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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Night At The Opera --- Part Two

For all the trouble he’d taken, Thalberg’s formula would only work once. A Night At The Opera had a negative cost of one million to recover, not an easy thing for a comedy team who’d peddled similar onscreen wares since 1929. Then as now, you either liked The Marx Brothers or you (resolutely) did not. The ink was probably dry on trade raves shown here weeks before the picture opened. The majors had a knack for creating the perception of a hit --- never mind what Mr. and Mrs. Patron really thought. Reviews not corrupted were often ignored. Photos of lines outside Broadway theatres conveyed a more forceful message. Year-end accounts told the real story, and that wouldn’t be shared with the press or public. A Night At The Opera earned domestic rentals of $1.1 million, surely a (so far) peak for the Marxes, but less than MGM specials of that year were typically bringing. Foreign was $651,000. Worldwide rentals totaled $1.8 million. Final profits were only $90,000. Thalberg sought the Marxes because he felt Metro needed comedians. Season contracts with independent exhibitors came with expectation of a balanced program. Disappointment over A Night At The Opera would not discourage Thalberg, but would he have stayed with the Marxes had he lived to see the losing numbers A Day At The Races generated? That follow-up to A Night At The Opera, still in production at the time of Thalberg’s death, took a considerable bath in red ink. A negative cost of $1.7 million was not equaled by domestic rentals of $1.6. The eventual loss was $543,000. Subsequent Marx Brothers features would be downgraded in budget and prestige. At The Circus lost $492,000, Go West (at a cost of $1.1 million) came up short by $206,000. The Big Store’s trailer depicts crowds howling for the team to come out of announced retirement to do one last comedy for MGM, but were there so many left to care by 1941? A Night In Casablanca was said to have been made at Chico’s behest (he was in serious, if not life threatening, dutch over gambling markers). The 1946 independent released through United Artists would surprise naysayers and become the biggest grosser the comedians ever had, the unexpected all-time champ of Marx Brothers movies. In fact, it would be A Night In Casablanca that paved the way for A Night At The Opera to finally go into profit.

They could scarcely have picked a better time for an encore. 1946 was a US summit for theatre attendance. Seems everybody spent that first year back from the war going to movies. A Night In Casablanca may not have been prime Marx Brothers, but turnstiles were spinning to the tune of $1.8 million in domestic rentals, with $894,000 foreign. This was a record on both counts for the team. A worldwide final of $2.7 million suggested possibilities for a real comeback. The Marxes were in for a percentage. Were they fully apprised of how well this picture did? Looking back on the Paramount dispute, I wonder. The team was by now showing age. Making pictures was more trouble than they were worth. For Groucho, working alone seemed preferable. Would a major studio have embraced the team after A Night In Casablanca? MGM tested waters with a December 1948 reissue of A Night At The Opera. Their New York sales team had noted revivals of old Paramount Marx features at art houses around Manhattan. Flat rental peanuts to be sure, but what if the company really got behind A Night At The Opera with an all new campaign and top-line bookings? MGM’s newly christened reissue program (Masterpiece Reprints) had led off with the stunning success of A Rage In Heaven, a 1941 feature that took an amazing $1.2 million in profits during 1946. This was followed with more library favorites, and further gain --- Boom Town ($862,000), The Great Waltz ($1.0 million), and two Tarzans, Secret Treasure ($410,000) and New York Adventure ($434,000). A Night At The Opera was trade shown, ordinarily the exclusive province of new releases, and sold on a percentage basis. Domestic rentals were an outstanding $633,000, with foreign an additional $435,000, for a worldwide total of $1.0 million. The profit was $746,000. Save Love Happy and its unremarkable one million in domestic rentals, there would be no further Marx Brothers starring features (Groucho’s appearance but an extended cameo). A Night At The Opera would return by way of Metro’s Perpetual Product Plan, an early 60’s scheme wherein vintage features were sublet to independent distributors throughout the country, with final revenue split between franchise holders and MGM. Between September 1, 1962 and August 31, 1967, there were 202 bookings for A Night At The Opera at an average flat rental of $49. Total film rentals received by Metro amounted to $9,808. Most engagements were in urban revival houses. Any theatrical revenue for A Night At The Opera was found money, as this title had been playing syndicated television since August 1956.

A Trojan Horse entered the United Artists theatre shown here in December 1935, A Night At The Opera intersecting with technology that would one day finish off Hollywood’s Golden Age of leisure domination. The Los Angeles crowd above is welcoming arrival of a mystery apparatus (weighing in at 8,400 pounds and costing $75,000) being transported into the theatre. Manager Thomas D. Soriero became the nation’s first video showman that day. Television in its present stage is only a scientific novelty and a curiosity, he said, but television equipment on display and in use within the theatre by the patrons makes good publicity for any house. An onstage lecture preceded each run of A Night At The Opera and explained miracles awaiting the audience in lounges wherein transmitters and receivers had been installed. There was a bank of picture telephones at which you could both see and hear persons located in other parts of the theatre. Soriero, a self-described pioneer of television, gave assurance that the new medium was anywhere from five to ten years away from general usage. Some time in the future one will sit at home and watch the latest movies as well as current events and stage productions. Prophetic words in 1935. The Federal Communications Commission, itself a recently formed body, was receiving but a trickle of applications for station licensing. Receivers were still prohibitively expensive, and signals couldn’t transmit beyond four or five miles. Technical glitches included constant radio signal interference with television. Proponents insisted that the new medium would have no more effect on theatre attendance than radio broadcasting or home movies.

I’m guessing a lot of readers have been watching The Marx Brothers as long as I have. Maybe for too long. There’s a point at which you stop laughing and start wondering what it is that’s making other people laugh. I’ve long forgotten what first appealed to me about the team. I spent most of A Night At The Opera trying to remember. You get to a certain age and too many favorites from youth become objects under a microscope --- all of which keeps them interesting and maybe more stimulating --- but comedies wilt on cross-examination, and too much analysis of the Marx Brothers drains every laugh out of them. I confess to having paused several times to remind myself --- Ah, yes, this is supposed to be one of the funniest parts --- and indeed, maybe it would be again were I part of a larger and (more importantly) younger audience. It isn’t fair to blame any movie for one’s overexposure to it. A Night At The Opera is fascinating for what it reveals of a comedy act trying to hang on in changing times (and Opera certainly has some of their all-time best routines --- that bed moving sequence is a marvel of timing). But did viewers in 1935 (or since) want to see The Marx Brothers so humanized? Their last three Paramount features were filled with less people than foils, stereotypes as opposed to individuals. Louis Calhern in Duck Soup, Nat Pendleton in Horse Feathers, and Thelma Todd in Monkey Business belonged in a Marxian universe. The Brothers interact with these only to bedevil them. Sincere interaction is the last thing they need or we want. Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle are all the more distressing for friendly gestures they extend toward the comedians, as this is surely an antidote to the team being funny. The Marx Brothers must act in opposition to all of people and surroundings if they are to make us laugh. Whatever it is, I’m against it --- but three years later, Groucho’s delivering love notes from Allan to Kitty --- and rewarded with a kiss on the cheek that sends him into bashful retreat. Chico pledges unswerving loyalty to friend of long standing Jones. All those years we studied together at the conservatory, recalls Allan’s character. We’re still young, we got our health, replies steadfast Chico, who then volunteers to manage his buddy’s career, for nothing. Chico was many things prior to landing at Metro, kindly and reassuring not among them. Worse still is Harpo’s transformation. The edge if not danger he posed at Paramount is replaced with kiddie host geniality, a forerunner to harmless fools who’d smuggle bananas past Captain Kangaroo. The brats guffawing around Harpo’s piano would not have taken such liberties in earlier films. Accommodations made for these and other tender sensibilities make it harder for the Marxes to play off each other successfully. Soft hearts once revealed are less credible in the guise of anarchists. The loss is most keenly felt at the end when the team goes about demolishing the opera itself, simply because they are the Marx Brothers and this is what they do (or once did). Going through motions of destructive acts both pointless and forced (why wreck the opera when they were so determined to help Allan Jones sing in it?), the comics seem lost in a polished MGM universe, wherein Marx madness would be all too studied in application and conventional in results.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thorough examination.

I really enjoy your use of numbers to demonstrate how the film(s) have done; it really pinpoint a films performance apart from legends and hyperbole.

I have doubts the Marxes could make a go in 2-reel shorts. The idea seems really claustrophobic. Even DUCK SOUP has a number of significant lulls while they reload.

30 or so years ago, my local DC station would run all evening/night Marx Bros marathons. Then, I could go four or five films in a row with no effort, but it would be an endurance test now (maybe it would be true of ANY five films, I've not tried it!). Maybe a young person simply has a greater capacity to absorb all that Marx mayhem, especially if it's all brand-new.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Ye gods. Any comedy that's overexamined will lose its humor.

I think you're looking at ANatO too deeply and attributing to it motives it doesn't aspire to.

I'll grant you Chico's unprecedented altruism, but Harpo's tolerance of children is foreshadowed in at least Monkey Business (must be something about ocean liners) and Groucho's championing of the love plot goes back to The Cocoanuts (to quote Joe Adamson's description of the final shot of Mary and Oscar: "A cutaway! To the Marx Brothers!"). Allan Jones is certainly the best of the non-Zeppos, and I find him very likeable. (And even Zeppo loses his membership in the brotherhood in Duck Soup, when he looks at his hat that has been scissored in two by Harpo and throws it away angrily -- a real Marx Brother would never do that.)

Destruction of the opera? Well, yes, that is what the Marxes do, because they are the Marxes; their motive to to humiliate Lasparri, something that doesn't happen even after all the chaos. It takes a lot to wear that man down.

Sure, ANatO has flaws, but the strengths far outweigh them. Did Groucho ever have a better male foil than Sig Rumann? Is there a better Groucho/Chico scene than the contract scene? I've probably seen the picture 20 times, and still laugh, as I do at all the Paramounts and most of ANatO and ADatR. Thalberg's formula may have had limited duration, but it works for me.

2:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Your points well taken, Dave. Interesting that I took over-anaysis of the Marxes to task, then proceeded to do precisely that! Should make clear that I do very much enjoy the team (still, and in spite of my criticisms!) and I find "A Night At The Opera" very entertaining with some great highlights (especially the bed moving sequence --- Castle Films should have released that on 8mm!).

6:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And don't forget the all-time best routine--cramming all those people in Groucho's phone-booth-sized stateroom with all the attendent one liners and sight gags.

By the way---Castle Films wouldn't have been able to release a home version of Night at the Opera--they only had access to Universal's Library--including old Paramounts.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I love A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. My fave Marx film is HORSE FEATHERS, but NIGHT is... well, it's the only one of the 1,000,000 Hollywood vintage "comedies interrupted by inane lovers and songs" films in which I enjoy the interludes. The songs are great, Allan 'n' Kitty are good, and the destruction of the opera, whether it makes sense or not (and I hope it doesn't) is, simply, hilarious. I showed this movie as part of our FNF a couple of years ago, and I have NEVER seen the kids laugh as hard at ANYTHING they've ever seen, and they grew up on L&H, Keaton, Chaplin, Jim Carrey, and Adam Sandler (the latter two when I wasn't around, naturally).

11:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Received the following from "The Great Bolo Guy" ---

I bought the DVD box set of the five MGM Marx Bros. pix and spot-watched sequences from all five.

I always enjoyed GO WEST the most, but this time, even it did not wet my whistle anymore.

Some properties deserved the slick, polished "MGM formula", but the MARX BROS. and OUR GANG both suffered immensely when they went to work for Leo.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

That hotel room scene from "Opera" is far funnier and more clever than the stateroom scene. First time I saw it I literally fell out of my chair laughing.

The Marx Bros.' original deal with Metro was for only two pictures. The Marxes should have accepted United Artists' subsequent offer of creative control over their movies, but they went for the money at Metro instead. A severe miscalculation.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey John, any numbers on the Marx Brothers reissues from the 70's starting with the National release of Animal Crackers?? I, like so many others at the time, got caught up in the Marxian frenzy that followed. In fact, the theater where I saw Animal Crackers converted over from a second run venue to a "revival house" all due to it's sell-out crowds from the Animal Crackers reissue. Soon all the Paramounts were booked in. Then all the MGMs, then Room Service and Night In Casablanca. I think they even ran Love Happy!! They would give 'em a rest for a month or two and then bring them back. The Paramounts would be on triple bills and the MGMs on double. Over time, the crowds got smaller but nothing will ever compare with what I experienced at those early screenings. Showings were often held up for 15 minutes or more so people could keep moving down to fill every available seat. I saw first hand how the laughter would drown out the dialog of the next joke. Often the sight gags would keep the crowd going even though you couldn't hear the dialog (the Bridge Playing sequence in Animal Crackers is an excellent example of this) Just one more time in my life I would love to see a classic comedy with such an enthusiastic crowd though I doubt that it will ever come to pass.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Dave said...


Sorry if I seemed too adamant.

I agree there's a definite fall-off in quality after the first two MGMs, but all of the Marx pictures have something to recommend them; heck, one of my favorite scenes is "Ridin' the Range" in Go West, which is one of the rare times all three brothers get to play together and just relax; it's a nice moment, even if it's not particularly Marxian.

I first saw Animal Crackers at "The Old Movie Theatre and Motion Picture Hall of Fame" in, I think, 1973. The theatre remains one of the damnedest places I've ever seen a movie. It took up two or more of the rooms of the Saga Motel -- directly across Harbor Blvd. from the main entrance to Disneyland. It had a couple of display cases with movie memorabilia (the only piece of which I remember was allegedly part of King Kong's metal skeleton [I had no reason to doubt its authenticity; still don't]), a self-serve popcorn machine (a quarter a bag) and about 50-60 seats with no rake (though the screen was high enough that it usually didn't matter.)

It was strictly a one-man operation, as (I assume) the owner was also the projectionist and box-office staff. When it was time to start the feature, he couldn't leave the box office untended, so he would shout over the wall with program details until it was time to run to the booth, start the projector, and run back up front.

He showed all kinds of crazy stuff, rare and not-so-rare, in those days when there were probably a dozen good revival houses in Los Angeles (the best of which were the long-lamented Encore on Melrose and the Vagabond on Wilshire).

When Animal Crackers was shown, it was in the days when the picture was still tied up in litigation, and the only traces of it were the tracks on a Marx Brothers LP. The theatre's sole advertising was a black and white flier with a bad reproduction of the poster, but no title, and it was left to the viewer to do the math of what was being shown.

Soon afterwards, the picture began its general re-release, so I've always assumed it was some kind of test run by Universal to see if it had any legs.

Regardless, I've never been to any theatre that was even close to matching its amateur (in the truest sense) enthusiasm.

3:37 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

What a great memory of seeing "Animal Crackers" during the seventies! Wish I could have lived among revival houses in those days, as old ads and anecdotes suggest it was quite a feast in those still (barely) pre- home video days. Thanks for your account of seeing The Marx Brothers in such a unique environment.

Mike --- I surely envy you those Marx Bros. screenings with such large and appreciative audiences. You don't really know any classic comedy until you've seen it with a packed house, and how many of us will ever have that opportunity now? I have run "Horse Feathers" and "Duck Soup" for college groups of forty or so, and they both did well --- four hundred or so in the audience would have been better!

4:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm....Those box office numbers certainly explain the post-Races fall-off better than any other account I've read.

3:54 PM  

It is most certainly different watching classic comedies alone compared to watching them with a crowd (and preferably a crowd in a theater). I have the privilige of having a revival house nearby, a beautiful old movie palace, where I've enjoyed the antics of the Marx Brothers ("A Night at the Opera," in fact), the 3 Stooges, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello on a big screen with a vast audience, and there's nothing like that "shared laughter" experience - hearing it ring out through the crowd. I've even found that some shorts and features from famous funnymen that have been dismissed for years in all sorts of books as being "lesser" play real well in big crowds. So I'm not surprised one iota over "A Night in Casablanca's" success.

We can analyze the films to death and pinpoint the parts where the later films depart from the earlier films in a comedian's portfolio, but if the audience likes the performers, if they find them endearing, it won't matter. Laurel & Hardy are the best example of that. The 8 films they made within the "studio system" in the 1940s (6 for Fox and 2 for MGM) were for decades dismissed by fans of the team simply because a few biographies on the team chose to slam the films. But as Scott MacGillivray revealed in his superbly-researched book "Laurel & Hardy: from the Forties Forward" (which I highly recommend), Stan and Ollie's 1940s output still did really good and sometimes terrific) business in the 1940s, even as Abbott & Costello were eclipsing the earlier team.

Now that all those films have been released on DVD, it's easy to see why they scored with audiences - even when saddled with uncharacteristic plots and/or dialogue, Laurel & Hardy found ways to inject their natural personalities into the material. They had endeared themselves so much to the public that the public was willing to embrace them in the lightest of lightweight entertainments, which I suspect is the case with "A Night in Casablanca," too. In fact, I did an experiment - I lent my boss, in this order "Sons of the Desert," "Way Out West," "Blockheads," "Our Relations,"... and then I had him watch "The Big Noise" and asked if he noticed anything different. All he said was "they looked older." When I asked if he liked the film and if he thought it was funny, he answered in the affirmative. I think that speaks volumes.

Anyway, here's hoping you do a piece on the box office of Laurel & Hardy's 1940s films soon - I think it would make for some interesting reading, because I think a lot of folks are under the mistaken impression that these films that have been critically lambasted all these years were big bombs at the box office - but that just wasn't the case.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I lived in Los Angeles from '82-'93, and I NEVER missed a chance to see the "big Paramount three" ("Monkey Business," "Horse Feathers" and "Duck Soup" for the uninformed) at whichever revival house was playing them, usually either the Nuart or the Beverly. It was a nearly annual event.

Only problem is, the experience has spoiled my desire to watch them at home. When "Duck Soup's" mirror scene is up on a big screen in a packed auditorium, you don't notice there's no sound, and you forget that you've seen the damn thing 50 times before - you just laugh like hell.

About two years ago, The AFI's Silver Theatre in Silver Springs MD ran those films, along with the other two Paramounts, and I took my two oldest kids. Nice to have passed on a tradition.

12:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Michael and AdCopyGuy --- What great reminiscences of Marx Bros. revival shows with those big audiences. Thanks for the first hand accounts.

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attended the official "re-premiere" of "Animal Crackers" in New York in 1974. Packed house, big laughs. Everyone applauded when each brother made his first appearance -- even Zeppo! That was impressive.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NDXW1w Your blog is great. Articles is interesting!

3:45 AM  

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