Producer Irving Thalberg would often call people in for meetings, and then keep them waiting in his office for hours while he attended other meetings on the MGM lot. One day, during pre-production for this picture, Thalberg kept The Marx Brothers waiting for several hours in his secretary's office while he was in his own office making phone calls. When Thalberg's secretary went home for the day, the brothers decided they'd had enough. They pushed the office file cabinets against Thalberg's door, trapping the producer in his office. Afterwards, Thalberg kept his appointments with the Marx Brothers, but would often interrupt his meetings with them and step out to attend other meetings--again keeping the brothers waiting for hours. One day Thalberg came back from another meeting to find Groucho Marx, Chico Marx and Harpo Marx sitting in his office completely naked, and roasting potatoes on sticks in his office fireplace. Thalberg sat down with them, had a potato and never missed or interrupted another meeting with the Marx Brothers.
In exasperation after several attempts to have Groucho Marx read one of his lines in the manner director Sam Wood had requested, Wood exclaimed, "I guess you just can't make an actor out of clay." Groucho Marx instantly responded, "Nor a director out of Wood."
Sam Wood, freshman The Marx Brothers director in this film, was a perfectionist. The scene in which Tomasso hangs from the rope was filmed so many times that Harpo Marx's hands became cut and swollen from the rope.
The famous "stateroom scene" was originally conceived as a way of getting a cheap laugh by having Groucho Marx, crowded out of his room, changing his pants in the corridor. After this was not liked by test audiences, the scene was improvised on the spot. A total of 15 people were in the scene: Driftwood (1); the stowaways Fiorello, Tomasso and Riccardo [who were in the trunk] (2-4); two chambermaids (5-6); an engineer who comes to turn off the heat (7); a manicurist (8); the engineer's burly assistant (9); a young woman looking for her Aunt Minnie and asking to use the phone (10); a cleaning woman (11); and four staff stewards bearing trays of food (12-15). They all tumble out when Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) opens the door.
In Leonard Maltin's commentary on the current DVD release, he states that there was a longer opening sequence. Starting with a title card that places the movie in Milan, Italy, there was then a musical number in which people on the street were "passing along" the melody line of a song, as in the Maurice Chevalier vehicle Love Me Tonight (1932). The song was followed into the restaurant where Mrs. Claypool was waiting for Otis B. Driftwood. Maltin says the scene was cut during World War II to remove references to Italy, and unfortunately, the main negative was cut as well, so the scene is now lost. This was why the stated running time of the movie was three minutes longer than it is now.
An additional scene was cut from the picture in subsequent releases, and is now considered lost. The scene occurred just after the scene in the park when Rosa tells her friends she has been fired from the opera. The Marx Brothers, Rosa, and Ricardo hop on a passing fire engine, which takes them to the opera house. After lighting his cigar in the fire engine's smokestack, Groucho Marx comments, "This is the first car I've ever been in where the cigarette lighter actually works!"
This was The Marx Brothers' first film with MGM. In preparation MGM sent them on a nationwide tour, performing potential bits live before current MGM films were shown. This opportunity for advance audience feedback is one reason this film became known as one of their best.
When Driftwood, Fiorello, and Ricardo are impersonating the three aviators in front of the mayor, Driftwood turns around to speak to them in a "foreign language." What is actually being said is a direct response to the accusations of impostors, only the audio track is played backwards. The first time Driftwood actually says, "Did you hear what he said? He said you were frauds and impostors!" which is then followed by Fiorello and Ricardo protesting loudly, "How can he say a thing like that?", "This is ridiculous," and other such comments.
The film was to have originally begun with each of The Marx Brothers taking turns roaring in lieu of Leo the Lion (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's logo mascot); Harpo Marx was to have honked his horn. A trailer for this movie begins with a different lion roaring once in the logo, then dissolves to Groucho inside the circle roaring to the sound of the actual lion, with the motto at the top of the circle changing to "Marx Gratia Marxes". Chico then roars also to the lion's sound, but when Harpo tries to do the same, his roaring action is met with silence, after which he honks his horn.
A persistent rumor involves the presence of The Marx Brothers' father, Sam Marx (aka "Frenchie"), in the film as the ship leaves dock. He is not in this film - he died in 1933. The rumor came about because he had a cameo in a similar scene in Monkey Business (1931).
Sam Wood's stuffiness made him the perfect target for The Marx Brothers. The director had an ulcer, so he started each day with a big glass of milk. The brothers began to have it delivered to him in a baby bottle - a joke Wood never got. He also imposed a fine for being late to the set, which Groucho was in favor of at first. But Chico and Harpo nailed their brother's garage door shut, making him the first to pay the $50 penalty. Then the three turned the penalty into a game, betting on who would be the next to be fined. Wood eventually abandoned the idea.
When the movie was to be edited for length, Allan Jones' song "Alone" was almost cut. Jones pleaded his case to producer Irving Thalberg, who replied, "The Marx Brothers know their comedy, and you know songs. I'll keep it in." "Alone" went on to become the only hit song from a Marx Brothers film.
Groucho Marx does a very brief Jack Benny impression in the film. After Otis P. Driftwood makes the speech to the audience, Groucho gestures to the orchestra pit and says, "Play, Don!" This is a Benny line from the radio series; his orchestra leader, Don Bestor, was always cued this way (by the way, Bestor originated the J-e-l-l-O jingle for the Benny show).
According to MGM's dialogue cutting continuity, the film originally began (after the opening credits) with the image of a "boat on canal." A superimposed title reads: "ITALY - WHERE THEY SING ALL DAY AND GO TO THE OPERA AT NIGHT." What follows is a musical number featuring bits and pieces from Ruggero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" performed by "everyday" Italians. A street sweeper sings part of the prologue ("Un nido di memorie...") as he greets a man who then hands out opera tickets to a group of children emerging from a store; the kids respond with "la-la-la-la-la, verso un paese strano." A "captain" comes down a set of steps, salutes a sentry, then bursts into "Vesti la giubba." There's a lap dissolve to a hotel lobby, where a "baggage man" is rolling a trunk and crooning about "nettare divino" (divine nectar). He's joined in song by a waiter who then enters the dining room, where he sings as he serves a man who also gets in a few notes. The waiter then crosses over to speak to Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), marking the beginning of the film in existing copies.
Kitty Carlisle said the atmosphere on the set was "deadly earnest." She recalled how Groucho Marx would come up to her from time to time, try out a line, and ask, "Is this funny?" If she said "no," he would "go away absolutely crushed and try it out on everyone else in the cast." On the other hand, Chico Marx was always off in a back room playing cards and Harpo Marx would work very diligently until about 11 a.m. and then plop himself down on the nearest piece of furniture and begin yelling, "Lunchie! Lunchie!"
As Otis and Mrs. Claypool are boarding the ocean liner, she asks him, "Do you have everything, Otis?"; he replies, "Well, I haven't had any complaints yet." In two different interviews with Dick Cavett, Groucho Marx claimed that that exchange of dialogue was banned in a majority of states when the film was released because it was too suggestive, although the number of states varied with different tellings of the story.
In 2008, a film student reported that the Hungarian National Film Archive possesses a longer print of the film. While the print does not contain the opening musical number, it does contain several excised lines referencing Italy that had been cut upon the film's re-release in the 1940s. With the opening number still missing, it may be that this scene was cut after its original preview screenings during the 1930s rather than during its re-release, as previously thought. However, the discovery of the Hungarian print has not yet been independently verified, and Warner Brothers, who owns the rights to the film, has not indicated that any restoration is forthcoming.
Sam Wood was by most accounts a very serious, conservative man who had little or no sense of humour. Allan Jones remembered him as "a disagreeable guy, very insecure." Jones also said Wood responded to actors' questions by saying, "I don't know, I don't know. Just do it again." Wood, who was against improvisation and ad-libbing, would shoot as many as 20 takes of each scene, a method the Marx Brothers found irritating and inhibiting. Jones believed he shot so many takes because he wasn't really sure which was the best until he looked at the day's work.
An Hollywood Reporter news items noted that at one time The Marx Brothers insisted that Lesley Selander be fired because they objected to his disciplinary actions on the set. The same news item indicates that considerable reshooting was being required because a change in the picture's make-up men resulted in the "wrong" set of beards being used by the Brothers. (in the sequence in which they impersonate aviators).
Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones, who were both trained in operatic singing, provided their own singing voices in the film. Walter Woolf King was a trained baritone but he portrayed a tenor in the film. His singing was dubbed by Metropolitan Opera tenor Tandy MacKenzie.
Groucho Marx said he was so appalled by an early draft of the script-which was reportedly written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby -that he screamed, "Why fuck around with second-rate talent, get Kaufman and Ryskind [to write the screenplay]!"
According to Oscar Levant, the first preview was a "disaster", with "hardly a laugh" as was the second. Irving Thalberg and George S. Kaufman spent days in the editing room, adjusting the timing to match the rhythm of a stage performance. About nine minutes was cut from the running time, and the result was a hit.