A brisk 91-minute comedy-musical, 1935’s A Night at the Opera is really just a showcase for the Marx brothers, in particular Groucho, and their comedy stylings.
Let me start by saying that the plot of this movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. Otis Driftwood (played by Groucho) is some sort of high-society clown who helps a woman named Mrs. Claypool invest $200K in the opera (which, without doing a ton of inflation-calculator work, was a heck of a lot of money in 1935). The film starts out in Italy, with Mrs. Claypool helping New York opera kingpin Herman Gottlieb bring the sensational opera star Rudolfo Lassparri to New York by paying him $1,000 per night. Lassparri is in love with his co-star in Italy, Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) but she is in love with Riccardo Barone, a bit player in Italian Opera. Lassparri arranges for Rosa to accompany him to New York, but Riaccardo is to be left behind. He and two quirky stagehands (the other two Marx brothers) wind up stowing away in Driftwood’s luggage and lots of mayhem ensues on the way to New York. The stowaways are ultimately discovered after poorly impersonating three aviators who were on the ship, but they are not caught and they bunk up in Driftwood’s place in New York, where they continue to craftily elude the police (apparently from being charged with illegal immigration). Driftwood is fired from his role at the opera as it becomes apparent that he has been helping out the stowaways. Lassparri dumps Rosa as his co-lead after leaning that she is still in love with Riccardo. On opening night at the opera, Otis, Riccardo and the two stage hands (named Fiorellio and Tomasso) crash the party, cause lots of problems with the staging and ultimately kidnap Lassparri, leaving Gottlieb no choice but to put Riccardo out there with Rosa to finish the show. The movie ends with Riccardo and Rosa signing a contract with the opera, with Driftwood helping them negotiate the contract.
Got all that? As a story, it’s beyond absurd. But what saves this film is the Marx brothers. Groucho’s one-liners are hilarious, like a far superior version of Rodney Dangerfield. The slap-sticky stylings of Chico and Harpo remind me a lot of the best material that The Three Stooges did. It’s frankly shocking how well jokes from an 85 year old movie hold up in 2020. It is, in a word, hilarious and the movie zips right along, unlike a lot of films from that era.
Drawbacks? Sure. The plot makes no sense. The characters are sort of paper-thin without any complexity or nuance to the roles that they play. There are some big musical numbers in the middle of the film which seem completely out of place with both the pacing and the aesthetic of the rest of the film. The film definitely doesn’t cause you to think about anything deep or see the world differently. But the fact that I kept laughing, makes me forgive those facts. Lots of great comedies have these sorts of shortcomings, but they are still great because, they are, you know, really funny.
There are criminally few comedies on the AFI list and I can see why this one was included. A comedy that is still laugh-out-loud funny 85 years after it is made is worth honoring. I doubt that The Hangover (which, for the record, I adore) will have the same kind of resonance in 2094 that A Night at the Opera has today.
Production Quality 8/10
Rewatch Value 9/10
Total Score 34/40
Next up, 1969’s Easy Rider.