The Marx Brothers at their best

'Night at the Opera' plays at the Charles on Saturday

December 25, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach

If only the Baltimore Opera had had Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont around, maybe we'd still be having arias sung from the stage of the Lyric every few months. Alas, it wasn't meant to be; no rich dowager or rapscallion promoter showed up to bail the opera out at the last minute. But this weekend at the Charles, the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera" will show what could have been.

Has there ever been a comedic force to match the combined might of the brothers Marx? Maybe Monty Python in its prime, but there ends the very short list. For many, "A Night at the Opera" is the Marx Brothers at their best (I prefer "Duck Soup," but cherish "Opera" almost equally). It's fast, it's funny and save for poor Allan Jones' performance as the requisite straight man - one can almost sense the audience's collective wish that he get offscreen ASAP, so the mayhem can resume - it's 96 of the most riotous minutes ever captured on celluloid.

The plot has something to do with a near-bankrupt New York opera company and the search for a financial lifeline (which is where the formidable Dumont's rich Mrs. Claypool comes in). Groucho's enamored of Mrs. Claypool's money, Harpo's the abused gofer to a vain, egotistical opera star, and Chico likes to believe he's a whiz at negotiating theatrical contracts (told a contract contains a standard sanity clause, he knowingly chuckles, "Eh, you no fool me, there ain't no Sanity Claus"). There's an ocean voyage, an overcrowded stateroom, a trio of bearded Russian aviators and a symphonic rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." And if that isn't enough, there's even a young and beautiful Kitty Carlisle as the film's love interest.

The genius of the Marx Brothers was that they left no comedic stone unturned. For sheer wit, Groucho has never been matched; his wiseacre delivery and rapid-fire wordplay is a linguistic marvel, beyond which he's just plain hilarious. Harpo was a classic clown, an unrepentant rarely-do-well for whom words were unnecessary, thanks to an elastic face, a handy bicycle horn and expressive eyes that suggested a mischievous genius that simply refused to be outdone. And Chico, dear Chico, kept the pot stirred at all times, assisting Harpo, goosing Groucho and making sure no one took anything seriously.

"A Night at the Opera" is this weekend's offering in the Charles' happily eclectic Saturday revival series. Showtime is noon Saturday at the Charles, 1711 N. Charles St., with encores set for 7 p.m. Monday and 9 p.m. Wednesday (there's no Thursday revival screening this week). Tickets are $6 Saturday, $8 other times. Call 410-727-3456 or go to

Christmas at the Senator: Christmas at the Senator gets an extended run this year, as the celebratory double feature of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol" screens on Christmas Day. Showtimes for director Frank Capra's "Life," the beloved fable of a life well-lived and the easily overlooked but rich benefits thereof, are 3:15 p.m. and 8 p.m. today, while Alastair Sim's seminal turn as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" will be shown at 1:15 p.m. and 6 p.m. on its namesake day. Admission to one or both movies is $6 or $6 worth of nonperishable foods, with proceeds benefiting the GEDCO CARES food pantry.

The Senator is at 5904 York Road. Call 410-435-8338 or go to

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