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Night at the Opera

Ring a Ding Ding

Night at the Opera (1935)

     I must not be most people because “most people” find A Night at the Opera to be the best Marx Bros. movie. Although I concede this MGM-produced picture is more accessible than the men’s Paramount-produced movies, I like the the zanier nonsense plots than I do this normal comedy embellished with Marx humor.

 
     The brothers start their scheme in Italy where Groucho‘s mark Mrs. Claypool, played by Marx regular Margaret Dumont, is being convinced to donate to the New York Opera Company so it can hire a famous Italian singer, Rudolpho Lassparri (Walter King). Chico is pals with a less-noticed tenor in the Italian opera and tries to finagle a deal for that singer as he confuses Groucho. Harpo is again a pal of Chico’s character and has been employed as a dresser for Lassparri until he is discovered wearing several layers of the theater’s costumes.
 
     The lesser-known tenor, Ricardo Barone (Allan Jones), is in love with opera singer Rosa, played by Kitty Carlisle, who has also attracted the attention of Lassparri. The more prestigious tenor arranges for the woman to come to New York with him and be his leading lady. The next step of the plot involves the trip to New York via steamship.  Although Lassparri, Rosa, Mrs. Claypool and Groucho all have tickets for passage, Chico, Harpo and Ricardo stow away by commandeering Groucho’s trunk. Groucho’s state room also happens to be the size of a closet, yet the trunk, the men and a whole slew of servants and strangers crowd into the room until they literally burst out.
 
     While aboard the boat, the men entertain some gypsy-types with their musical talents while trying to avoid being caught by ship personnel. To depart the vessel without getting caught, the three stowaways pose as foreign, bearded aviators and then are forced to make speeches –or in Harpo’s case, refuse to– before a crowd of Americans there to welcome them. A detective continues to hunt the men who arrived in the U.S. under “false pretences”, which eventually leads them to the opera house where the Marx Bros. are creating chaos and annoying the snooty audience. What finally turns the performance around for the men and the audience is Ricardo taking over for Lassparri as the lead.
 
     No matter how much a screenwriter/studio might try to make me care about the other characters in a Marx Bros. movie, I could not be less interested. What I think makes A Night at the Opera better liked among the average audience is that it balances and mixes the adventures of the Marx men with their surrounding cast members. I continue to prefer, however, the Horse Feathers and Monkey Business stories that have the comedians’ plots having little to do with the story driving all other characters. That is in large part because the scenes with the Marxes were borrowed from their stage acts and so did not rely on the plot. I find these exchanges more comically effective, however, than A Night at the Opera‘s endeavor to intertwine Groucho, Chico and Harpo into the story.
  • A Night at the Opera is set for 12:30 p.m. ET Dec. 31 on TCM.

A Day at the Races

A Day at the Races (1937)

Gasser

     Why is it that Marx Brothers movies are crafted in a way that they could nearly be classified as musicals? Although the men themselves offer no notable vocal talents, their movies often had supporting actors who might go off on a song or two. In A Day at the Races, we are subjected to a number of musical productions separate from the talents of Chico and Harpo, who typically found themselves showing off their respective instrumental skill.

     Following one such song by our side male lead of Allan Jones as Gil, Chico takes to the piano for an uplifting ditty and to keep the law at bay. Harpo follows up by pounding the piano producing a not-so-bad tune but demolishing the instrument in the process. Thereafter, he play the “harp” by using the piano’s stringed insides. Harpo would also later play a wind instrument and spur a lively musical number featuring a large group of black stablehands. The fabulous song will remind astute ears of “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Blow Gabriel Blow” and features Ivie Anderson and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

     But musical numbers in Marx Brothers movies always seem a distraction from the actual plot and merely a device to fill up some play time. The story here has nothing to do with anyone’s musical talents, although Gil is mentioned as having a slight singing career, but he is more interested in horse racing. That is where the whole “Races” part of the title comes in. Gil buys a race horse Hi Hat in the hopes of winning some races and providing the financial support his girlfriend needs to keep her sanitarium running. The girlfriend, Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan), must produce some dough to keep the story’s villain Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille) from taking over the institution and transforming it into a casino. Morgan also happens to be the former owner of Hi Hat whose voice drives the horse wild, a detail that will come in handy later.

     Because Gil’s money-raising efforts are failing, Judy hopes that a wealthy woman who thinks she is ill will help fund the sanitarium she calls home. This Mrs. Upjohn, played by Margaret Dumont, is particularly bewitched with Groucho‘s Dr. Hackenbush, whom Judy arranges to come work at her institution. Both women are unaware, however, that Hackenbush is a horse doctor. All sorts of absurdity ensue with Groucho as a fake doctor, Chico as the sanitarium bus driver, and Harpo as a jockey, all working to help Judy save her institution.

     Ever the favorites of MGM Producer Irving Thalberg, the brothers were sent out at his behest to theaters around the country to try out new material they could use in this picture. These were some of the arbitrary games the men play in the picture that have little to do with the plot but are their trademark. Thalberg, however, died while A Day at the Race was in the works, upsetting the Marx boys and shuffling the production credits.

     One of the gags utilized in A Day at the Races would reappear a few years later in Go West. This circulating money routine involves Chico paying a $5 bill to the sheriff to pay for the horse and when the recipient pockets the bill, Harpo retrieves it and passes behind the man’s back to Chico, who pays it again. This works until the Sheriff stuffs the money into his vest pocket rather than his pants and Harpo is left digging in the trousers and leaving with only the sheriff’s sock.

     Possibly the best scam in A Day at the Races is perpetrated by Chico’s Tony, who also works selling “ice cream”, “tutsie frutsie” to be precise. Operating on a new-to-town Dr. Hackenbush, Tony persuades him not to put his money on one horse but instead buy a $1 tip from him for on whom to bet. The doctor agrees, but the tip is in code. Now he must buy from Tony’s ice cream cart a code book. That document is also not clear on the horse’s name and requires information about whether it is a filly, which requires the purchase of another set of documents. By the time Hackenbush discovers the horse’s name he is too late to place a bet and Tony has used his money to back the winning horse, which happens to be the one Hackenbush liked from the start.

     Although I still maintain the pointless endeavors of the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers as my favorite of their excapades, A Day at the Races had its moments. These largely involved getting the boys alone to go off on one routine or another and are as enjoyable as ever.

  • A Day at the Races is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Oct. 16 and 10:30 a.m. Dec. 31 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne

Everybody Sing

Ring a Ding Ding

Everybody Sing (1938)

I think I am pretty safe in saying if often takes actors that will become big stars a few years before they start appearing in highly entertaining productions. Judy Garland, who was recognized pretty quickly by MGM executive Louis B. Mayer as a goldmine, surprised me with Everybody Sing, which is a musical that not only contains a really entertaining cast and script but fantastic musical numbers as well.

By the time this film was released in 1938, Garland had three others under her belt, although those include Broadway Melody of 1938 (released in 1937), which featured Judy in a very small role, and Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, which I have previously reviewed as a mediocre spot for the youth. Everybody Sing was a great step forward as it offered the leading role to the teenager and would be followed in the same year by Garland’s first Andy Hardy movie and then another sour production in Listen, Darling.

What is most resounding about Everybody Sing is surely the cast. Garland as Judy Bellaire is mothered by Billie Burke who would become Glinda in Wizard of Oz, fathered by Reginald Owen, lives with maid Olga, played by Fanny Brice, and is friends with Allan Jones‘ Ricky Saboni. Judy is expelled from her girl’s school after being caught jazzing up some tunes in her vocal class, but when she returns home the girl is unable to get a word in edgewise to inform her self-centered family of the trouble. The father is a play writer, the mother is an actress who gets her current production’s lines mixed in with her personal dialogue, and her sister is absorbed in singing lessons and secret boyfriend/house cook Ricky. Only Olga and Ricky will hear of her trouble.

When Judy discovers that Ricky makes his real living singing at a restaurant, she immediately gets herself on stage and is adored by the audience. The family, however, is rather set on sending Judy to Europe to straighten her out and keep her away from the performing profession in which the rest of the family engages. Judy conspires with a voyage-mate, however, to have pre-written postcards mailed at each destination on the trip while she ducks off the boat and proceeds to live a secret life performing at the restaurant. A regrettable blackface performance ensues as part of this process.

In the midst of all this, Ricky struggles to maintain a romantic relationship with Judy’s sister, Sylvia (Lynn Carver), who has falsely gotten herself engaged to her mother’s stage partner Jerrold (Reginald Gardiner) to split up whatever romantic entanglement might be occurring there. Ultimately, all is resolved and the film closes on a major musical revue backed by Ricky himself and staring Judy and even the maid, Olga.

The Bellaire family reminded me very much of the Bullocks of My Man Godfrey except this bunch is theatrically inclined as a profession, not as a mere part of their insanity. The poor servants struggle to do their duties while dealing with their masters’ eccentricities. For instance, Olga desperately seeks to discover how many individuals will be staying for dinner because she has only four squab she must divide among what turn out to be seven eaters. Ultimately, the family gets spaghetti.

I had never seen Brice in a film before, although I recently watched Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand, which is about Brice’s career and marriage, although a largely fictionalized account. The resemblance between Brice’s actual acting and the performance of Streisand is pretty strikingly similar. Although I found Brice to be quite comical and much like a female Chico Marx –although with a Russian rather than Italian accent in this case– she could get to be a bit obnoxious after a while. Still, I’m glad to have finally seen the comedienne first hand.

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