I have already noted that the number of obscure references to contemporaneous culture and current affairs in the Marx screenplays seems to be decreasing from film to film, and despite the return of Kaufman and Ryskind, surely the finest and most densely allusive wordsmiths who ever wrote for the Marxes, A Night at the Opera confirms this trend.
Nonetheless, there are still a goodly number of interesting points to be raised as we make our way through the movie, so let's begin.
0.00 - The MGM logo
All change - the Paramount mountain, with its promise of wit and sophistication, has given way to the MGM lion's imperious roar of self-approval.
Possibly some audiences will be surprised to see Leo, half-remembering that MGM specially re-shot this sequence to feature the Marxes themselves roaring (or in Harpo's case honking his horn while he mimes the roar) and with the slogan 'Ars Gratia Artis' replaced by 'Marx Gratia Marxes'.
So they did, and some sources claim with the original intention of starting the film with it, which would have been very impressive. But in the end propriety won out (oh, well) and this splendid sequence was used only in the trailer.
1:24 - "... gentleman has not arrived yet?"
Not many movies begin partway through a sentence. And A Night at the Opera is no exception - or wasn't, at least.
But the version of the film available to us today derives from a later re-issue dating from the war years, and has been somewhat over-zealously shorn of all reference to the fact that it is set in Italy. (I suppose we should be lucky that Chico's still in it.)
Among the many pointless cuts was an opening establishing sequence shot like the beginning of a Lubitsch musical, with various passers-by singing part of a song before 'passing it on' to the next person, the last of whom is the waiter, who begins the first half of his sentence as the song ends. All of this was lost, apparently for no better reason than that it makes clear that the scene is set in Milan.
It may be, however, that the bulk of the missing material has at last been found. A fuller alternative version recently discovered in a Hungarian archive, with several of the lost Italian references present and correct. Sadly, however, even this version is still lacking the introductory sequence, and begins just as ours does: with a nasty clicking noise, followed by a waiter saying "... gentleman has not arrived yet."
2:32 - "Have you got any milk-fed chicken?"
Then squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.
Not the greatest Groucho quip, perhaps, but a fortunate substitution for the one in an extant original draft script:
Groucho: Steward, do you have any French pastry?
Steward: But this is an Italian boat.
Groucho: Well then, what's the rate of exchange?
Perhaps the new version was improvised by Groucho during the pre-filming live tour (where, according to legend, the 'make that three hard-boiled eggs' was devised) and found to get a bigger laugh. Whatever, we're lucky it was changed, otherwise it would now be missing entirely, thanks to its reference to an Italian boat.
4:25 - "Mrs Claypool, Mr Gottlieb, Mr Gottlieb, Mrs Claypool..."
Note Groucho's original dining companion over Dumont's left shoulder. Obviously recovered from her anger at Groucho landing her with the bill, she is now spontaneously and charmingly amused by his foolish behaviour.
4:36 - "I just wanted to see if your rings were still there."
Almost certainly implying that Gottlieb might have cleverly stolen them. As a child, however, I interpreted it to mean that the very toxicity of his kiss had somehow corroded and disintegrated them. I think I still prefer my version.
5:14 - "He's the greatest tenor since Caruso."
Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921) was the most famous Italian tenor of the early twentieth century, hugely popular in America thanks to his pioneering commercial recordings (nearly 300) and performances at the New York Metropolitan Opera (nearly 900).
He also appeared in a few early Hollywood movies, including the Paramount release My Cousin (1918), which features him on stage performing "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci. This is the opera in which we see Lasparri performing at the beginning of the film, and the aria which Groucho sings part of later on.
Here's Caruso's recording, matched to the film sequence:
In 1906, as well as surviving the San Francisco earthquake, Caruso was charged with pinching the bottom of a married woman in the monkey house of New York's Central Park Zoo. Despite his ingenious defence - that one of the monkeys had delivered the offending goose - Caruso was found guilty and fined ten dollars.
5:15 - The all-new Harpo takes a beating
Thalberg reinvention at its most disastrous. The aim: make the team more sympathetic to women. The method: make Harpo a figure of pathos, and kill stone dead what was hitherto a delightfully funny sequence (in which he is seen to be wearing several costumes at the same time) by showing him getting the crap kicked out of him by nasty Lasparri. (Boo! Hiss!)
This is even lousy in the context of the scene itself, since it ends with Harpo returning to the room to take another going-over, the sound of which always elicits nervous and confused laughter from audiences.
8:30 - "Fiorello!" "Tony!"
Remember those writers who insist that Chico's character only pretends to be Italian? Yeah, me too.
Minnie the Moocher is a classic jazz song (first recorded in 1931) by the great Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. Like many jazz numbers of the time, it features several unabashed references to drug use: 'he showed her how to kick the gong around', 'he was cokey', etc.
The song, and live action footage of Cab performing it (apparently the earliest known film of him), was featured in a fantastic Fleischer Studios 'Talkartoon', also called Minnie the Moocher (1932), and starring Betty Boop, the most sexually desirable woman in cinema history. Like so much Fleischer animation, it has a weird, otherworldly quality, and a visual and comedic imagination entirely distinct from that of other animation studios.
14:28 - The contract scene
The last classic Chico-Groucho duologue - oh, welcome back Kaufman and Ryskind!
This is the moment when you realise that the film really is going to be taking you right back, to the beautiful, theatrical structure of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.
There's only one thing about this scene that fails to delight me, and that's the mass hysteria that the line "you can't fool me, there ain't no Sanity Claus" seems to provoke whenever the film plays in rep. It's a nice enough little joke and I have no real problem with it, but I've never understood why this odd consensus has sprung up that it's the funniest line in the piece, and must be greeted with this unanimous fake roar. It's not like you don't know it's coming, and there are so many other great lines to fixate upon:
"We had an argument and he pulled a knife on me so I shot him."
"Of course he won't be able to eat but he can live like a prince."
"You haven't got a baboon in your pocket have you?"
"I was blind for three days."
"Why can't the first part of the second party be the second part of the first party? Then you've got something."
"Well, that takes out two more clauses."
"That's all right, there's no ink in the pen anyway."
Logically, the best-known lines should get the smallest laughs, because they're the best-known lines. Shouldn't they?
The newly-found Hungarian version of the film (see 1:24, above) confirms that the jump-cuts in this sequence do, as predicted, correspond with excised references to Italy:
Chico: I'm a stranger here myself.
Groucho: Aren't you an Italian?
Chico: No, only my mama and papa is Italian.
Groucho: What's his [the tenor he wants to sign] name?
Chico: It's an Italian name. What do you care? I can't pronounce it.
It is indeed an Italian name. No amount of snipping could change the names Rudolfo Lasparri or Ricardo Baroni, and Chico of course speaks with an Italian accent throughout, making all this laborious mutilation not only destructive but utterly futile.
16:38 - "Don't you know what duplicates are?"
"Sure, those five kids up in Canada."
By 'duplicates' Chico means the Dionne quintuplets, born in Ontario in 1934, and the first quintuplets known to survive their infancy. At the time, everybody would have got the joke: the quintuplets achieved a degree of celebrity that was virtually unprecedented in the pre-Internet age. Their likenesses were featured on "framed photographs, spoons, cups, plates, plaques, candy bars, books, postcards, dolls, and much more" all available at a souvenir shop run by their mother, which also offered "stones from the Dionne farm for $0.50 that were supposed to have some magical power of fertility" (Wikipedia). They were also used to advertise Quaker Oats and other products nationally. 6000 people a day, including many top Hollywood stars, came to see them, via a special observation room at their nursery; the midwives who delivered them cashed in with a souvenir and dining stall of their own, and it was claimed in 1934 that they had brought $51000000 of tourist revenue to Ontario. As well as appearing in four Hollywood films, they are referred to in two Stooges shorts, My Man Godfrey (also written by Ryskind), Miracle of Morgan's Creek, The Women, Dumbo and an Agatha Christie novel. In the Warners cartoon The Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936), they appear in animated form, alongside the Marxes.
All of the quints were girls, and two remain alive, now aged 76.
21:08 - "Are you sure you have everything, Otis?"
"I've never had any complaints yet!"
According to a popular Groucho anecdote, recited on at least three occasions on the Dick Cavett show alone, this line proved too saucy for most state censorship boards, who cut it from the prints. Interesting if true: I didn't realise American censorship operated on a state by state basis like that. Odd that it wasn't taken out of the reissue version we have, but fortunate, needless to add.
22:40 - Alone
Surely the best non-comic song in any Marx movie, heart-rendingly performed by the luminous Kitty Carlisle.
How I look forward to this moment whenever I watch the movie at home. How I dread it (and the bit where Allan Jones joins in at 24:06 still more) whenever I watch it at the cinema.
28:03 - Groucho goes soppy
Perhaps the most audacious bit of Thalberg revisionism: Groucho becomes a real character with real interests and a soft side we'd never suspected hitherto. But I'll be damned - is this not a nice little scene?
It may not be right to have Groucho doing this, but doesn't he do it charmingly? It should be a disaster, but as anyone haunted by the bits where he sucks up to the male leads in At The Circus and The Big Store will know, you can do this sort of thing well or you can do it badly. It's a sweet little moment and somehow I don't think it spoils the mood or stunts the momentum here at all.
Many official sources, including the NFT, claim that blustery comic support actor Gilbert plays two roles in the film, including the engineer's assistant, here. This is contradicted by the evidence of the face of the actual actor, which resembles Gilbert's to the extent that it is humanoid but no further. Hard to know how these rumours get started, but you'd be surprised how many otherwise reliable sources still doggedly insist that the engineer's assistant and Gilbert are one and the same.
Gilbert does appear, of course, in the steerage banquet scene; he talks at 41:05.
37:40 - The three greatest aviators in the world
It's odd the way these characters are never referred to by name by any character in the film; even when they are announced at the official function it is simply as "the three greatest aviators in the world". But if you freeze the newspaper that reports subsequently on the Marxian debacle that ensues, you'll see that they are called the Santopoulos Brothers.
Since Lindy's big landing, aviators had figured highly among America's greatest celebrity heroes, and it is a distinctively Kaufman and Ryskind touch to let the Marx Brothers deflate some. Such a pity, though, that Zeppo wasn't around to put one of those beards on - while Ricardo is not exactly a comedy part, he gets a far bigger share of the fun than Zeppo ever did. Of course, Zeppo could just about warble a song, but he couldn't have done the opera stuff.
44:20 - Chico plays piano to an audience of cute kids
This is the first time there hasn't been something vaguely challenging or inappropriate in Chico's piano sequence. Normally his piano playing, though sure to win his audience over with sheer virtuosity, has a bloody-minded, obtuse quality. Here it's just a musical interlude, and he's mooning over a bunch of adorable moppets and they're mooning right back.
It's not exactly harmful as the film's innovations go, but it's not an improvement either, and the switch is telling. It certainly lays the groundwork for the infantilisation and emasculation of Chico's character, which will proceed at high speed from here. The other thing you notice about this solo is that it's very short, to make room for Harpo being given a comedy piano spot as well as his harp solo. Considering that it was largely through Chico's industry that the Brothers got the MGM gig in the first place, there's something rather disgraceful about the way in which he is slowly allowed to become the new Zeppo as the films progress. It starts here.
51:25 - The Harpo bondage scene
The bit with Harpo on the ropes, swinging on the outside of the ship and ending up in the bedroom of the aviators, is supposedly one of those that Sam Wood most relentlessly re-shot, to the extent that Harpo was left with rope burns and cuts. Two things to look out for though (or three if you count Harpo looking weird in a wet wig): the cartoon butterfly that emerges from one of the aviators' beards (often remarked upon with praise, but a strange and untypical joke that I've never been much keen on), and the delightful moment when Groucho, looking out of his porthole, sees Harpo and warmly greets him. There's a real feeling of fraternal affection here.
54:33 - Chico's aviator speech
Lap it up, Chico fans! Kaufman and Ryskind here provide yer man with this gloriously absurd, brilliantly funny monologue - his first since the last time they wrote for him, and pretty much the last great solo comic moment, of any kind, in his entire career. Never again, through a further seven movies and beyond, would he be funny on his own. Never again would anybody bother to write great absurdist material of this sort for him. From hereon it's a bit of expository dialogue here and there, some silly behaviour, a lot of duncey humour and some piano playing. But this is as good as Captain Spaulding's lecture:
Friends, how we happen to come to America is a great story. But I don't tell that... The first time we started, we get-a halfway across when we run out-a gasoline and we gotta go back. Then I take-a twice as much gasoline. This time we-a just about to land. Maybe three feet. When whaddya think? We run out-a gasoline again. And a-back we go again to get-a more gas. This time I take-a plenty gas. Well, we get-a halfway over when what-a you think-a happened? We forgot-a the aeroplane. So we gotta sit down and we talk it over. Then I get a great idea. We no take-a gasoline. We no take-a the aeroplane. We take a steamship! And that, friends, is how we fly across the ocean!
57:16 - Groucho and the aviators converse in their own language
This must have sounded wonderfully weird at the time; today our techno-sophisticate ears will instantly identify the sound of tape running backwards.
Here's what they're really saying:
58:40 - Harpo enters for breakfast
Note his somewhat pallid complexion here. My guess is that this is another of Sam Wood's retakes, and the powdered sugar make-up he applies at 59:26 has been on at least once already that morning.
60:15 - The adjoining rooms
Excellent extended farce, and for Kaufman and Ryskind a blatant revision of the jewel theft scene in Cocoanuts, right down to the split screen between two rooms. Again, such a shame Zeppo's not in on all this fun, though he wasn't first time round either come to think of it.
67:59 - Groucho falls down the stairs
Or rather, Driftwood does. Slow this sequence down to get a good look at the double's face. This is also the first indicator that the new Marxes would not be above basic slapstick for its own sake. From here to Mrs Dukesbury stuck in a cannon is but a skip.
69:21 - "I can't feel cheerful about being such a hoodoo to you."
"You goddamn hoodoo!" is a line from The Front Page which would certainly have been familiar to messrs K and R, but I haven't heard the insult much used elsewhere. It's a variant of voodoo, and so in this context presumably means a hex: Ricardo means that he brings Rosa bad luck.
70:02 - The Brothers camp out in Gottlieb's office
Can this scene be the inspiration for all those surely apocryphal anecdotes about the boys invading Thalberg's office, roasting potatoes in the nude and creating artificial fires and the like? Or do we think any of that really happened?
71:14 - Take Me Out To The Ball Game
The sheet music Harpo inserts into Il Trovatore, and that yields such comic dividends shortly after, is this popular 1908 number, considered "the unofficial anthem of baseball" (Wikipedia).
It was also used as the title of a 1949 MGM musical starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly and described as "MGM's gay Technicolor musical".
71:30: "Hey, Shorty - will you toss up that kelly?"
Just as you'd expect. 'Kelly' is a slang term for 'a man's stiff hat', usually a derby/bowler. The origin is, I think, unknown.
74:05 - "It's just the Tarzan in me!"
It's a funny thing, the popular culture reference lottery. Fact is that nobody reading this, probably nobody in the western world, needs me to explain who Tarzan is, why Groucho likens himself to him at this point in the film, or why he then makes that guttural cry.
e time, Tarzan was pretty
new to most people: a character in a forgotten
British novel, brought recently to the screen (by MGM, naturally) i
n a series of films fe
aturing future Standish sexpot Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane (the ape man's foxy English squeeze). So what we have here is Groucho deliberately being given a joke that helps out the home team, like all the Maurice Chevalier stuff in Monkey Buisness. No reason to have thought that audiences seventy five years on would know instantly what he means, any more than most would know why Patsy Kelly solemnly intones "Chandu!" when she hears a gong sound in one of her short films with Thelma Todd. That's the way it goes: Chandu was lost to history; Tarzan endures.
76:50 - Is this the longest delayed gookie (sorry, I mean 'Harpo face') in Marx Brothers history?
The film's nearly over! It's a good one, though.
79:50 - Harpo's acrobatics
Now, this is interesting, because it's the Brothers' first true stunt-slapstick climax. It's tempting to imagine it was something decided upon by head office with which Kaufman and Ryskind were not at liberty to tamper, other than to make the individual jokes as brilliantly funny as they so surely are. But look at it in context. It's not a mindless slapstick climax, like the finales of At The Circus or The Big Store: it's a wonderful example of Harpo's magical powers, validated by the narrative, and totally in-keeping with the Paramount Harpo, just with the freedom of MGM resources. It was the later MGM movies, taking Opera slavishly as their models, that misread the scene and just assumed that if Harpo could magically run up and down theatrical backdrops then Groucho and Chico can unicycle about in a department store. This scene, like this film, is in so many ways a glorious last hurrah, as well as the portent of an altogether less interesting new beginning.
... as glimpsed on one of the painted backdrops in the opera..
To modern British eyes at least, an odd sort of a name for a taxi service, but one that any Marx fan will instantly identify as also the name of the collection agency that wants Davis's typewriter back in Room Service.
It originates as the logo of Pinkerton's detective agency. During his Lonesome Luke years, Harold Lloyd made a film of that title in which Luke tries his hand as a detective.