Combustible Celluloid
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With: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Walter Woolf King, Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont, Edward Keane, Robert Emmett O'Connor
Written by: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, based on a story by James Kevin McGuinness
Directed by: Sam Wood
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 11/08/1935

A Night at the Opera (1935)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Opera' Glasses

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Deep within the halls of the movie buff zone, a quiet battle has been raging for the better part of a century: which is the best Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup (1933) or A Night at the Opera (1935)? They were made a mere two years apart, and yet the difference between them is vast.

Duck Soup runs 68 minutes and looks like a low-budget B-movie. It was directed by silent-era comedy specialist, and unsung master Leo McCarey (who would go on to win two Oscars for Best Director, as well as earning several other nominations). It moves lightning fast over a seriously sketchy plot, taking all kinds of side trips and leaps of logic, and yet it manages to be a clever satire of the impulses behind war. It's so manic and frenzied and anarchic that some consider it an avant-garde film. Not even the title is ever explained onscreen. At one point, everything goes completely silent for three minutes for the famous "mirror" sequence. For these reasons and more, I am planted firmly in the Duck Soup camp.

A Night at the Opera runs 96 minutes, and was produced at MGM for a (presumably) much bigger budget. It's an A-film all the way, directed by contract man Sam Wood (The Pride of the Yankees). Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright George S. Kaufman contributed to the screenplay. The action stops several times for several dull musical numbers and an entire romantic subplot between two characters we care little about. It's glossy and opulent and very much concerned with delivering a coherent story. Moreover, Zeppo Marx -- delightfully ordinary and deadpan in Duck Soup -- is not in this one.

But the good news about A Night at the Opera, is that, despite all that other stuff, it has some of the boys' best and funniest bits, such as the "stateroom scene" and -- arguably my favorite scene of their entire output -- the "contract" scene.

The contract scene takes place mostly in one single shot, with Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) and Fiorello (Chico Marx) negotiating a contract for an up-and-coming opera singer (though Otis eventually discovers that he signed the wrong singer). The scene is filled with brilliant wordplay and a couple of bizarre lines ("you haven't got a baboon in your pocket, have ya?"), but no sight gags, nothing cynical or referential... just pure writing and delivery. What's more is that these two guys (two of five real-life brothers) managed to get the whole scene on film in a long take without breaking each other up.

Truth be told, sometimes one is simply in the mood for something slick and relaxing rather than raw and frantic. There's nothing in Duck Soup, for example, that's quite as lovely as Harpo's harp playing in A Night at the Opera. Rather than fight anymore, boys, let's sick back, have a double feature and laugh.

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