It was sometime in 1934 and the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico and Harpo) were, as they say, "at liberty.” Sure, the Marx Brothers were still world famous comedians, but their five picture contract with Paramount Studios was up and Paramount had chosen not to renew. The boys' last Paramount feature Duck Soup had been a huge disappointment at the box office, and not only had Paramount unceremoniously dropped the brothers, but no other studio had chosen to sign them up either.
Enter Irving Thalberg, MGM's "boy genius" producer. Thalberg invited the boys to meet with him at MGM studios to discuss their next project.
Thalberg initially made the mistake of making the Marx Brothers wait too long in the MGM waiting room. Bored and a bit teed off, the brothers pulled all the filing cabinets in front of Thalberg's door, trapping him inside his own office. On another occasion, still not learning his lesson, Thalberg again kept the boys cooling their heels too long, while he took a long leisurely lunch. When he returned to his office, Thalberg was met by the sight of three naked Marx brothers inside his office, roasting potatoes on sticks over a fire they had made on the floor. Lessons learned.
Thalberg finally put his cards on the table with Groucho, Chico and Harpo. When the foursome finally started their discussion, he opined that the Marx brothers movies were "too funny.” He continued, “You can make movies with twice the box office with half the jokes.”
“Women don't go to Marx Brothers movies, you guys are too unsympathetic,” he explained. He added that the boys' previous films were anarchic and a good plot was needed, not to mention a real boy and girl romance. And thus, with a few more points ironed out, A Night at the Opera was born.
A new approach in filmmaking was instituted, as it was realized that the Marx Brothers were so funny on screen that many of their jokes were missed because the jokes came too quickly and one big laugh by the audience covered their next gag's potential laughter.
So, the boys took a stage production of A Night at the Opera on the road, performing it live, and "timing the laughs,” with an actual stopwatch. Also, this way, live audience reactions to jokes and gags could be gauged, and the wheat could be separated from the chaff.
When actual filming began, the sympathy factor was added to the boys' characters. We first see Harpo being beaten cruelly by his employer, a pompous opera star played nastily by Walter Woolf King.
A Night at the Opera was the first Marx brothers movie without kid brother/straight man Zeppo. When MGM told Groucho they should take a cut in pay because there were now three brothers instead of four, Groucho snapped, “Nonsense, we're worth twice as much without Zeppo.”
Allan Jones took over as the "love interest,” usually Zeppo's thankless role, and his romantic counterpart was played by Kitty Carlisle. According to Kitty, Groucho would come up to her daily, tell her a joke and ask, “Was that funny?" If Kitty said yes, Groucho would be delighted, but if the joke elicited a negative response, Groucho would slink off, sad and sulking. Kitty remembered Chico as constantly playing cards and Harpo flopping down on the furniture every day at promptly 11:00 am and yelling out “Lunchee! Lunchee!"
Chico and Harpo's beloved piano and Harpo solo interludes, missing from their previous two movies Duck Soup and Horsefeathers were re-instituted.
Also, Margaret Dumont, the greatest foil and straight woman in movie comedy history, was brought back- she too, had been a missing factor in the prior two Marx brothers outings. (Incredibly, Dumont had been dropped from the cast because she lacked sex appeal. She had been replaced both times by the vampish Thelma Todd.)
One of the highlights of A Night at the Opera was "the stateroom scene,” where the brothers, and two dozen members of the cast, all get stuck inside a small stateroom. The gag built up, bigger and bigger, until finally everyone comes spilling out of the cramped space in one big blob. Supposedly comedy writer Al Boasberg had originally conceived the idea, but Buster Keaton also helped develop the classic scene, borrowing a bit from his own 1928 film The Cameraman.
A Night at the Opera director Sam Wood could be a harsh taskmaster. During one classic (and hilarious) encounter, Wood was becoming exasperated by Groucho's performance. “Well, I guess you can't make an actor out of Marx,” Wood snapped.
“Nor a director out of Wood,” Groucho one-upped.
Wood was plagued by an ulcer and each day he would down a big glass of milk in hopes of relief. The Marx brothers started sending him his milk in a baby bottle. The filming and hijinks over, it was finally time to preview the movie.
But when A Night at the Opera was screened for a California community at their local theater, the reaction was dismal- no laughs from beginning to end. Chico alertly (and hopefully) pointed out to the disappointed cast and crew that the townspeople were depressed because of the recent death of their mayor. A new screening in another city was hastily arranged and sure enough, A Night at the Opera was a huge hit, evoking laughter from start to finish.
Released in November of 1935, A Night at the Opera was a smashing, rollicking success. It is now considered by many moviegoers and Marx Brothers fans alike to be the team's "masterpiece.” In Groucho's later years he was to dub A Night at the Opera as his personal favorite among the Marx Brothers cinematic oeuvre.
In 2000, the American Film Institute named A Night at the Opera as number 12 on their list of the funniest movies of all-time. In 2007, it rated as #85 on AFI’s list of the greatest movies ever made.