When I first saw the Marx Brothers I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. I preferred Laurel and Hardy (I still do), or even Abbott and Costello (a grave mistake). Part of the trouble was that, every time I went to see a Marx Bros epic, the audience laughed so much that I couldn’t hear more than a quarter of the verbal gags. At that time, just after the second world war, they were so popular amongst the intelligentsia they often mocked that you almost took against them.
I now know better. And the only question is whether one goes for the anarchic, if more awkward, Paramount movies like Monkey Business and Duck Soup, certain masterpieces of anti-bourgeois insanity, or the smoother, music-oriented MGM films like A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Most aficionados prefer the Paramount films; these hardly enhanced but seldom interfered with the Brothers’ comedy. One American critic wrote that the films never did the Marx Brothers justice.
But A Night at the Opera is marginally my choice, because it was the film that changed all that, as producer Irving Thalberg fulfilled his promise to make “a big-time act using small-time material” into big time all the way.
“Don’t worry about a thing”, Thalberg said to Harpo, “You get me the laughs and I’ll get you the story”. He insisted that they took the show out on the road as a stage attraction in order to hone it to perfection. The famous stateroom scene, in which the brothers and several passengers pack into one small ship’s bedroom, became a classic as a result: apparently no one laughed until it had been embellished by the Brothers on stage with a series of ad-libs that were eventually added to the script.
The film has several amazing sequences – notably the contract-tearing farrago between Groucho and Chico, and the crazy finale in which Harpo does a Tarzan act on the flyropes perfectly in time with Verdi’s music. Its level of invention is high from the moment Harpo fences with the starchy opera-house conductor, misleading the orchestra until the overture to Il Trovatore turns into a rousing rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, while Groucho paces the stalls selling peanuts.
Despite the sentimental songs from Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, who also provide the unlikely romance, the assaults on grand opera are at least as icono clastic as anything the dadaists committed to the screen earlier. Bunuel, for one, loved them. Considering this was an MGM super-production it seems a miracle that Thalberg permitted it to be sabotaged so thoroughly. His successors did not, and the Brothers found themselves adrift in MGM movies that did them scant justice.
You could say that the Brothers’ humour was often cruel and defiantly misogynist. But they laid the ground for the Pythons and others to till, and their nose-thumbing at proprieties shows Jewish-American humour at its most original. There’s the scene when Harpo climbs through a porthole into the cabin of a liner where three bearded men are sleeping. He picks up a pair of scissors with his eyes alight, lifts a beard and a butterfly flutters out. What is this if it isn’t surreal?