ANATO at 80, Part III (Plot, legacy, reception)


Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) has been engaged as the business manager of millionaire widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) for the last three months, but so far he hasn’t delivered on his promise to put her into society. All he’s been doing is drawing a handsome salary. When she confronts him, he suggests she invest $200,000 in the New York Opera Company. Herman Gottlieb, the opera director, is most interested to meet Mrs. Claypool and hear of her generous donation, since he’d like to use that money to sign tenor Rodolfo Lassparri.

We then meet villain Lassparri, in a scene I still can barely stand to watch. My parents tell me The Charlie Brown Christmas Special made me cry as a child because the other kids were being mean to Charlie, and as an adult it’s really difficult to watch Harpo (Tomasso) being kicked around and abused. I actually used this clip when I orally presented a paper on bullying.


Driftwood runs into Fiorello (Chico), and through a misunderstanding, enters a contract to represent another tenor, Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones). Ricardo and his girlfriend Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) are introduced as nice, sympathetic people, an underdog couple we can root for. They fully belong in the story, unlike the dull, chemistry-less couples in the last three MGM films.

The contract scene is one of the film’s most famous scenes. It closes with Chico’s famous line, “There ain’t no Sanity Clause.” This line has been referenced in popular culture a number of times over the years.


Rosa is chosen as Lassparri’s leading lady, but Gottlieb won’t hear of bringing Ricardo to America as well, since he’s just a chorus singer and doesn’t have a reputation yet. Lassparri refuses to sing for the crowd gathered to see the ship off, since he’s not being paid for it, though Rosa happily sings for her fans.

After her beautiful duet with Ricardo, “Alone,” it seems as though Ricardo has been left in Italy, but all is not as it seems. Ricardo, Fiorello, and Tomasso have all stowed away in Driftwood’s giant trunk, and reveal themselves in his tiny stateroom. The crowded stateroom scene is one of the most famous in the Marx Brothers’ catalogue, and has been referenced numerous times in popular culture over the last 80 years.


The three stowaways need to find a way to evade the authorities and unboard in New York, particularly after Lassparri spies them in steerage and alerts the authorities. They hit upon the idea of impersonating the world’s three greatest aviators, who are also travelling on the ship. Understandably, their ruse falls through quickly, and then the chase is on to track them down and arrest them. Driftwood is also in lots of trouble for his role in the situation.


I won’t spoil anything that happens from this point on, but suffice it to say, this team of misfits wreaks havoc on the opera in their quest to humiliate and turn the tables on Gottlieb and Lassparri. We want them to triumph, and to see these villains get their just desserts.

opera scene with Marx Brothers, Kitty Carlisle, Margaret Dumont

ANATO, along with 1933’s Duck Soup, is the best-known Marx Brothers’ film, even among non-fans. The film reviewers of 1935 generally loved and praised it highly, though some longtime fans were shocked and horrified at how MGM toned down their trademark anarchy and forced other stylistic changes upon them. Groucho felt this and A Day at the Races were their best films, because of Irving Thalberg’s magic touch.

Though the surviving print is 93 minutes, ANATO honestly doesn’t feel too long or bloated at all. Sure, there are a couple of scenes which probably could’ve been cut or shortened to make the plot tighter, but it’s all great material, and nothing feels wasteful or like padding. Even all the musical numbers work really well with the story, since the plot revolves around opera.


There are fewer and fewer excuses for all the non-comedic musical numbers in their succeeding films, particularly cringeworthy dreck like “The Tenement Symphony” and “Two Blind Loves.” By the time of 1941’s The Big Store, you can skip all the musical numbers and not miss anything.

They also never got a pseudo-Zeppo as good as Allan Jones after ANATO and ADATR. He works so well because he has real chemistry with the brothers and a genuine relationship completing the plot. He’s an integral component of those stories, and shows a real personality and warmth. You can’t say the same for someone like the annoying, Mickey Mouse-voiced Kenny Baker.

More reasons to avoid cipher characters and storylines

Though I’ve spoken before about why it’s important to make your characters original and fully-rounded instead of ciphers, perhaps no greater evidence for why this is a bad idea comes from one’s own older writing, and seeing it done badly in the writing of others. Just hearing about it in the abstract isn’t the same as seeing actual evidence.

Up until June, I was engaged in radical rewrites and restructurings of my Atlantic City prequel series. I was so embarrassed when I saw the third grade graduation chapter was pretty much based word-for-word on my own eighth grade graduation, right down to the dialogue, the terrible speaker, how many kids kept messing up which hands to shake and take the diploma with, the rip-off congratulatory note we got in lieu of our actual diploma, everything.

This wasn’t merely a case of a scene which didn’t work or needed rewritten, but of a scene which was totally wrong for that book and those characters. These weren’t my characters involved in that scene. It felt wrong and insincere, since it didn’t work with either who these specific participating characters are, nor with the actual world they inhabit.

I based the elementary school graduation in Little Ragdoll on my junior high graduation, but I only used the elements of a terrible, insensitive, offensive, off-topic speaker and a lot of kids mixing up which hands did which. Everything else was original and worked within the established story.


As I’ve mentioned before, so many of Cinnimin’s interests and phases weren’t hers, but rather mine. I wrote my own passions onto my character, and thus they come across as so bizarre, out of left field, and insincere. Her background certainly suggests why she’d be so drawn to Socialism, but nothing in the first draft even remotely implies a deeper reason why she gets drawn so deeply into left-wing politics in the Forties and Fifties. She comes across more as a proletarian version of a limousine liberal.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care if a character is liberal or conservative, how far on the Right or Left, what the specific issues are, or even if I might happen to agree with a specific issue or political party. It has to feel natural for both the character and the storyline. Otherwise, it just comes across as the author forcing in his or her own political views in an extremely awkward, embarrassing way. Give us a reason WHY this particular character is a die-hard Socialist or old-school Republican, don’t just have the character spout cliché catchphrases and engage in stereotypical behavior!


Awhile ago, I gave a 3-star rating to Purple Daze, a YA novel in verse set during 1965. The story felt confusing and disjointed, without enough character and storyline development across the board, and some historically questionable things, like a teacher going by Ms. It also felt like the author were going from a checklist of things to include in a book set during the Sixties, instead of just choosing a few really important issues which made sense for that particular story.

A friend of the author left a comment on my review, trying to tell me my personal reactions to the story and the writing were wrong, that I must not’ve lived through the Sixties, and that apparently the story was strongly based on the author and her friends in 1965. That actually made me dislike the book even more, knowing it’s a barely-fictionalized memoir. Instead of crafting an original story and characters, the author just inserted her friends and their experiences, mixed with a few 1965 news stories, and called it a novel in verse. No wonder I couldn’t connect with the story, since it wasn’t really fiction at all!


If you’re going to base a character after a real person, or include elements of your own life and interests, give them lives of their own. When characters and storylines are nothing more than carbon copies of your life, readers will pick up on that, and it’ll be harder for them to connect.

WeWriWa—Clothing choices


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This scene continues right after last week’s, as Arkadiya Gagarina is interviewed for the position of empress-consort. She thinks it’s a waste of time, since she’s already 32 and is only a morganatic princess by chance, but feels bound to sitting for the interview after how kind His Majesty has been to her.

Arkadiya has come to the interview in a long-sleeved gown, though all the dresses she’s been gifted have shorter sleeves. There’s a reason Arkadiya always wears long sleeves, but she hasn’t revealed it to anyone yet. At the end of this scene, she’s invited to use ty, the familiar form of you.


One of the gowns worn by Aleksey’s paternal grandmother, the Dowager Empress Mariya Fyodorovna (née Princess Dagmar of Denmark)

“How come you’re not wearing any of the nice new clothes I got you?”

“I very much appreciate your generous gifts, Your Majesty, but I have no need for such finery.  I’m happy with just my normal, simple clothes, and a few more formal pieces.  Where would I ever wear such finery, and what would I do with it in the meantime?”

“If you accept the position of Tsaritsa, you’ll have occasion to wear formal clothes a lot, even if I’m not keen on regular court functions.  And please, you don’t need to call me Majesty.  I’m just a normal person who happened to have been born into this role.  Just call me Alyosha like everyone else.  In fact, you can use ty with me too.”


The gown worn by Aleksey’s mother, Empress Aleksandra, at her coronation in May 1896

Next week I’ll be taking a brief detour to mark George Harrison’s 14th Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

ANATO at 80, Part II (The making of the film)


As discussed in Part I, ANATO was the Marx Brothers’ first MGM film, and marked not only the start of their work as a trio vs. a quartet, but also the start of a new direction in their comedy style. Gone were the freewheeling scripts of their Paramount years, replaced by more structured plots, requisite subplots revolving around young lovers, and a gradually increasing number of non-comedic musical interludes.

This film was also their first to be previewed before live audiences on the road prior to starting the filming process. Producer Irving Thalberg wanted to make absolutely sure these comedy routines would be big hits, and to time the laughs by the planting of gags. As a result of these road shows, some scenes and gags were cut, and others were created or further developed.


Amazingly, one of the scenes almost cut because of the lack of laughs on the vaudeville circuit was the famous stateroom scene, in which eventually 15 people are stuffed into a room even smaller than an efficiency apartment. It only took on its famous, final character when the Marxes threw away the script and ad-libbed everything.


Director Sam Wood originally wanted to dub the voices of Metropolitan Opera singers over those of Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, but they protested so fiercely, Mr. Wood abandoned the idea. He also compared their voices to those of the planned dubs, and realized no dubbing would be necessary. However, Walter Woolf King (villain Lassparri)’s voice was dubbed over by a Metropolitan singer. He plays a tenor in the film, and in real life, he was a trained baritone.

The beautiful song “Alone” was also slated to be cut, since Groucho and Chico felt it slowed down the action, but Allan went to Irving Thalberg to plead his case. He successfully convinced the producer the song would be a hit, and indeed it was. “Alone” became Allan’s first big hit in his musical career. ANATO also contains another of his early hits, “Cosi, Cosa.”

The film originally opened with the image of a boat on a canal and the superimposed title card “ITALY—WHERE THEY SING ALL DAY AND GO TO THE OPERA AT NIGHT.” There followed several images of everyday Italians performing various bits and pieces from Pagliacci. This opening montage was cut during a WWII rerelease, so people wouldn’t think it God forbid started in Italy or had any connection to Italians.

Several other lines referencing Italy were also cut, but thankfully, a print containing these snippets was discovered in the Hungarian National Film Archive in 2008. Unfortunately, that slightly longer print still doesn’t contain the original opening scene.

Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera)_04

An important lesson from my history with Quadrophenia


The Who’s Quadrophenia has been my favoritest album almost since I finally was able to listen to it for the first time on 18 November 2000, fifteen long years ago now. I’d known about it since 1993, since it was one of the albums in my parents’ rather sparse record collection, but since we no longer had our record player, all I could do was look at the pictures, lyrics, and Jimmy’s story.

At 13, I was horrified and really turned off by the lyrics of “Dr. Jimmy,” since there are some lines which I interpreted as being about raping a virgin. This wariness stayed with me even after I made the move from casual lawnseat fan to serious, hardcore fan. I had to be lying down, on my giant leopard print pillow, when I finally listened to that song that afternoon.


And guess what, it really wasn’t bad or offensive at all. I’d built it up so much, and it really didn’t upset me all that much. Obviously, there’s a huge difference in the brain development of a 13-year-old vs. a 20-year-old, but it also had a lot to do with actually hearing the lyrics sung vs. only reading them, and hearing that song in the context of the entire album.

Jimmy has been through so much teenage Sturm und Drang, and he’s finally reached the end of his rope. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything, and isn’t thinking or acting straight. Jimmy isn’t really saying he wants to rape another guy’s girlfriend (virgin or not), he’s saying he’s legitimately out of control and needs help.

This is the lowest point of the album, and after that comes the instrumental “The Rock,” where all four themes (“Helpless Dancer,” “Bellboy,” “Is It Me?,” and “Love, Reign O’er Me”) appear first separately, then slowly start merging, until finally the music gets faster and faster and they’re all one. The album closes with “LROM,” when Jimmy is finally at peace with himself and committed to going home to fix what’s wrong.

Quad interior

This is why it’s so important to be familiar with a book, album, or film you’re reviewing or discussing. You can only get so much from someone’s else’s review or plot summary. It’s always possible that person has a much different opinion than you would, or didn’t state certain things so accurately, chronologically, or clearly. Even if you have read, seen, or listened to it, you may have misremembered or forgotten some important things if your last experience wasn’t so recent. Unless we’re talking about something like a film you’ve seen 20+ times but haven’t seen in a few years, it’s a good idea to at least skim through it in preparation for writing a review.

Some books are so sprawling and ambitious, it’s hard to nail down a concise plot summary. Actually reading the book, or skimming through it if you’ve already read it several times, can really help to nail down the most important points and characters, and help you decide which things aren’t paramount enough to be included in anything but a super-detailed, blow-by-blow review.


Some plot summaries make a book or film seem really boring, and you can’t understand what all the fuss is about till you actually experience it in context. For example, the classic 1928 film The Crowd may sound rather dull and pointless if a reviewer just says it’s about an ordinary man and his ordinary wife struggling with their relationship and finances, with a tragedy thrown in, against the impersonal backdrop of a giant metropolis. That doesn’t nearly begin to do justice to why this film is so moving, innovative, and special. (But of course, not a lot of non-cinephiles would even know this, seeing as how it’s still not on DVD while pure garbage like Year One gets rushed onto special-edition DVDs.)

Writing a review based on personal experience lets you summarize something in your own words, based on your own experience, with your own opinions and feelings. Obviously, I’ll give a reviewer a pass if it’s something like a lost film or a work of literature not translated into a language the reviewer can read. Then we have to depend upon other people’s word for it, with perhaps some available bits and pieces. However, there’s never a genuine substitute for good old-fashioned firsthand experience.