-minute pace that made them beloved in the first place. Elaborate set pieces replaced moments of anarchy, lechery, and even surrealism that set them apart from other screen comedy teams. Seen through the veil of history, Opera (and, to a lesser degree, A Day at the Races) stand apart from the five Paramount films. Excellent, yes, but of a different style. Thalberg had indeed given the Marx Brothers a new maturity. But as the diminishing returns of the later films demonstrate, maturity is perhaps the last thing audiences wanted from the Marx Brothers.