A Night at the Opera
Ever since Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers had been in a holding pattern. Their contract with Paramount was up and no other film studio would touch them… until Irving Thalberg, producer down at MGM, decided he could do something with them.
He took them from their old formula (Marx brothers run amok in some movie genre) to their even older formula (Marx brothers run amok while a completely extraneous musical comedy romance is going on somewhere else in the film). He claimed he was making them integral to the plot, making them sympathetic by having them help these likable lovers get together, but don’t you believe it for one minute (okay, you can believe it for five minutes. But that’s it! No more than five minutes!).
There were other changes: Zeppo had quit the act and become a successful Hollywood agent. The Marx Brothers went on the road and rehearsed key scenes of their movies in front of a live audience, to perfect the rhythm and content of these scenes.
And all of this works. A Night at the Opera is a great movie. The Marx Brothers hit their peak with their last Paramount and first MGM movies — rarely is a Marx Brothers film other than Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera ever credited with being their best.
So the Marx Brothers get to MGM and continue making good movies. They make two of them, to be exact (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races), and then Irving Thalberg discourteously keels over and dies. And from then on the Marx Brothers make fair-to-middling movies.
I have a bit of trivia about A Night at the Opera that I like to repeat anytime I get the chance: the Louis Armstrong chestnut, A Kiss to Build a Dream On, was originally written for this movie by Oscar Hammerstein and Kalmar and Ruby, but it didn’t make the final version.
What did make the final version is this: Allan Jones (before he was Jack Jones’ dad) and Kitty Carlisle (before her sole purpose in life became appearing on game shows) are in love, but kept apart by the heavies, Walter Woolf King and Sig Ruman. And Margaret Dumont and the Marx Brothers are thrown into the mix somehow. Shake briskly and serve at room temperature.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff about this movie, most of which can be learned here. As far as the movie itself… well, comedies in general tend to defy analysis, and the Marx Brothers’ comedies do so with a vengeance. You just have to watch it.
The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock’s early classics. It’s a good companion piece to North by Northwest, because both movies represent peaks in Hitchcock’s use of his “wrong man is dragged into spy intrigue” formula. Each was also closely preceded by one of Hitchcock’s versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which also adheres to this formula… and both also have bus-related Hitchcock cameos.
There are several chasm-like plot holes, and the ending seems hurried and unsatisfying, at least the first time around. Once you know the movie better (and Hitchock in general), you can enjoy it as a tone poem – Hitchcock is hitting the notes that he would periodically repeat to great success throughout his career, and the proper way to enjoy The 39 Steps is to let the mood of the thing sweep you away—and then make fun of the ending, because, quite frankly, it still doesn’t make any sense, and I just can’t take it seriously!
Maybe it’s the book’s fault. The 39 Steps is based on a minor classic of the espionage genre of fiction, a short novel that is often overshadowed by Hitchcock’s film’s success. I’ve never read the book, but I have heard a Mercury Theater on the Air radio adaptation, and, more importantly, I’ve seen a Masterpiece Theater adaptation. All I can say is, thank goodness there were no creepy ventriloquist’s dummies in Hitchcock’s version.
There are, essentially, two elements to The 39 Steps. There’s the spy stuff, which begins when Robert Donat’s character harbors the Mata Hari-esque girl at the beginning of the picture, then takes a brief break about two-thirds of the way through, and then comes back briefly at the end. Then there’s the romance stuff. The two elements are interwoven and play against each other for dramatic tension in a way that’s beautiful to witness. The espionage bit is the inciting incident in the characters’ meeting and sustains their continued association throughout most of the movie. The romance lends interest to what otherwise would have been a one-note story and repeatedly adds or resolves complications to the spy business.
As far as the romance subplot, it bears a striking resemblance to one of our movies for the previous year, It Happened One Night. In It Happened One Night, the couple meets on a bus, where one of them is on the run and forces herself into the other’s seating. In The 39 Steps, the couple meets on a train, where one of them is on the run and forces himself into the other’s compartment. In both movies, there is a mutual dislike, accentuated on the female member’s side, and the male member of the couple is glib and patronizing. The member of the couple who is on the run is forced to seek refuge from the one who is not, but it’s an uneasy truce. They are further forced together by circumstances (in It Happened One Night, the progressive loss of their material possessions, in The 39 Steps, handcuffs). And in both movies, the male member of the couple has a mustache, a fashion statement that Hitler was able more or less to suppress by his endorsement for about three decades—and then the seventies and eighties pretty much killed it for everybody.
Continuing the theme of movie connections, the sequence in The 39 Steps where Robert Donat’s character is roped into doing an impromptu speech at a political rally is similar to the sequence in The Third Man where Joseph Cotton’s character is roped into doing an impromptu speech at a book club. I’ve always wondered if there was some Hitchcockian influence there… after all, The Third Man director Carol Reed and Hitchcock were contemporaries for awhile in Britain, and Reed directed Night Train to Munich, a sequel/remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
Okay, I’ve got to get back to that ending. Why in the world does Mr. Memory just suddenly rattle off all this secret information? The best reason I can come up with is professional pride, but that’s just about the dumbest motivation ever in a movie. Esther Williams movies had better thought-out motivation than that! The ending just doesn’t make any sense! I’m done.