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Film / A Night at the Opera

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"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. After Duck Soup wasn't as big a hit as their previous movies, the Marx Brothers were in a bit of a career downturn. MGM head Irving Thalberg though had a solution and felt their comedy would appeal more to general audiences if they focused their chaos against clear bad guys who deserved the mistreatment while also helping a young couple come together.

The plot, as so often in Marx Brothers films, is incidental to the jokes, but it follows the usual pattern. Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood an unscrupulous business manager to wealthy dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), who wishes to become a high-society matron. Driftwood persuades her to invest in the New York Opera Company with Herman Gottlieb, and her donation allows them to engage the services of arrogant Italian tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King). Through a series of misunderstandings, Driftwood meets Lassparri's ex-dresser Tomasso (Harpo) and fast-talking con artist Fiorello (Chico), then ends up signing Fiorello's friend Riccardo Baroni (Allan Jones), a member of the chorus. The troupe then take an ocean liner to New York for Lassparri's season debut, and Hilarity Ensues as Lassparri tries to woo Riccardo's girlfriend Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) while working with Gottlieb to oust Driftwood from the company.

Thalberg's recommendation played off, as 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. It was later remade by the Zucker Brothers in 1992 as 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.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: A running gag 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. (duck call) And one duck egg.
  • At the Opera Tonight: It's right there in the title.
  • Balcony Escape: Tomasso escapes the holding cell via the porthole. With the help of a rope he reaches the cabin of the three aviators.
  • Bound and Gagged: Lassparri ends up this way in the third act.
  • 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, what's the idea of hitting that little bully?"
  • Commedia dell'Arte: The plot of the movie fits the mold very nicely:
    • Riccardo and Rosa are the innamorati, obviously
    • Herman is Pantalone because he's managing the theater and schemes against the innamorati anf the zanni
    • Rodolfo is the Captain because he's a rival for Rosa's love and he's in cahoots with Herman. Though, unlike the cowardly captain, Rodolfo is genuinely great at his profession.
    • Tomasso is Pierrot, which is even lampshaded by him wearing a clown costume at the very beginning of the movie. While he isn't a particularly sad guy, he has a childike innocence, chases women who are never interested, and gets beaten by Rodolfo. He also forms a double act with...
    • Fiorello, who is the Halrequin. He's the main man trying to help Riccardo while also keeping track of the slightly loonier Tomasso.
    • Otis is Brighella, since he's greedy and manipulative, and hires Riccardo because of a misunderstanding rather than directly trying to help him like the other two.
    • It's possible Mrs. Claypool is the Columbina, since she's the most sensible and the only female character besides Rosa, not to mention Otis is courting her, but she's also rich and has no connection to the innamorati.

  • Comically Wordy Contract: Groucho wants to hire the tenor Lassparri for his opera. Chico immediately plays himself up as the singer's manager and hands Groucho an overlong contract which the two immediately begin to read. The five-minute sketch ends with the two tearing off every clausule until all they have left is the bottom on which to sign. In the end it turns out that Chico is actually representing the young tenor Riccardo, who turns out to be a better singer then Lassparri. So in the end Groucho and Chico repeat the contract scene once more, this time to hire Riccardo.
  • 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. Chico tells Groucho not to wake him, because "he's got insomnia, and he's trying to sleep it off." 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.
  • Easily Forgiven: Fiorello, Riccardo and Tomasso get Driftwood fired and thrown from his hotel room but the latter doesn't really mind.
  • 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.
    • Invoked mid-way through the play at the opera when the heroes take out Rudolfo Lassparri to make room for Riccardo Barone to take his place.
  • 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.
    • Allan Jones as Riccardo was basically playing a role that Zeppo usually would have. Zeppo had stopped appearing onscreen with his brothers after Duck Soup, to focus on being a Hollywood agent.
  • Extreme Omnivore: Tomasso, who eats a lit cigar and a tie for starters.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Flynning: Harpo versus the orchestra conductor.
  • Food Porn: The scene where Chico, Harpo and Riccardo 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!
  • Frying Pan of Doom: A double tapping at the opera. The detective beats Gottlieb over the head with a prop pan from the gypsy crowd and gets immediately taken out the same way by Tomasso.
  • 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.
  • Get Out!:
    • Mrs. Claypool wants Driftwood out of her cabin.
    • Later Gottlieb fires Driftwood and demands he leave his office immediately.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Almost everything Driftwood says to Mrs. Claypool in thumbs its nose at the Sex section of the Hays Code. 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.
  • Hammerspace Hideaway: Fiorello, Riccardo and Tomasso all get on board in Driftwood's luggage.
  • The Heckler: Driftwood heckles the opera shamelessly while Tomasso and Fiorello are disrupting it in the pit and on stage. Boogie boogie boogie!
  • 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.
    Groucho: Two beers, bartender!
    Chico: I'll take two beers too.
  • Invisible Backup Band: An invisible orchestra is backing Riccardo and Rosa singing their farewell song at the harbor.
  • Iris Out: The Gaslighting scene with the nosy detective ends on this effect.
  • 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. This was all intentional on the part of MGM head Irving Thalberg as he felt the Marx Brothers weren't sympathetic in their previous movies and needed to target clear villains.
  • Karmic Trickster: Driftwood, Fiorello, and Tomasso use their madcap antics to help Riccardo and Rosa against Rodolfo and Herman Gottlieb.
  • 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!
  • 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.)
  • Lower-Deck Episode: Fiorello, Riccardo and Tomasso mingle with the third class passengers and perform with them. The other passengers are vivacious, fun-loving Italians, as opposed to the WASPy patricians traveling first class.
  • 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!
  • Manly Facial Hair: The three aviators have truly spectacular beards. ZZ Top would be jealous.
  • Mathematician's Answer:
    Henderson: Say, what's that bed doing there?
    Driftwood: I don't see it doing anything.
  • Men Are Uncultured: Driftwood deliberately times his arrival at the opera house so he will miss the show.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Fiorello, Tomasso and Riccardo 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.
  • Officer O'Hara: The policeman who tells Groucho to "get off the grass" has a thick Irish accent.
  • 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.
  • Opening the Flood Gates: Tomasso opens the porthole of the holding cell and a wave of water gushes in.
  • 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" (honk) "Make that three hardboiled eggs" for the stowaways hiding in his stateroom.
  • Overly-Long Gag:
  • Plot Hole: So if Riccardo's serenading Rosa as the ship pulls out of the does he get into Driftwood's steamer trunk to be smuggled aboard later on?
  • 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.
  • Ring-Ring-CRUNCH!: At the New York hotel, Tomasso stops the alarm clock with a hammer.
  • 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.
    • As stated in the page quote, Driftwood finishes his speech introducing the opera with an evocation of "Play, Don" to the orchestra conductor. This may have been a shout-out to the then-nascent The Jack Benny Program, already wildly popular, which regularly featured Jack saying "Play, Phil," to his own orchestra conductor Phil Harris, as well as often remonstrating with his announcer Don Wilson. Groucho and Jack were good friends. Doubles as a Funny Background Event when the conductor looks incensed at the remark, clearly getting the reference and finding it decidedly unflattering.
  • 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.
  • Spaghetti and Gondolas: The crowd on the boat lean hard into Italian stereotypes, especially during the "Cosi Cosa" number, in which many a word is pronounced-a like-a this, and the three stowaways are served mountains of spaghetti. There was also apparently a cut opening scene to the movie, featuring a gondola and a crowd of Italians performing snippets of Pagliacci, establishing Italy as a place "where they sing all day and go to the opera at night", but the scene was removed after a complaint by the Italian government.
  • 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.
  • Staircase Tumble: Happens to Driftwood after the lift boy gives him a Literal Asskicking.
  • 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.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Lassparri whips Tomasso in his dressing room.
  • 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.
  • Trespassing to Talk: Driftwood and his fellows let themselves into Gottlieb's office where they wait for him. When Gottlieb arrives, he starts calling the police. Cue a Tap on the Head and Mugged for Disguise.
  • Tuckerization: One of the characters in the stateroom scene is a girl looking for her Aunt Minnie, a clear homage to Minnie Marx, the Marx Brothers' mother.
  • Visual Pun: Tomasso fixing a "cup"-cake for breakfast.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Otis B. Driftwood.
  • 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 Riccardo Baroni instead. It turns out Riccardo Baroni is an excellent singer, just unknown by the public.
  • You Remind Me of X: "Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you."


Video Example(s):


Marx Brothers: Fortune hunters

Groucho and his boss Gottlieb are both interested in Mrs. Claypool...and the money her husband left her!

How well does it match the trope?

4.6 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / GoldDigger

Media sources: