Film / A Night at the Opera

"And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor. Play, Don."
Otis B. Driftwood

A Night at the Opera is a 1935 Marx Brothers film, the first made in their switch from Paramount to MGM. Promised a free rein but forced by producer Irving Thalberg to focus the chaos against the bad guys who deserve the mistreatment, Opera became the largest box-office hit of the Marx Brothers' filmography. Fans have debated for eighty years over whether this or Duck Soup is the Marx Brothers' best film, but most agree it's one of the funniest movies ever.

The plot, as so often in Marx Brothers films, is incidental to the jokes, but it follows the usual pattern. Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, corrupt business manager to wealthy dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). He persuades her to invest in the New York Opera Company, allowing them to engage the services of arrogant Italian tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King). Heading backstage at an Italian opera house, he meets Lassparri's ex-dresser Tomasso (Harpo) and fast-talking con artist Fiorello (Chico), mistaking the latter for Lassparri's manager and signing a contract with him; the great singer Fiorello claims to represent is actually his friend Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), a chorus member. Lassparri and Baroni are also competing for the affections of soprano Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle). Hilarity Ensues as the characters board an ocean liner to New York; once there, the protagonists scheme to ensure that Lassparri is humiliated, allowing Ricardo to become the New York Opera Company's male lead and be united with Rosa.

It was subsequently Homaged by the Zucker Brothers' movie Brain Donors. Not to be confused with the 1975 Queen album A Night at the Opera, which was named after the movie. (Or with the Blind Guardian album, which was named after the Queen album.)

This film is associated with the following tropes (and two hard boiled eggs!):

  • Anachronism Stew: In-Universe. While Harpo is goofing around in the flyspace, he brings backdrops of a train station and a battleship into an opera set in 15th-century Spain.
  • All Part of the Show: Gottlieb tries to invoke this by on going in costume when he and Henderson pursue Tomasso and Fiorello (also hiding in costume) onto the stage, but the hijinks that ensue flatten any hopes of this trope working.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: A running gag in A Night at the Opera, during the stateroom scene:
    Otis: Now, some roast beef, I'll have rare, medium, well done and overdone...
    Fiorello: And two hard-boiled eggs.
    Otis: And two hard-boiled eggs. (Tomasso honks his horn) Make that three hard-boiled eggs. And I'll have eight pieces of French pastry.
    Fiorello: And two hard-boiled eggs.
    Otis: And two hard-boiled eggs. (Tomasso honks his horn) Make that three hard-boiled eggs. (honk) And one duck egg.
  • At the Opera Tonight: It's right there in the title.
  • Brick Joke: At the end when Gottlieb is blackmailed into accepting Rosa, Riccardo, and Driftwood back as opera employees, Driftwod and Fiorello repeat the rip-the-contract routine from the beginning.
  • Bully Hunter: Played with when Driftwood defends Tomasso after seeing Lasparri whipping him.
    "Hey you big bully, stop picking on that little bully!"
  • Cartoon Conductor: Once the boys pull a switch with the sheet music, Chico and Harpo start playing baseball in the orchestra pit while Groucho roams the audience shouting, "Popcorn! Peanuts!"
  • Chekhov's Skill: Tommaso (Harpo)'s rope-climbing and acrobatic skill.
  • Closet Shuffle: The stateroom gag.
  • Consolation Backfire: After Driftwood has been fired for running up a huge bill, he finds himself pushed off the bench by Fiorello:
    Driftwood: I'm certainly glad I met you boys. First you get me kicked out of my job, then you get me thrown out of my hotel, and finally you push me off a park bench. Well, there's one consolation: nothing more can happen to me.
    Cop: Hey, get off the grass.
    Driftwood: Well, I was wrong. [He goes to the fountain, and the water shrinks away from him] People drink too much water, anyhow.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Driftwood (Groucho), manager of Mrs. Claypool. He overhears that Lasparri is going to earn $1000 per night so he soon scrambles to intercept the deal...he is keeping a small profit from that $1000 dollars and paying to the singer... $10, minus a 10% to him for negotiating the deal.
    Driftwood: I figure as long as he doesn't sing too often, he can break even.
  • Crowd Song: Whenever Riccardo sings.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Take a guess...
  • Deep Sleep: Harpo is asleep in Groucho's steamer trunk in his tiny stateroom. As a crowd assembles and grows in the tiny, tiny room, Harpo is jostled around and over peoples' heads, never waking up (but still able to repeatedly signal via bulb horn for an extra hard boiled egg.)
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Contract clauses:
    "The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part."
    "The party of the second part shall be know in this contract as the party of the second part."
  • The Dog Bites Back: Shortly after being whipped by Lasparri, Tomasso takes the opportunity to knock him out (twice!) with a blow to the head.
  • Emergency Impersonation: Harpo, Chico and Jones gag three famous airmen and impersonate them. They are later required to give a speech. Bizarre quotes and hilarity ensues —Harpo plays a mute— and their Paper-Thin Disguise doesn't last for long.
  • Entitled to Have You: Lasparri towards Rosa. He helps arrange her debut in America just so he can have her, even though she's clearly uninterested, and largely to satisfy his own ego. When he sees her with Riccardo he has her kicked out of the show.
  • Exploding Closet: The stateroom gag ends with a variant of this. Mrs. Claypool opens the door, and out tumbles an avalanche of people rather than stuff.
  • Expy: All three Marxes, plus Margaret Dumont, play basically the same characters they play in every other movie.
  • Extreme Omnivore: Tomasso, who eats a lit cigar and a tie for starters.
  • Fauxreigner: Driftwood (Groucho) and Fiorello (Chico, affecting his usual fake Italian accent) have this exchange about Italy.
    Driftwood: Well, things certainly seem to be getting better around the country.
    Fiorello: Well, I wouldn't know about that; I'm a stranger here myself.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: Chico's stock Italian character is named Fiorello. Fiorello La Guardia was mayor of New York City at the time the movie was made.
  • Flynning: Harpo versus the orchestra conductor.
  • Food Porn: The scene where Chico, Harpo and Ricardo finally get to eat will make any viewer seriously hungry for Italian food. Pasta with sauce, salamis, whole tomatoes, wedges of cheese, loaves of bread, and bottles of wine - all served on a single plate!
  • Fun with Homophones: When Groucho is told a certain singer is paid a thousand dollars a night, Groucho responds, "A thousand dollars a nacht?!" If you speak German, like Groucho did, you'll hear "a nacht" (a night). If you don't speak German you'll hear "an act". Both make the same amount of sense. Making this a bi-lingual Meaningful Homophone.
  • Gaslighting: When the team finally reaches America, they move beds from one room to the other to anger the detective and drive him batty.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Almost everything Driftwood says to Mrs. Claypool pushes the boundaries of good taste for 1936. A few cracks are still on the outrageous side.
    Driftwood: You're willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of 'Minnie the Moocher' for 75 cents. (Pause) For a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie.
  • Getting the Boot: The elevator man punts Driftwood down the stairs after Driftwood's firing.
  • Gold Digger: Driftwood lusts after Mrs. Claypool's money, and he isn't exactly subtle or great at hiding it.
  • Grande Dame: Mrs. Claypool, a social-climbing opera lover.
  • The Heckler: Driftwood heckles the opera shamelessly while Tomasso and Fiorello are disrupting it in the pit and on stage. Boogie boogie boogie!
  • Homage: The 1992 film Brain Donors is a lovingly-crafted tribute.
  • Humiliation Conga: Gottlieb locks Driftwood out of his former office, kicks him downstairs, he gets pushed off the park bench by Fiorello, and a cop tells him to keep off the grass.
  • I'll Take Two Beers Too: If not the Trope Namer, than at least the Ur-Example.
  • Jerkass: The full-of-it Lassparri.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Driftwood is rude, abusive, screwy, cheap, thieving, and a Manipulative Bastard, but he sees to it the good guys prevail and that the lovers Riccardo and Rosa get their big break.
  • Le Parkour: The backstage sequence is an early example of this.
  • Lighter and Softer: Those who object to the MGM films, even A Night at the Opera, will claim it's because the Marxes were made to be nicer (see Jerk with a Heart of Gold).
  • Literal Metaphor
    Driftwood: You see that man over there eating spaghetti?
    Mrs. Claypool: No.
    Driftwood: Well, you see the spaghetti, don't you? Now, behind that spaghetti is none other than Herman Gottlieb, director of the New York Opera Company. Do you follow me?
    Mrs. Claypool: Yes.
    Driftwood: Well, stop following me, or I'll have you arrested!
  • Logical Fallacies: Half of the hilarity comes from Groucho's elaborate wordplay and mind games.
    Driftwood: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
    Mrs. Claypool: Really?
    Driftwood: Of course, that's why I'm sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (beat) If she figures that one out, she's good.
  • Logo Joke: In the trailer, the MGM lion was replaced by the Marx Brothers themselves, under the banner "Marx Gratia Marxes" (instead of "Ars Gratia Artis"), each taking turns miming the lion's roar. (When it was Harpo, his ever-present taxi-horn sounded instead.)
  • Malaproper
    Driftwood: It's all right, that's in every contract. That's what they call a sanity clause.
    Fiorello: You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Claus!
  • Men Are Uncultured: Driftwood deliberately times his arrival at the opera house so he will miss the show.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Fiorello, Tomasso and Ricardo take the Italian aviators' uniforms (and their beards) to slip off the boat in disguise. After Tomasso bonks Gottleib on the head again, Driftwood takes his tux to get into the opera.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: Driftwood begins his speech with: "Ladies! Gentlemen! ...I suppose that covers most of you."
  • Mysterious Middle Initial: Otis B. Driftwood.
  • New Job as the Plot Demands: Fiorello:
    "[You thought I worked at] The circus? That was ages ago. Last week. I have lotsa jobs since then."
  • Nice to the Waiter: Lasparri establishes his position as the resident Jerkass by abusing Tomasso—though he's smart enough to feign kindness in Rosa's presence.
  • Only in It for the Money: Lasparri refuses to sing for the crowd on the docks because he's not getting paid for it.
  • Only One Name: Fiorello and Tomasso.
  • Only Sane Man: Subverted. They simply didn't have the budget for one. Everyone - even the straight-laced lovers and the evil Jerkass - gets sucked into the Marx Brothers' madness.
  • Overcomplicated Menu Order: Groucho, playing the shady social consultant Otis B. Driftwood and operating solely along the lines of the Rule of Funny, orders two to three portions of what seems to be everything on the menu in an illogical way, punctuating his selections after each item with an order for "two hard-boiled eggs" for the stowaways hiding in his stateroom.
  • Overly Long Gag: Mr. Driftwood is apparently very hungry indeed!
    Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs!
    Steward (writing down the order): ... and two hard-boiled eggs.
    Harpo's Horn: [HONK]
    Driftwood: Make that three hard-boiled eggs.
    Driftwood: Either it's foggy out or make that another twelve hard boiled eggs!
  • Produce Pelting: Lasparri gets an apple thrown at him when he tries to sing an encore after Riccardo and Rosa's lauded performance.
    Driftwood: Well, watermelons are out of season.
  • Refuge in Audacity:
    • From the very first lines:
      (For context, Driftwood is sitting with his back to Mrs Claypool, the woman he was supposed to have dinner with, having had dinner with another woman and the waiter has just given him the bill)
      Driftwood: Nine dollars and forty-eight cents...?! This is an outrage! (throws the bill to the woman) If I were you, I wouldn't pay it! (walks away)
    • Driftwood and Fiorello do so habitually, but are at their best when double-teaming. When Gottlieb enters his office, he finds the people he's been chasing sitting around eating, drinking and smoking at his expense.
      Driftwood: Just the man I want to see! Gottlieb, these are the worst cigars I've ever smoked!
      Fiorello: Yeah. And your ice isn't cold enough, either.
  • The Remake: Brain Donors, an all-but-the-name retelling of Opera with ballet instead of opera.
  • Running Gag: When Otis Driftwood orders room service:
    Fiorello: And two hard-boiled eggs.
    Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs.
    [Tomasso honks his horn]
    Driftwood: Make that three hard-boiled eggs.
  • Script Swap: Chico and Harpo swap the sheet music of an entire orchestra so that they all start playing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the middle of the overture.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Groucho and Chico spend several minutes haggling over a contract. Chico keeps objecting to the terms, and Groucho keeps tearing off the sections that Chico won't agree to. Finally, nothing remains but the space where Chico has to put his signature, and Groucho hands him a pen. "I can't write," Chico admits sheepishly. "That's all right," replies Groucho, "There's no ink in the pen, anyway."
  • Shaped Like Itself: The contract scene. ("The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part...")
  • Shout-Out: While Driftwood tries to hide the three stowaways in his room while the cop looks around:
    Henderson: What's this!?
    Driftwood: Why that's the fire escape. And that's a table, and this is a room, and there's the door and I wish you'd use it. I... I vant to be alone.
  • The Show Must Go On:
    • The confused and increasingly frustrated Lassparri keeps singing, even when the scenes behind and in front of him change rapidly.
    • Despite all the chaos on stage, the theatre crew and police still bend over backwards to avoid disrupting the show themselves, even when things are bad enough that logically they might as well simply and openly march out on stage to grab the brothers since it would not make any difference.
  • The Show Must Go Wrong: And how! The brothers throw the performance at the opera house into sheer and utter chaos, taking up a good portion of the movie with catastrophes on and off stage.
  • Spiking the Camera: In the opening scene, there's a woman in the background who is framed precisely in the center between between Sig Ruman and Magret Dumont, who stares into the camera the entire time.
  • Spiritual Successor: The following Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races, shares a similar plot but with different characters and scenery (a rest home in need of rescue and a horse race to be won).
  • The Stateroom Sketch: The Trope Namer.
  • Straight Man: Female version. Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool, as always the prim foil to Groucho's antics.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Allan Jones fills in for Zeppo.
  • Tap on the Head: Gottlieb, many many times, and once to the cop.
    • Tomasso whacks Lassparri on the head with a mallet, revives him with smelling salts, knocks him out with the mallet again...and then drops a sandbag on his head.
  • Tempting Fate: After getting fired, kicked down the stairs, and forced off a park bench by his troublesome colleagues, Otis thinks the worst is over.
    Driftwood: Well, there's one consolation; nothing more can happen to me.
    Passing Cop: Hey, get off the grass.
    Otis: I was wrong. [tries to get a drink of water from the fountain, which promptly dries up.] People drink too much water anyway.
  • This Means War!: Used by Driftwood after the three fake airmen are confronted and leave. A Shout-Out to Duck Soup
  • Tough Room: Driftwood gives an opening speech at the opera that in real life would have brought the house down (see the opening quote), but the only response he gets is stony silence.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Otis B. Driftwod.
  • You Get What You Pay For: Drifwood overhears that Lasparri is going to be paid one thousand dollars per night and decides to skim the deal somehow. He is clueless and assumes Fiorelos is Lasparri's manager, so he is willing to pay 10 dollars per night. He learns later that he was hiring Ricardo Baroni instead. It turns out Ricardo Baroni is an excellent singer, just unknown by the public.
  • You Remind Me of X: "Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you."