I’ve been a fan of the Marx Brothers for as long as I can remember. I’m sure my dad introduced me to them back in the day, but that was so long ago that I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy the films of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo. (There was another Marx brother, Gummo, who was part of the Marxes’ stage act but was never in any of the 13 movies the others made).
Over the years, I’ve seen most of their films, catching them on Saturday afternoons on a random cable channel — back when cable consisted of just a dozen or so channels — or finding them online, and one of my favorite Marx Brothers movies is “A Night at the Opera.” Made in 1935, it depicts the brothers’ attempt to secure a spot in the New York Opera company for Ricardo Baroni, a talented but unheralded tenor. It was the first Marx film made without Zeppo, and it of course stars Margaret Dumont as a potential love interest for Groucho, who is only after her money.
In May, I had the chance to see “A Night at the Opera” on the big screen for the first time, at the Austin Film Society theater. Even though it was the seventh Marx Brothers movie, “A Night at the Opera” made them “big-budget cinema stars,” Josh Frank wrote in the introduction to his book “Giraffes on Horseback Salad.” Frank, also a longtime Marx fan, hosted the showing of the film in Austin as a promotion for his book, which is a graphic novel of what would have been a film collaboration between Harpo Marx and surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
In the early 1930s, Harpo sent a letter to Dali, expressing his love for Dali’s art. In the letter, Harpo invited Dali to visit him in California. Thus started a correspondence between the two. Eventually, Dali had an idea for a movie he wanted to make, starring Harpo, and Harpo used his contacts in Hollywood to arrange a meeting with some studio executives. The film never got made, however, and the script was thought to be lost.
However, Frank, an Austin-based pop culture historian and drive-in movie theater owner, worked with the estates of Dali and Harpo to track down a nearly complete screenplay, and he eventually turned that into his book, which is how we ended up at the Austin theater that one evening watching “A Night at the Opera.”
“There was something for everybody in the movie,” Frank said recently in a phone interview. “The big song and dance numbers that break up the plot, the love story, the antics. These were key ingredients to a big, successful Hollywood movie around that time.”
Frank’s choice of “A Night at the Opera” for the event was based on his own connection to the film.
“It’s the closest Marx Brothers movie to my heart because it takes place around the opera and my mother was an opera singer. And I love how the social order that they’re destroying is this upper-class art world of opera,” he said. “I love opera, but I just love seeing them go to town on it. I think it’s a beautiful movie.”
The American Film Institute ranked the movie 12th on its list of 100 Funniest American Movies of All Time, and what has been dubbed “the stateroom scene” is one of the best scenes in the film. Groucho has been given a tiny room on a ship that is sailing from Italy to New York. Chico, Harpo and Ricardo have stowed away in Groucho’s trunk, which is almost as big as the room itself. Over the course of four minutes, 11 more people cram themselves into the room, and, of course, they all spill out into the hallway when Margaret Dumont opens the door.
That scene has embedded itself in pop culture, where it’s been referenced in shows like Bob Newhart and Seinfeld; Sting and Cyndi Lauper both paid homage to the scene in music videos.
“It’s like its own little universe, and it’s a fully self-contained comedic idea with a beginning, middle and end,” Frank said. “It’s got a great comic build to it.”
Groucho is actually in the hall outside the stateroom for the first minute and 25 seconds of the scene. He spends that time placing a food order with a porter and ends up ordering four different juices; roast beef in varying degrees of doneness; eight pieces of French pastry; and about 30 eggs, many of them hard-boiled, and one duck egg. All that together would make quite the meal, so we chose just a handful of things that Groucho ordered and made a menu from those. We don’t really eat hard-boiled eggs in our house, but since Groucho ordered so many of them, we had to find a way to use them. My online friend Mike Harris, an editor with The Athletic sports website, posted on Facebook recently a photo of a dish he had ordered at P.J. Clarke’s On the Hudson, in New York, and commented: “Maybe the best deviled eggs I’ve had.” P.J. Clarke’s menu lists as one of its starters Green Goddess Deviled Eggs, with avocado, capers and smoked paprika, for $10.75 (for four egg halves).
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast (not instant)
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 2 cups sugar, divided
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 stick salted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, chilled
- 1 teaspoon flour
- 2-3 tablespoons additional salted butter, melted
In a medium bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water with a pinch of sugar. Stir briefly, then let stand for 10 minutes, until foamy.
Gradually stir in the flour and salt. The dough should be soft, but not too sticky. Lightly dust a countertop with flour and turn out the dough onto it.
Knead the dough until it’s smooth and elastic, about 3 minutes. If the dough is very sticky, knead in just enough flour, one tablespoon at a time, until it doesn’t stick to your hands.
Brush a medium bowl with melted butter and place the dough ball into the bowl. Cover and let rest in a warm place for an hour. After the dough has rested for an hour, place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
While the dough is resting on the counter, place the cubed butter, 1 teaspoon flour and 2 teaspoons sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Whip until just combined. Scrape the butter mixture onto a piece of parchment and flatten into a thin rectangle. Place in the refrigerator to chill.
After the dough has chilled, lightly flour a countertop. Roll the dough into a rectangle about 12 inches by 18 inches, with the shorter sides to your left and right. Place the chilled butter mixture on the right-hand end of the dough, at least 1 inch from the edge. Lift the left side of the dough and fold it over the center, then repeat with the right side, like you’re folding a letter.
Roll the dough into another 12-by-18 rectangle and fold into thirds again. Place the dough on a parchment-lined sheet pan and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Repeat the rolling, folding and chilling process two more times.
Butter a 12-tin muffin pan and sprinkle sugar into each tin. Set aside.
Sprinkle a liberal handful of sugar on the counter and onto the top of the chilled dough. Gently press the sugar into the dough. Remove the dough from the sheet pan and place onto the sugared countertop. Roll into another 12-by-18 rectangle. Sprinkle more sugar over the dough, and cut the dough into 12 squares.
Heat oven to 375 F.
Pick up a dough section and pull the corners up and together, making a package. Place in the prepared muffin pan. Repeat with remaining dough. Sprinkle the pastries with more sugar. (At this stage, the pastry can be refrigerated overnight and baked in the morning, if desired.)
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is golden brown. When the pastries are done, remove from the muffin pan and allow to cool on a wire rack before serving. Makes 12 servings.
Scrambled Eggs with Tomato and Basil
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 plum tomatoes, cored and diced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 or 5 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, torn
- Warm buttered toast
In a large skillet, heat the oil and garlic over medium-low heat just until the garlic begins to sizzle. Add the tomatoes and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Whisk the eggs in a bowl, then whisk in the cheese. Add the eggs to the skillet and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring gently, until the eggs are soft and creamy, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle with the basil and serve with the toast. Makes 2 servings.
Green Goddess Deviled Eggs
- 6 large eggs, hard-boiled
- 1/2 medium ripe avocado
- 1/4 cup fresh tarragon, chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 anchovy fillets
- Smoked paprika
- Dill pickle slices (optional)
Peel the eggs and cut in half lengthwise. Separate yolks from whites, reserving both.
Place the yolks, avocado, tarragon, parsley, vinegar, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and anchovies in a food processor and process until smooth, about 1 minute. Spoon or pipe the filling into the egg white halves. Garnish with capers and lightly sprinkle on paprika. Serve on pickle slice (if you want to be fancy, like P.J. Clarke’s in New York). Makes 12 deviled eggs.
- 1 1/2 ounces vodka
- 3 ounces tomato juice
- 1 dash lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 or 3 drops Tabasco sauce
- Salt and pepper
- Lemon or lime wedge, celery stalk and/or olives, for garnish (optional)
Place the vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and salt and pepper in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake 40 times and strain into an old fashioned or highball glass filled with ice. Add garnishes, if using. Makes 1 drink. (Recipe courtesy of “Drinking with the Saints” by Michael P. Foley.)