Monday Movie: A Night at the Opera, by David Bax
It is my completely unscientific observation that most people’s favorite Marx Brothers movie is either Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera. Out of a sense of loyalty stemming from it being my first, I’ll probably always fall into the Duck Soup camp. But, for a multitude of reasons, A Night at the Opera is a singular film with plenty of claim to the crown.
To start with, it’s the first Zeppo-less Marx Brothers movie and his presence goes so completely unmissed, it actually became the inspiration for a stellar season three episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It also marked a change in the brothers’ style; not only does it hew closer to a coherent narrative (helped by director Sam Wood, not known for comedies at the time), it also depicts the Marxes only being mischievous toward those who deserve it instead of spreading their chaos indiscriminately.
There’s also lots of fascinating lore surrounding the film, from the brothers’ apparently contentious relationship with Wood to the reportedly excised opening sequence set in Italy (the rumor is that MGM chose to remove any reference to the Axis power). No shred of this opening exists today but the movie’s abrupt start certainly gives credence to the theory of its having been there.
Most importantly, though, A Night at the Opera has a bevy of good parts, which is good since most Marx Brothers movies are remembered as a collection of the good parts. Here, we have the iconic sequence with a dangerously overcrowded stateroom on a luxury liner as well as perhaps my favorite Groucho Marx line of all time. Under suspicion of hiding wanted men in his hotel room, the inspector accusingly observes, “I notice the table’s set for four.” Groucho replies, “That’s nothing. My alarm clock’s set for eight. That doesn’t prove a thing.”
I also prefer Duck Soup because the Marx brothers are better suited to being anarchic forces of chaos for everyone around them rather than targeting the “deserving”. Also, there are more jokes and fewer boring subplots with the non-comedic characters.