Near the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen's character considers suicide until he wanders into a repertory movie theater screening of the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup and finds a reason to continue living in this crazy world. Can things really be all that bad when we can experience the Marx brothers during our journey?
But consider that the Marx brothers nearly stopped making films after the satire's commercial failure in 1933. Tiring of his straight man role, Zeppo abandoned the troupe and Paramount flatly refused to continue producing films for the Marx brothers. By 1935 the Marx brothers thought their film careers were at an end and that they were doomed to oblivion like so many other vaudeville performers. Fortuitously, expert bridge playing Chico converted his card savvy into a real coupe when he converted a relationship with MGM film mogul Irving Thalberg into a contract to make A Night at the Opera, widely acclaimed as their best film and undisputedly their biggest commercial success. With higher production values and an actual story line to frame their zany antics, slap stick, and word play, their first MGM film ranks as a "must see" classic that continues to hold up today.
Fearing Mussolini associations, Hollywood censors snipped over two minutes of establishing footage in Milan, Italy to open the film in an undisclosed dining room with wealthy matron Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). Groucho's staple straight woman, who is falsely rumored to never understand the relentless puns directed her way, Claypool anxiously waits for her non-showing dinner date. Complaining to the waiter to have Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) paged, the mustachioed swindler turns around from the behind table in one of film's great entrances and lays on the one-sided verbal slams. Alternately flattering and insulting her, Driftwood gets her to invest in the New York Opera Company:
"Don't you see, you'll be a patron of the opera. You'll get into society. Then, you can marry me and they'll kick you out of society, and all you've lost is $200,000."
Driftwood could care less about opera, as the following scene clearly establishes—he has his carriage ferry him around longer so that he doesn't have to arrive until the finale. But the opera theme allows screenwriters George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers) to fashion a love story between tenor Riccardo Baroni (Allan Jones taking on the traditional "Zeppo" straight man role) and 21 year old soprano Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle, of television I've Got a Secret fame). It also provides ample opportunities to insert MGM's famous musical set pieces, allows both mute Harpo and continually scamming Chico to display their remarkable musical talent, and serves as backdrop to the Marx brothers' comedic anarchy.
Everything you expect from a Marx brothers movie is here and more since Thalberg insisted on refining their improvised comedy with a smooth flowing storyline, to which the Marx brothers were forever grateful. He essentially rescued their careers with A Night at the Opera and their subsequent A Day at the Races by tweaking the formula without losing the essence of their comedic genius. It's not that Thalberg didn't appreciate their surrealistic brand of humor, as he fell victim to one of their most famous pranks. After promising to meet them for planning sessions in his private office over a number of days and getting sidetracked, Thalberg returned one afternoon to find the three brothers stark naked and roasting potatoes in his fireplace! That was the last time Thalberg failed to be on time for an appointment with them.
Each Marx brothers movie has memorable moments, but A Night at the Opera contains more than usual with its tighter script and more consistent laugh lines (often "market tested" on the vaudeville circuit). Among the classic moments: Groucho's perpetual jabs at Dumont, the hilarious crowded stateroom scene aboard the ship, the "sanity clause" contract tearing scene with Groucho and Chico, and Harpo's unforgettable rope swinging escapes during Verdi's Il Trovatore. If the Metropolitan staged their operas more along the lines of the Marx brothers, they'd have to open many more theaters. At least we have this wonderful film preserved forever as a guaranteed antidote for depression, and it still plays well for "normal" people of all ages. So "Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor."