The Marx Brothers completed Duck Soup in 1933 and either opted not to renew their contract with Paramount, or were cut off from the studio due to the poor box office performance of their latest film. They were set adrift without a home, a situation similar to the one they found themselves in around 1923, when they were blacklisted by both of the major American Vaudeville circuits. Chico came to the rescue when he went to a poker game and met an investor willing to put up the money for a theatrical revue. Chico came to the rescue again one decade later, when he met MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg in similar circumstance. Thalberg was one of the greatest producers in Hollywood’s golden era, despite the fact that he never took onscreen credit in any of his films. His ideas on what to do for the next Marx Brothers would not only have a profound effect on A Night at the Opera, but would also give the Brothers’ career a new direction.
Thalberg wanted to make a Marx Brothers film that win over female filmgoers, who were probably not a major segment of the demographic for their earlier films. Women in the Marxian universe, best represented by the statuesque Margaret Dumont, were like an older sister to four rambunctious brothers—the target of bullying and practical jokes. Thalberg wanted the Brothers to be in a position to help a set of young lovers, and wreak havoc on anyone who kept them apart. The insults and gags would be reserved for the police, opera directors, and mayors—even Maggie Dumount is comparatively saved. Star-crossed lovers had been a small part of the first films Marx Brothers films, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, but in A Night at the Opera, Thalberg brings the story into the foreground, with a pair of struggling opera singers in love played by Kitty Carlise and Allan Jones as one of the first of many replacements for Zeppo. The Brothers sabotage an opening night performance of Il Trovatore in order to humiliate the arrogant singer Rodolfo Lassparri and give a chance for Jones’s character to sing in front of an audience.
But the rather syrupy love story does not get in the way of the comedy for very long. A Night At the Opera contains some of the most celebrated sequences in the entire Marist oeuvre, including the contract scene, which is funny despite the fact that it is nothing more than two men standing before an unmoving camera discussing a contract for an opera singer, each new line in their dialogue making their attempts to clarify the agreement more and more futile. The other famous scene has Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and dozens of others pile into a tiny stateroom onboard an ocean liner from Italy to New York. Thalberg, perhaps sensing that the Brothers had gotten a bit rusty, took the novel step of having them take scenes from the developing screenplay on the road, and the boys went on the stage for the first time in over five years. When jokes got a good laugh, they were locked in the script. Those that did not were continually tweaked until they got the desired reaction. Groucho tried out various intonations and minor substitutions on the road. Because of this, his delivery in A Night at the Opera is pitch-perfect. The closing line of his impromptu speech before the opening night performance does not look especially funny on paper, but it is hilarious in the film: “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. Play, don.”
In A Night at the Opera, the Marx Brothers met a new collaborator in the form of Sig Ruman, whose pomposity served him well in three films with the Marxes, as the perfect foil for Groucho’s well-meaning low-life characters.