A Night at the Opera was the first Marx Brothers movie made for MGM. Honestly, I preferred their Paramount work and here’s why. Losing Zeppo didn’t hurt much, but it was the change in how the Marx Brothers performed in the material. When they were at Paramount, they were live-action cartoon characters causing mayhem wherever they went. By the time the MGM deal started, they had been remolded into helpful supporting cast that always made the villains made. While that might seem quaint in 2021, the mid 1930s was the start of that comedic shift on film.
Depression era cinema is a super hard thing to understand now. But, as the Depression pushed on, studios went out of their way to shift the tone of their films. While the early 30s saw dark and true-to-life dramas and comedies, things changed as the New Deal continued. America was going to be force fed heroes and people upholding the status quo. Lots of pushes for justice and things like that.
Was it propaganda? Not quite. But, it showed how cultural shifts were already dictating what was to come during World War II and its immediate aftermath. Tastes were getting much more mainstream and attempts were made to appeal to everyone. I mean, I’d love to see a Marx Brothers Film Noir as much as the next movie loving goon. But, this kind of schtick would have died out by the mid 40s in favor of the modern teams of Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy and that duo that met a Brooklyn Gorilla.
The Marx Brothers have done better than A Night at the Opera. While Leonard Maltin goes crazy for it on the commentary track, I’d argue that any of the Paramount comedies were better. That doesn’t mean I hate A Night at the Opera, but people geek out a little too hard over it.
Troy has a rant about the Marx Brothers
1930s comedies are now enjoyed mainly for academic appeal, while the vast majority of viewers simply ignore it. While it’s neat to see where a lot of comedy legacy bits and concepts started, A Night at the Opera almost defies what makes the Marx Brothers so great. I think a lot of it has to do with Groucho Marx taking such control over the script from its early days.
Oh, I know that it sounds stupid to complain about Groucho being so in charge. The old guy was giving Dick Cavett grief well into the 1970s. Having read a lot about what happened back in the day, I always felt that it made sense to put the blame on MGM for dictating the comedy group’s changes on film. However, what if it was Groucho making the changes for A Night at the Opera?
It makes sense if you want to have longevity that you add to your comedic formula. But, it often results in diluting the very thing that made your comedy work. People don’t like serious Sandler until recently and most audiences don’t want to see clowns start moping about the place. Drama and comedy are the weird cousins of performance. They can intermingle a little, but people don’t want to see what happens when they throw down.
Warner Archive brings A Night at the Opera to Blu-ray with a ton of special features. You get that classic commentary from Leonard Maltin. You also get three vintage shorts, 1961 footage of Groucho Marx and a trailer. The A/V Quality is spectacular for a film of its age. Just check out the screenshots to see that 1080p transfer in action. I would recommend a purchase.