Wednesday, October 29, 2014

AFI Top 100: #85 "A Night at the Opera"

Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx w/ cast in A Night at the Opera (1935)

I feel like I should preface this review by stating upfront that I am in no way a Marx Bros. aficionado. I watched their films as a child, but frankly, I remember them most (Harpo specifically) from that famous I Love Lucy episode. That being said, there are themes across their thirteen total films as a "comedy troupe" that I am just not familiar with. And that's okay!

The #85 spot on AFI's Top 100 list is filled by the 1935 Marx Bros. classic, A Night at the Opera. This isn't the only film of theirs on this list (Duck Soup comes in higher on the countdown at #60), but like Swing Time, it feels like a purposeful, debatably necessary, inclusion to represent this zany brand of 1930s comedy.

A Night at the Opera features brothers Groucho, Chico, and Harpo—it is the first Marx Bros film to not feature straight-man brother Zeppo. As a result, the brothers (whose characters aren't related in the movie) make every effort to go—unchecked—off the sanity rails every chance they get. The story begins in Italy with Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) working as the business manager to a wealthy woman. He promises her fame and notoriety by convincing her to invest a vast sum of money in the New York Opera Company so they can recruit the amazing Italian tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri.

Chico plays Fiorello, best friend and manager to an unknown chorus tenor in Lassparri's company, who learns that Lassparri may be recruited to New York. With the help Lassparri's recently fired costumer, Tomasso (Harpo), Fiorello pushes to sabotage the famous tenor while simultaneously rising the stars of his friend and the soprano that he loves. During the process, they get entangled with Driftwood, who facilitates most of the riotous comedy (the pile of people in the cruise liner suite, the contract negotiations, the hotel furniture reorganization... the list goes on and on!)

Phew! Alright, let me just say, the plot doesn't really matter. The brothers' respective characters come together in an epic battle of anarachy, causing havoc, destruction, humiliation, and laughs in Italy, on an Atlantic cruise liner, and then, of course, at the New York Opera Company. They are oblivious to their own insanity and are completely undeterred by the ramshackled ruins around them. That is the plot of this film, and pretty much most of their other ones too, in one way or another.

That is what I just can't gel with. There is so much humor, and the brothers, particularly Groucho, are so sharp and witty, even when the jokes are absurd... but as a personal preference, I find it incredibly difficult to withstand their complete disregard of others.

Wow. That sounds so snobbish. What I mean is that for people who are particularly empathetic (i.e. internalize everything), watching the Marx brothers destroy everything that people have worked so hard for causes me an unprecedented amount of anxiety. Similarly to Mr. Bean or National Lampoon, it's a style of comedy I've found that I can't really handle. I end up feeling bad for everyone involved!

That being said, I think that the Marx Brothers are brilliant. So many scenes are improvised, and I love that the scripts were written so simply, like "Harpo enters a room. Something funny happens." because you know that, as comedians, they are unparalleled. They can play off of each other, improvising in a way that no one else could ever hope to, and it creates the most unique brand of comedy.

There are calm moments in A Night at the Opera, which I needed. Chico, as a pianist, and Harpo, as a harpist, calm the shenanigans on the cruise liner, and give the audience a break from laughing. While this movie makes me anxious, it also impresses me in a way I have difficulty describing. They are so exceptional, but I'd be lying if I said I'd been a life-long fan of their work.

I believe the placement of this film on the list is perfect. It shouldn't be higher, nor should it be ejected from the list overall. I don't remember Duck Soup well enough to argue that it deserves its #60 slot, but A Night at the Opera is funny enough to make an impression—and hilarious enough to showcase the insanity that the troupe contributed to American cinema.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars

Check back next week for #84, Easy Rider — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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