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John Vogel <email@example.com>
Forty years after the release of A Night At The Opera the rock group Queen released an album with the same title. When, the following year, they released another called A Day at the Races, it was largely knocked for not matching the quality of its predecessor. The actual films follow this pattern, too, with Races, coming two years later, being held to be good but lacking in comparison. It's a fair assessment.
Everyone knows the Marx brothers, of course. There's Groucho (The anarchic wise guy with the drawn-on moustache), Chico (The likable Italian stereotype), Harpo (The mute, childish, slightly annoying one, there for kid appeal) and Zeppo (The normal-looking one who was always left as the straight guy). Zeppo didn't appear in either of these two films, of course, though gets his usual substitute - in Day it's Allan Jones as the stiff romantic lead.
Even today Groucho is still very funny and his rapid one-liners hit the target ("Take these bags and run up to my room and here's a dime for yourself" "Oh, no, no, no, no - this is Mr. Whitmore, our business manager." "Oh, I'm terribly sorry - here's a quarter.") but after many lines there's a forced silence, as if to anticipate the audience laughter. As a result it feels strangely artificial and muted, never more so than in his first scene at the sanatorium. Things do get better, particularly when he's appearing opposite Chico, with whom he understandably has a greater rapport. Groucho talking to Whitmore via phone and Dictaphone, using multiple voices, is another winner.
The need for a romantic subplot and occasional reliance on the traditional trappings of the American sitcom do hold things back. The Brothers would be held to have more art and attitude than Laurel and Hardy, though they're nowhere near as amusing. Perhaps this is because Stan and Ollie generally avoid the over-earnest sentimentality of a Marx Bros. Movie.
Another major sticking point is the song and dance sequences. There are three in total, all of them lasting over twenty minutes combined. That's twenty minutes where we could have had more verbal by-play from Groucho, who is a little neglected in sections. An elaborate routine (not all that well directed) during the first forty minutes slows things to almost a standstill, even before the film has really got going. It's really quite irksome and not what a Marx Brothers film is - or should be - about. Much funnier is Groucho doing the rumba. For someone so well known as a verbal comedian, it's notable how much of a gifted physical performer he is, too. Okay, he's not a full-on slapstick contortionist like some of his peers, but just seeing the way he walks into a room has me in hysterics.
The film adheres to a formula as usual, with Chico again coming across a piano and Harpo again coming across, yes, you guessed it. It's another musical interlude that is too self-consciously cute, and, at six minutes, too long. The best musical segment is a later sequence where Harpo leads a group in a rendition of "Gabriel Blow Your Horn". This is marred only by t he fact that the group in question is the most stereotyped portrayal of black people ever laid to celluloid. After much hand shaking and eye rolling, the brothers themselves get in on the offensive act by dousing their faces in oil in an attempt to blend in. Like Laurel and Hardy's "Pardon Us", this is a film that cannot be judged by contemporary sensibilities... it's just the way things were.
Sometimes the mania can be a little forced and artificial - witness the "examination" scene, where the brothers - Harpo particularly - do zany things just because they're zany and not because of any consequence of plot. The ending is satisfying, though, with a well-presented sabotage of the horse race and the eventual song to play out. This isn't a perfect film by any means - judging it via the rather trite metaphor of a cake mixture, then the ingredients aren't quite right. With two additional songs that were removed, there's clearly too much music in the film. There's also slightly too much Harpo and there was room for more Groucho. The romantic subplot should have been scrapped and there are long stretches that unfortunately discard the need for dialogue. Yet while the cake isn't baked to perfection, the basic ingredients are there, and this is still, if not wholly satisfying, a worthwhile view. 6/10.
POSTSCRIPT 2012: "Now listen, it was nobody's fault but mine." Words that Groucho should never speak. It's almost 11 years to the day since I reviewed this movie, and, as I'd only seen A Night At The Opera beforehand, I really had nothing to compare it to. It was a little bold on my part, reviewing a Marx Brothers movie when I really didn't know the Marx Brothers.
Generally I'd still agree with most of it, except for the examination scene, which is at least an attempt to claw back what they once were, albeit an unsuccessful one. For this is the end of the Marx Brothers, an out of character endeavour that's way too plot-heavy to register. Their longest picture, it drags terribly, and the "boys who just want to help others" is the anathema of the gang who sent Freedonia to war, or cheated in college football games. It's the Marx Brothers stripped bare and declawed, retooled as cutesy foils to a dreary romantic plot, often support in their own film, narratively speaking.
There's still a certain amount of class to the production and enough funny moments to maintain my initial 6/10 rating, but the MGM track record for Marx Brothers movies is a poor one, letting just A Night at the Opera (Q.V.) stand as a genuinely worthwhile work. Should you care, I take up the story in a review of Go West...
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