*Originally writeen 5.10.06 for an Intro to Film course
Comedy, although generally categorized as a film genre, is difficult to precisely define, as there can not only be films strictly based around general comedy as their structure, but also war comedies, horror comedies and more variants of other traditional genres with comical undertones. Therefore it is possible to call comedy a “mega-genre,” broken down into various sub-categories of approach, such as slapstick comedy, which relies heavily on physical gags and timing, screwball comedy, comedy of manners, and parodies. Under the large heading of comedy, all these different types are given their own presence. However, again, any major film genre permits a comic style.
Comedy in film existed from the very beginning of cinematography. In particular, the Lumiere brothers’ L’Arroseur Arrose film, which premiered in 1895 in Paris, is credited with being the first movie to stage the scene in which a child steps on a gardener’s hose, preventing the water flow, and when the gardener puts the hose up to his face to see what’s wrong with it, the child steps off the hose, making water spray in the gardener’s face. Distinction in comedy oriented films can also be made through the utilization of having a main comic figure be focused on throughout a film, as the sole source of comedy in one form or another, and a film which chooses to rather focus on a particular comic style or event which generally effects situations and people.
Yet another different approach used in the history of comedy in films, is a choice between the dominance of physical comedy and action, or the focus on comical dialogue, one-liners, witty observations and a general emphasis on the importance of the characters’ spoken word. Beyond pure sight gages, comedy surrounding “verbal situations” engages the viewer, while simultaneously making them think. (Daniel Lopez 55)
One film in particular that I feel combines both elements of physical comedy, as well as a great emphasis on wit and spoken word is the classic Marxs brothers’ film, A Night at the Opera. Originally written by James Kevin McGuinness, with the screenplay penned by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and starring the three most widely known Marx brothers, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx, and Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool, Kitty Carlisle as Rosa Castaldi, and Allan Jones as Ricardo Baroni, the 1935 film revolves around a simple plot, yet manages to pull off comic brilliance through original dialogue and tremendous sight gages, crafting a sure-fire formula for overall comic genius (Imdb.com). Rosa Castaldi and Ricardo Baroni are two young opera singers. Both are in love with each other and wish to sing on stage together. Despite their equally impressive talent, Ricardo does not hold enough of a reputation in the high opera society to be considered for a part opposite his real life love. Through several comical tactics, overcoming the obstacles before them, together the Marx brothers create the right circumstances, wherein the normal male singer is replaced with Ricardo, allowing him to sing with Rosa, and illustrate his talents on a prime time scale.
A Night at the Opera exemplifies the ideal comedy, as it employs hilarious sight gages, such as the famous ship Stateroom scene, where various maids and room service, along with Chico, Harpo and Ricardo as stowaways on the opera’s cruise ship, cluster into Groucho’s already hilariously small cabin, coincidently offering their services all at once. Meanwhile the room becomes so crowded that when the Mrs. Claypool character opens the door, the mass of people spill on top of her, before the scene fades out. Other outstanding sight gage based scenes include Harpo, climbing up the opera’s set in attempt to get away once it is found out he is a stowaway. This scene includes him climbing up ropes above the set’s scaffolding, and dropping sandbags on his apprehenders’ heads, as he swings form rope to rope in a trapeze-like fashion. However the staple of any of the Marx brothers’ films always couples great dialogue and witty quotables in conjunction with their jaw-dropping slapstick humor. A Night at the Opera offers plenty, such as this from Groucho, in response to hearing the amount of money offered for the opera’s main tenor to sing; “You’re willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of Minnie the Moocher for 75 cents. And for a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie.”
Again, the coupling of fast-paced, intelligently timed physical comedy, as well as unparallel witty dialogues and the energetic dynamic between the characters pull A Night at the Opera together, to an almost astonishing degree. I believe this film best illustrates the vast possibilities of comedy as a genre that can endure the test of time, if executed properly. I feel outright hilariousness, merged with an aura of intelligence and self-awareness in the character interactions makes a great comedy, and the Marx brothers’ A Night at the Opera lives up to this and more, cementing it as one of their masterworks, and an icon in the comedy genre’s history in movies.
Comedy segment :
Lopez, Daniel. Films by Genre. McFarland and Company Publishing. 1993
A Night at the Opera cast/crew info :
http://www.IMDB.com, A Night at the Opera. Visited on 5/9/06.