Dec. 16, 2002
-- For many moviegoers, the Marx Brothers stand as the kings of comedy, stretching back from the days of their early Broadway shows when the troupe still included Zeppo and Gummo, to the cinematic peaks of their career starring a mute Harpo, a motor-mouthed Chico and the perpetually wisecracking Groucho.
But in 1933, following the disappointing release of Duck Soup
, kings they were not. The Marx Brothers were all but washed up -- at least as far as their studio, Paramount Pictures, was concerned. The film, which is now considered a classic, turned off both audiences and critics, and the fallout left the team looking away from the silver screen for work.
For about a year, they held down the Hollywood comedian's equivalent of odd jobs: Chico and Groucho had a radio series and performed on stage, while Harpo left to set up shop in the Soviet Union, the first American performer to do so following the communist revolution. Oh, and he also smuggled papers for the U.S. government.
For Morning Edition
, Jeff Lunden reports that although things may have looked dreary for the brothers' film careers, their greatest success was just around the corner. As part of the Present at the Creation
series, he looks at the origins of the Marx Brothers' classic film, A Night at the Opera
Thankfully -- for our funny bones, not to mention our national security -- the pictures came calling soon enough. According to Groucho's son Arthur, a deal to get the brothers back on screen was struck during a game of bridge between MGM's Irving Thalberg and Chico. Arthur Marx says Thalberg had some thoughts on how the brothers might avoid the pitfalls that had made their previous film less palatable to audiences.
"He said the trouble with Duck Soup
is you've got funny gags in it, but there's no story and there's nothing to root for," says Arthur Marx. "You can't root for the Marx Brothers because they're a bunch of zany kooks. [He] says, 'You gotta put a love story in your movie so there'll be something to root for, and you have to help the lovers get together.'"
Thalberg's plan involved bringing in several writers to help construct the narrative for the new film, titled A Night at the Opera
. They came up with a scenario that cast Groucho in the role of Otis B. Driftwood, a scheming promoter, Chico as Fiorello, an agent, and Harpo as Tomasso, a put-upon dresser for an opera star. Heeding Thalberg's advice, a love story was grafted onto the opera house antics -- in between sight gags and the rapid-fire wordplay, Driftwood, Fiorello, and Tomasso would conspire to bring together two aspiring singers.
To flesh out the central plot, the writers created some classic set pieces for the film, but the chemistry and timing between the brothers lifted A Night at the Opera
into the realm of classic entertainment. Chemistry and timing that, as it turns out, came from road-testing the material in front of live audiences.
"They would time the laughs that they were getting from a live audience, to see how to time it out when they did shoot it," says actor Frank Ferrante, who has played Groucho onstage. "They would try different words; they would try different phrases. They were consistently honing the material."
As Arthur Marx remembers it, the effort paid off in a big way.
"I saw that stateroom scene being rehearsed on the MGM lot," he recalls, "and there wasn't a laugh in it. When they came back from six weeks on the road with it, they had put a wonderful comedy scene together."
In the finished film, this scene has Groucho booked into a tiny cabin aboard a ship bound for New York. He soon finds out that he's not alone -- Chico, Harpo, and Allan Jones, the film's romantic lead, have stowed away in his trunk. One by one, more characters crowd their way into the tiny room, until it's packed beyond belief. Finally, Margaret Dumont, who acted as Groucho's straight woman in many of the Marx Brothers films, opens the door to the stateroom, only to have characters pour out.
That sort of anarchic mischief, which plays out over the length of the film, is what made the Marx Brothers so successful, Arthur Marx insists. "Well, it's got that old thing of upsetting dignity, which they did. That's why it works so well in A Night at the Opera
, because there's nothing stuffier than grand opera."
It certainly worked for audiences. The combination of Thalberg's love story with gags like replacing the music from Il Trovatore
with Take Me Out to the Ballgame
helped A Night at the Opera
to become the Marx Brothers' biggest hit. Even Groucho called it his favorite of all of the team's films.
Commercial success, failure, covert operations in the Soviet Union, gambling, romance, people falling out of closets onto the feet of society matrons -- what's left to say? Well, as Otis B. Driftwood put it, "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."
Listen to an Oct. 2, 1975, All Things Considered Groucho Marx retrospective
on his 85th birthday.
Hear an Aug. 19, 1997, report from All Things Considered
on the 20th anniversary of Groucho Marx's death.
Listen an Aug. 19, 1995, Weekend Edition
report in which Dick Cavett recalls Groucho Marx
Hear a Nov. 24, 2002, Weekend Edition Sunday interview with Kitty Carlisle Hart
in which she discusses her role in A Night at the Opera
Listen to a May 30, 1999, All Things Considered
report on Frank Ferrante, an actor who has played Groucho Marx onstage
Hear a Sept. 21, 2001, All Things Considered
report on the 70th anniversary of the 1931 Marx Brothers movie Monkey Business
Groucho Marx featured prominently in another Present at the Creation
story: The Quiz Show
Read about other classic film comedies in the Present at the Creation
series: National Lampoon's Animal House
and The Graduate
See photos, video clips and cast biographies
and hear audio clips from A Night at the Opera
Read a detailed description
of A Night at the Opera
Learn more about the Marx Brothers
and their movies at the "Why a Duck?" Web site.
Hear a collection of Groucho Marx one-liners
Learn more about Frank Ferrante
, who has played Groucho Marx on stage.