A Night at the Opera (film)

A Night at the Opera is a 1935 comedy film starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Walter Woolf King, Siegfried Rumann and Margaret Dumont. It was the first film the Marx Brothers made for MGM after their departure from Paramount, and the first without Zeppo. The movie was adapted by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Al Boasberg (uncredited) and Buster Keaton (uncredited) from a story by James Kevin McGuinness. It was directed by Sam Wood.

In 1993, A Night at the Opera was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It is also included in the 2007 update of AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies, at number 85.

Plot and memorable scenes

In A Night At the Opera, the Marx brothers help two young lovers to succeed in love as well as in the opera world. Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) is hired by widowed socialite hopeful Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to help her break into high society, but he instead alternately woos and insults her. At the last opera performance of the season in Italy, of Pagliacci, Otis meets Fiorello (Chico Marx), who is the best friend and manager of Riccardo (Allan Jones), an opera singer who longs for his big break and who is in love with fellow opera singer Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). However, Riccardo's dreams are thwarted by the star of the opera, Lasspari (Walter Woolf King), an egotistical man who wants fame — and Rosa — for himself. Otis signs Riccardo to a contract, thinking he is signing Lasspari; Lasspari, meanwhile, is signed for the New York opera by snobbish financier Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman).

Although Riccardo and Fiorello are not allowed to accompany the troupe on their trip to New York, they manage to stow away on the ship, along with another of Fiorello's friends, Tomasso (Harpo Marx), a dresser fired by Lasspari. Once in New York, the stowaways are pursued by the police for entering the country illegally, and Otis ends up losing his position with the opera to Gottlieb. When they find out that Rosa has been fired for siding with Riccardo, the boys spring into action, sabotaging the opening night performance by throwing it into total chaos and making sure that both Riccardo and Rosa get their due as the news hits of the opera world.

Selected scenes

  • Driftwood plans a rendezvous with Mrs. Claypool in his stateroom; then he finds out how small it is, and that he, his trunk, and the bed barely fit in it. Fiorello insists on getting something to eat ("We getta food or we don't go"). So Driftwood calls a steward ("I say, Stew") and orders dinner.

Driftwood: And two medium-boiled eggs.
Fiorello: (inside room): And two hard-boiled eggs.
Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs.
Tomasso: (inside room): (honk)
Driftwood: Make that three hard boiled eggs.

This continues until Fiorelo and Tomasso have ordered about a dozen hard-boiled eggs and Driftwood has ordered about everything else--including coffee to sober up some stewed prunes. However, this is just to set the viewer up for the famous "Stateroom Scene", which sees a total of 15 people in Driftwood's tiny ship's cabin, already containing a bed and a big wardrobe trunk. It is one of the most famous comedy scenes of all time, and was designed in part by Buster Keaton.

The scene starts with Driftwood finding out that Fiorello, Tomasso and Riccardo Baroni managed to sneak onto the boat by stowing away in his steamer trunk. Fiorello and Tomasso have to hide out in the room while a parade of people walk in, asking to either use their cabin for something, or to perform their appointed tasks. Crammed into this little space at the end of the scene were: Driftwood, Fiorello, Tomasso, Baroni, two cleaning ladies, a manicurist, a ship's engineer and his heavy-set assistant, a girl looking for her aunt, and four waiters with trays of food (prompting Driftwood's classic line: "Is it my imagination, or is it getting crowded in here?"). The mass of humanity tumbles out into the hallway when Mrs. Claypool opens the door.

  • The contract scene between Driftwood and Fiorello ("the party of the first part ..."):

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause, that's in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don't know...
Driftwood: It's all right. That's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!

  • The actual sabotaging of the opera while being pursued by the police and theater staff, in which numerous things are done to Verdi's Il Trovatore, all in the attempt to substitute Riccardo for Lasspari onstage.



A change in style

At the suggestion of producer Irving Thalberg, the film marked a change of direction in the brothers' career. In their Paramount films, the brothers' characters were much more anarchistic: they attacked anybody who was so unfortunate to cross their paths whether they deserved it or not, albeit comically. Thalberg, however, felt that this made the brothers unsympathetic, particularly to female filmgoers. So in the MGM films, the brothers were recast as more helpful characters, saving their comic attacks for the villains.

Though some Marx Brothers fans were appalled at these changes, Thalberg was vindicated when the film became a solid hit. It helped that the film contained some of what fans consider to be the brothers' funniest routines. These routines were honed on stage, as the brothers performed the new material on the road before filming began.

However, according to Oscar Levant, the first preview was a "disaster", with "hardly a laugh" as was the second. Thalberg and George S. Kaufman spent days in the editing room, adjusting the timing to match the rhythm of a stage performance. About 9 minutes was cut from the running time, and the result was a hit.


True to its title, the film actually includes some real opera scenes, especially from Il Trovatore, with a duet sung by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. The opera setting also allowed MGM to add big production song numbers (which were one of this studio's specialties), such as the song Alone with the departure of the steamship, and the song Cosi Cosa with the Italian buffet and dancing.

When Rosa sings in any of the musical numbers, including the opera scenes, Kitty Carlisle recorded the tracks. She did not want someone else's voice coming out of her mouth on screen.


The film was to have originally begun with each of The Marx Brothers taking turns roaring in lieu of Leo the Lion (MGM's logo mascot); Harpo Marx was to have honked his horn. For reasons unexplained, this unique, amusing opening was not utilized for the actual film, although it would turn up years later in a re-release trailer.

According to MGM's dialogue cutting continuity and Leonard Maltin's audio commentary on the current DVD release, the film originally began (after the opening credits) with the image of a "boat on canal." A superimposed title reads: "ITALY - WHERE THEY SING ALL DAY AND GO TO THE OPERA AT NIGHT." What follows is a musical number featuring bits and pieces from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci performed by "everyday" Italians. A street sweeper sings part of the prologue ("Un nido di memorie...") as he greets a man who then hands out opera tickets to a group of children emerging from a store; the kids respond with "la-la-la-la-la, verso un paese strano" (from "Stridono lassù"). A "captain" comes down a set of steps, salutes a sentry, then bursts into "Vesti la giubba." There's a lap dissolve to a hotel lobby, where a "baggage man" is rolling a trunk and crooning about "nettare divino" (divine nectar). He's joined in song by a waiter who then enters the dining room, where he sings as he serves a man who also gets in a few notes. The waiter then crosses over to speak to Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), marking the beginning of the film in existing copies. Maltin (citing Joe Adamson's book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo says the scene was cut during World War II to remove references to Italy, and unfortunately, the main negative was cut as well, so the scene is now lost. This was why the stated running time of the movie (95 minutes) was three minutes longer than it is now.

A persistent rumor concerning A Night at the Opera involves the presence of the Marx Brother's father Sam Marx (also known as "Frenchy") on the ship and also on the dock waving goodbye. Both Groucho and Harpo stated this rumor in their memoirs, and even Leonard Maltin reiterates it in the DVD commentary. However, this rumor cannot be true, because Sam Marx had died in 1933, during pre-production of Duck Soup — two years before A Night at the Opera was released. The rumor came about because Frenchy had had a similar cameo appearance in the Marx Brothers' earlier film Monkey Business. Incidentally, part of the concept of having the Marx Brothers as stowaways on a ship was recycled from Monkey Business. Also, there is a reference to the Marx Brothers's mother Minnie Marx during the stateroom scene, in which a woman asks: "Is my Aunt Minnie in here?"

Hidden material

In the scene where the three stowaways are impersonating Russian aviators, Driftwood seems to talk gibberish with the dignitaries. As a matter of fact, it is English; if played backwards, it can be heard what they are saying ("This man is accusing you of being impostors", etc.). It was recorded normally, and inserted into the movie in reverse.

Reputation and legacy

Today, A Night at the Opera is widely regarded as a classic and is arguably (along with Duck Soup) the Marx Brothers' greatest film. As of December 31, 2007, the film scores a 97% "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Internet reviews suggest that the film is "a very funny movie slowed down by MGM’s expensive production values and idiotic songs." Ken Hanke calls it "hysterical, but not up to the boys’ Paramount films." Mark Bourne concurs: "[The Marx Brothers] still let the air out of stuffed shirts and barbecue a few sacred cows, but something got lost in all that MGMness when the screen's ultimate anti-authoritarian team starting working the Andy Hardy side of the street."

Roger Ebert admits that, while A Night at the Opera "contains some of their best work," he "fast-forward[s] over the sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In Duck Soup there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end."

Danel Griffin says: "A Night at the Opera is funny, but this is NOT the Marx Brothers, and their earlier style is so sorely missed that the film falls flat. The main problem with A Night at the Opera is the obvious lack of the Marx Brothers’ trademark anarchy. What distinguished them in their Paramount films from all other comedians was their thumb-biting indictment of society.

Cultural references

  • The film's script is credited as the basis for the 1992 film Brain Donors, produced by David Zucker and Jerry Zucker of Airplane! and The Naked Gun fame.
  • The British rock group Queen later paid homage to this film by naming one of their most famous albums after it (see A Night at the Opera).
  • The British punk band The Damned used Chico's quote ("There ain't no sanity clause") as a title for a 1980 single (see "There Ain't No Sanity Clause").
  • Cyndi Lauper featured a similar overcrowded stateroom gag in her music video for the song "Girls Just Want To Have Fun".
  • Sting also recreated the overcrowded stateroom gag in his music video for the 1991 song "All This Time".
  • The Warner Bros. animated show Animaniacs also paid homage to the stateroom gag in the short "Hercule Yakko".
  • Detective Comics 826 pays homage to this movie. In it The Joker captures Tim Drake, the third Robin and takes him on a mad spree in a car, running over anyone they encounter over the Christmas season. When the Joker plans to kill a street Santa Claus, Robin distracts him by saying "You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Claus." The Joker laughs and the two get in an argument over which Marx Brothers film the gag is from, with Robin claiming it is from The Big Store. The Joker is distracted long enough for Robin to punch him out and escape.
  • Though not one room, Mr. Mom also paid an homage to the stateroom gag in the finale.
  • In the Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, a scene almost identical to the stateroom scene occurs in the Martin's closet.
  • At the end of the movie The Freshman, Rodolfo Lasspari is the alias used on Matthew Broderick's passport.
  • An 8th season episode of Seinfeld titled "The Pothole" features a homage to the stateroom scene in which the four main characters all cram into a small janitor's closet that Elaine is using to get Chinese food delivered; they all end up spilling out after Kramer spills ammonia.

Musical numbers

  • "Di Quella Pira" (from Il Trovatore)
  • "Miserere" (from Il Trovatore)
  • "Alone"
  • "Santa Lucia"
  • "All I Do Is Dream of You"
  • "Cosi-Cosa"
  • "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"
  • "Anvil Chorus" (from Il Trovatore)
  • "Stride la vampa" (from Il Trovatore)
    • "Di quella Pira" (from Il Trovatore)
  • "Stridono lassù" (from Pagliacci)

See also




  • Elisabeth Buxbaum: Veronika, der Lenz ist da. Walter Jurmann – Ein Musiker zwischen den Welten und Zeiten. Mit einem Werkverzeichnis von Alexander Sieghardt. Edition Steinbauer, Wien 2006, ISBN 3-902494-18-2

External links

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