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FILM : 'At the Opera': Jabbing High Art, High Society

May 30, 1991|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly covers film and theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

The Marx Brothers can give you a lift like nobody else. It's all that gleeful anarchy--riding in their etiquette-busting, pretension-puncturing slipstream is like being a kid who's been given a chance to break all the rules.

Of the Marx Brothers' movie comedies, "A Night at the Opera" (1935), being shown at the Wilshire Auditorium on Friday night, is generally considered the best. You'll get a stiff argument from fans of "Duck Soup," the 1933 pummeling of war and the aristocracy--and in fact, the over-the-brink improvisation of "Duck Soup" is a tad more subdued in "Opera" (though it's certainly still there).

But "Opera" also shows the influence of Irving G. Thalberg, the boy wonder of Hollywood and head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who always felt the Marx Brothers' earlier Paramount films were, while funny, more than a little sloppy. Thalberg gave "Opera" sharper organization, better production values. The result was this now-cherished string of comedy scenes, draped around a typically irreverent Marx plot, this one about the snobby rich and a production of "Il Trovatore."

The stateroom scene, where the Brothers get chummy with about a dozen characters in a space the size of a large closet, often is cited as one of the best and funniest five-minute patches in film history. It is great (Harpo is asleep the entire time; the image of him being passed over the busy crowd on serving trays is a mix of the giddy and the surreal). But the climactic episode in the opera house is at least as good.

Lampooning stuffy high society/high art in quick order, Chico and Harpo play catch with a baseball amid the orchestra during one of the opera's somber movements, and a speech by Groucho skewers the audience's pomposity and that of its chief benefactor, the status-hungry Mrs. Claypool (Groucho's venerable foil, Margaret Dumont).

Although George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind wrote the pun-heavy script, Thalberg is credited with the scenario. He knew that the Brothers would be funniest against a backdrop of the most conservative traditionalism.

His plan to give them a more polished setting had one dubious consequence, though. Because it brought greater reliance than before on Groucho's verbal agility, Chico still got to shine as Groucho's straight man, but Harpo's role was reduced. In the earlier movies, Harpo's mad physical comedy almost dominated, but here he's almost an exclamation point. Groucho talks more and Harpo honks less; that's how Thalberg wanted it.

What: The Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera."

When: Friday, May 31, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Wilshire Auditorium, 330 N. Lemon St., Fullerton.

Whereabouts: Take the Riverside (91) Freeway to Lemon Street and head north.

Wherewithal: $4 and $5.

Where to Call: (714) 871-4030, Ext. 15.

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