Sam Wood’s A Night at the Opera finds the Marx Brothers at the pinnacle of their movie career in a wildly entertaining Marxian farce sprinkled with popular and classical singing, a bit of romance, and a lavish production introducing them to a new world at MGM.
The Production: 4.5/5
When MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg brought the Mark Brothers to Hollywood’s biggest and most distinguished studio MGM to make movies, he laid out some ground rules for the trio that they hadn’t worked with during their earlier tenure at Paramount: their antics would regularly be spelled by a subplot involving lovers striving to be together, Harpo’s character would have to undergo a distinct softening: more cherubic and less lascivious, and there would be lavish production numbers which may or may not involve them directly. With those conditions established, the brothers went to work, and their first venture was Sam Wood’s A Night at the Opera, the highest grossing movie of their careers and the movie that reestablished the team as reliable box-office after the disappointing grosses for their last Paramount venture Duck Soup. Groucho always claimed that A Night at the Opera was their best film. While it remains among their greatest achievements, the things Thalberg added then to aid the box-office now seem to be the film’s most glaring liabilities, and their earlier Paramount films now seem to offer the essence of pure Marxian madness.
Frustrated by Otis B. Driftwood’s (Groucho Marx) unfulfilled promises to break her into high society, Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) seeks out Herman Gottlieb (Sig Rumann), head of the New York City Opera, and offers him $200,000 to back his next opera season bringing over legendary but temperamental Italian opera tenor Rudolfo Lassparri (Walter King) who requests up-and-coming soprano Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) as his leading lady. She’s delighted to make her debut in New York but disheartened that her boy friend from the ensemble Riccardo Barone (Allan Jones) will be left behind. But Barone’s manager Fiorello (Chico Marx) and Lassparri’s abused dresser Tomasso (Harpo Marx) stowaway in Driftwood’s steamer trunk and sneak their way into New York eager to reunite the lovers and find a way to have Barone’s great singing talent be discovered even if it disrupts the opening night of Il Trovatore.
Screenwriters George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind have concocted a very nice shell on which to drape two operatic excerpts (from I Pagliacci and Il Trovatore), two popular numbers “Alone” (with Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones each getting to sing it, though he much more ardently) and “Cosi Cosa” (which turns into a rousing production number among the below deck passengers where Wood’s camera takes an exhilarating overhead shot of the twirling couples), and individual musical set pieces for Chico (“All I Do Is Dream of You” played in his inimitable finger flipping style) and Harpo (some hilarious tomfoolery at the piano followed by a gorgeous rendition of “Alone” on the harp). As for Groucho, though he’s denied any musical ditties this time out, he gets to indulge in several memorably insult-laden encounters with Margaret Dumont, a priceless contract negotiation with Chico, and the classic stateroom scene which usually ranks at the very top of all sequences from a Marx Brothers film. Once we get to the opera house (and there are plenty of shenanigans before then both on board ship and in another hotel room romp with Robert Emmett O’Connor as Sergeant Henderson which rivals the one in The Cocoanuts with Kay Francis for rapid-paced farce), the brothers are really turned loose substituting “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to abet Il Trovatore’s overture and using the orchestra pit as a baseball diamond, swinging around the rafters of the theater during the show, and generally causing their own special brand of mayhem. The opera excerpts are rather tedious, but the frantic shenanigans surrounding it render it moot.
The brothers have lost none of their zany effectiveness in the transfer to a different studio though the priceless Margaret Dumont might have been used a little more as she’s always the perfect foil for Groucho. While Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones are attractive and do their own singing with their obviously trained voices, neither is perfectly suited to opera (her voice truly thins out in the upper reaches of her arias making them somewhat stressful to listen to) though they serve well enough as the loving couple the boys are trying to help. Sig Rumann and Walter King are excellent hapless adversaries who have no chance against the boys’ onslaught, and Robert Emmett O’Connor likewise has his policeman’s pomposity deflated when dealing with guys who never found a rule they didn’t enjoy breaking.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully presented in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. While the opening sequence leading into the dining room scene is still missing and there are a couple of frames also still missing in that sequence resulting in the same little skips we’ve seen for decades, there’s no denying that the movie is beautifully clean and very sharp. Grayscale is excellent with rich black levels and crisp whites. Contrast has been dialed in to perfection. The movie has been divided into 27 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is robust and authoritative. There are no problems with hiss, crackle, flutter, or pops in these very old sound elements, and the dialogue, background score and musical numbers, and the sound effects all blend together in a most professional way.
Special Features: 4/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Leonard Maltin offers an excellent, well researched, and crisply delivered analysis of the film.
Remarks on Marx (34:00, SD): director Robert Weide offers a brief biography of the brothers and their act while the boys and the film come under the scrutiny of show business professionals Dom DeLuise, Irving Brecher, Anne Beatts, Carl Reiner, Robert Osborne, Larry Gelbart, and Kitty Carlisle herself.
Hy Gardner Show excerpt (5:23, SD): Groucho relates the famous story of the brothers in Irving Thalberg’s office to interviewer Hy Gardner.
MGM Shorts (SD): How to Sleep (10:40), Sunday Night at the Trocadero (20:18), Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West (8:32)
Theatrical Trailer (2:18, HD): reissue trailer
Sam Wood’s A Night at the Opera finds the Marx Brothers at the pinnacle of their movie career in a wildly entertaining Marxian farce sprinkled with popular and classical singing, a bit of romance, and a lavish production introducing them to a new world at MGM. Highly recommended!
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