The Plot: Harpo, Chico, and Groucho Marx bring their sublime brand of anarchy to perhaps its most fitting setting in this comic masterpiece. Groucho is (as ever) a fast-talking fortune hunter (this time called Otis P. Driftwood), chasing (as ever) dim dowager Margaret Dumont (this time called Mrs. Claypool).
Mrs. Claypool brings two Italian opera stars to the United States (Kitty Carlisle as sweet Rosa and Walter Woolf King as cruel Rodolfo Laspari) on board an ocean liner. Talented tenor Riccardo (Allan Jones), who loves Rosa, his manager Fiorello (Chico Marx), and Tomasso (Harpo Marx), Rodolfo’s abused dresser, stow away in Driftwood’s steamer trunk. They manage to get off the boat disguised as bearded Russian aviators, but are discovered and are chased by a New York detective. When Rosa refuses Rodolfo’s romantic advances, she is fired. But Tomasso and Fiorello wrack havoc on the opera’s performance of “Il Trovatore,” until Rosa and Riccardo come in and save the show.
Discussion: Many of the Marx Brother’s best-loved routines are here, including the wildly funny contract negotiation, as Groucho and Chico try to con each other (“That’s what we call a sanity clause.” “Oh no, you can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!”) and the famous stateroom scene, as person after person enters Groucho’s closet-sized room on the ship, while Harpo manages to stay asleep (and draped over as many women as possible) and Groucho stays philosophical (when the manicurist asks if he wants his nails long or short, he says, “You’d better make them short; it’s getting pretty crowded in here.”). The movie veers happily from the wildest slapstick (the Marx brothers replace the music for “Il Trovatore” with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) to the cleverest wordplay (by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind), punctuated by musical numbers that range from pleasant to innocuous. Children studying piano may especially enjoy Chico’s speciality — playing the piano while his fingers do acrobatics. And all children will enjoy learning that the stars were real-life brothers, who performed together for most of their lives.
Questions for Kids:
· Why won’t Rodolfo sing to the people who came to say goodbye to him?
· The Marx brothers play people who are not very nice in this movie — they steal, they cheat, they lie, and they cause havoc. How does the movie make you like them anyway?
Connections: This was the most commercially successful of the Marx Brothers movies, in part because of the very sections that seem most tedious to us now — the serious musical numbers and the romance. Children will enjoy the other Marx Brothers movies as well, especially “A Day at the Races” (NOTE–that movie contains some material that seems racist by today’s standards, particularly a rather minstrel show-ish musical number), “Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers,” and “Monkey Business.” Fans of the many movie references in “The Freshman,” with Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando, may notice that Broderick’s fake passport is in the name of Rodolfo Laspari.