It's a good bet that in any packed, claustrophobic gathering of movie buffs, some wiseacre will declare, "This reminds me of the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera." The scene, which occurs in the Marx Brothers' 1935 gem, occurs aboard an ocean liner in which the brothers are traveling as stowaways. (Being the Marx Brothers, they aren't terribly secretive about it; they flirt brazenly with female passengers, torment various stuffed shirts, and complain to the captain about how poorly the ship is run.)
The boys somehow find their way into a tiny stateroom. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico insist on inviting everybody who comes along to pop in and join them, from a maintenance man to a manicurist. As the tiny room steadily accumulates more occupants than the Waldorf Hotel, Groucho dickers with a room service waiter, obsessively revising and enlarging his order and ending each revision with a new number of hardboiled eggs. (The addition of each egg is heralded by Harpo honking his bicycle horn.) The film claims a number of other comic splendors, one of the finest being a chase backstage in an opera house which sees Harpo, then 53, sailing from rope to catwalk and back again without the aid of a stunt double. All in all, the picture is a minor milestone in slapstick anarchy.
It's also notable for another reason. The film signaled the end of the comedians' association with Paramount pictures (their last project for the studio was 1933's Duck Soup, which was so adventurously loony that it bombed at the box office) and the beginning of their partnership with MGM's resident wunderkind, producer Irving Thalberg, who set about taming the Marxes' anarchic impulses and ensuring that status quo moviegoers would view them as sweet and cuddly rather than impishly threatening. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico fought the good fight, retaining much of their take-no-prisoners nuttiness through Night and its 1936 sequel, A Day at the Races, before finally succumbing to those who would defang them by reducing them to supporting status in their own films.
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Fortunately, their first two MGM efforts afford a glimpse into a rarely attained state of comedic equilibrium in which genius forms a partnership with accessibility and the audience still comes out ahead. Perhaps the enduring appeal of the trio was best summed up in a 1968 Associated Press story about student riots in Paris, in which an anonymous young revolutionary proudly declared, "I am a Marxist--of the Groucho sort."
The two films screen nightly at the Major Theatre through March 9.
Matt Zoller Seitz (firstname.lastname@example.org