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Films: N is for...

Night at the Opera, A

The Marx Brothers’ first MGM effort, derided by the dafter variety of Marx fan for the admittedly strenuous dramatic plot imposed by studio magnate Irving Thalberg, with the drippy Allan Jones’ career as a rising opera star supposedly more worth rooting for than Harpo demolishing the stalls. But there were good things introduced, too – more money, which means better sets and camerawork than the slapdash Paramount flicks, and a massively worked-over script. Not just a question of a couple of rewrites here – this was an odyssey. Originally a less-than-inspiring treatment by a former sports writer (imagine Martin Kelner penning a Vic and Bob screenplay) it passed through almost a dozen writers’ hands and changed beyond all recognition – at one point someone cooked up a version of the old “overselling a surefire flop show” urban legend that Mel Brooks used for The Producers, which Groucho loved, but Thalberg didn’t (“You can’t build comedy on top of comedy,” he said – to the Marx Brothers!) Then, when all parties of all parts were reasonably satisfied with the script, it was tested out on stage – a gruelling, cross-country, eight-week, five-shows-a-day tour to be exact, with duff lines excised, new lines rewritten on the spot (the writers came along too), bits of business hyper-rehearsed, and pauses checked with a stopwatch (imagine the cast of Extras performing their material at Northampton Roadmenders prior to filming). Then, and only then, did they get behind a camera, helmed by no-nonsense, twenty-takes-of-every-shot journeyman Sam ‘They Learned About Women’ Wood. To briefly resurrect a generally meaningless cliche, they really, honestly, don’t make them like that anymore. And, in the bits that aren’t opera singing, harp solos or dreary scenes of exposition with the straight leads, you feel sorry they don’t. Everyone knows three bits from this even if they haven’t seen it – the infamous contract scene ‘twixt Groucho and Chico (“Well, you win the white carnation!”) the scene where Groucho invites an endless stream of odds and sods into his tiny stateroom (“And two hardboiled eggs!”) and the inevitable final on-stage havoc (“How would you like to feel the way she looks?”). There’s much more, though – the hiding of the beds from Henderson, plainclothesman (“You look more like an *old* clothes man to me!”), the bizarre Three Great Aviators (“Of course, you know this means war!”), and anything with Margaret ‘I was like this in real life, apparently’ Dumont.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Dermot O'Logical

    June 28, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    The timing of laughs with a stopwatch might seem to be taking to ridiculous excess the business of touring the script before filming. As such, it could support the idea of the Big Studio adopting a clinically businesslike approach at odds withe the Marxian anarchy. But if you’ve ever seen the Paramount films The Cocoanuts or Animal Crackers in a cinema, you’ll notice how perfectly timed they are for audience laughter. Every puff on Groucho’s cigar is a precisely judged pause so that the next line is not obscured by the response to the previous one. And both these movies were adapted from established stage shows (even using the same sets). So MGM were to an extent getting back to the act’s theatrical roots.

  2. Richardpd

    March 30, 2021 at 11:10 pm

    This & A Day At The Races were chosen by Queen to be album titles in their post prog-lite, early annual album – tour cycle phase.

    They even managed to get a meet-up / photo session with Groucho out of it.

    • Sidney Balmoral James

      March 31, 2021 at 8:48 pm

      I’m afraid in his final years Groucho was very frail, not always aware of what was going on, and seemed to have been something of a Los Angeles attraction for passing rock stars: Alice Cooper, Queen, Elton John, even the wretched Gary Glitter. There is some debate as to whether his last partner, Erin Fleming exploited and abused him, or kept him going. After Groucho’s death, she – incredibly – ended up as a bag lady and committed suicide. There’s probably a goodish documentary to be made about popstars and their incongruous meetings with Hollywood stars, from John Lennon’s friendship with Gloria Swanson, to some of the odd meetings that record companies seemed to like arranging, like the Queen – Groucho meet-up mentioned. When Decca wanted to do a big presentation of gold discs to the Moody Blues, and asked them which celebrity they wanted to present them, they chose Jay Silverheels, Tonto of Lone Ranger fame. And didn’t Tony Curtis introduce ELO at Wembley in 1978?

  3. Richardpd

    March 31, 2021 at 10:22 pm

    I heard Groucho made a visit to the set of Welcome Back Kotter, with the intention of making a cameo in the show, but this was downgraded to a photoshoot, but he was so ill looking the pictures were never publicly released.

    Thess has some good information about his later years: https://www.newsfromme.com/2017/08/19/groucho-day/

    https://www.newsfromme.com/pov/col239/

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