The first movie the Marx Brothers did for MGM under the watchful eye
of Irving Thalberg, A Night at the Opera is a comedic tour de force
that was not only one of the Brother's funniest films, but also one of
the most successful.
The plot to this movie, like all of the Marx brothers' best films, is
really only there as a backdrop, a reason for all the zaniness to take
place. This film starts in Milan. Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho
Marx) is the publicity manager for Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont,) a rich
widow who wants to be a member of society. Otis has arranged for
Mrs. Claypool to donate $200,000 to Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) of the
New York Opera so that they may hire a famous tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter
King.) As Otis puts it: "Don't you see, you'll be a patron
of the opera. You'll get into society. Then, you can marry me and they'll
kick you out of society, and all you've lost is $200,000."
Added to this a typical love triangle. The tenor Lassparri is
infatuated with the female lead in the opera he is appearing in, Rosa Castaldi
(wonderfully played by Kitty Carlisle.) But Rosa loves the equally
talented, but still unknown, singer Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones.)
Baroni's manager is Fiorello (Chico Marx) who pals around with Tomasso
Gottlieb hires Lassparri at $1000 a week, and Baroni is hired by Driftwood
at $10 a week. The entire group then sails off to New York, but this
being a Marx brothers' movie, it is anything but smooth sailing.
This film has some of the boys best comedy bits in it. It has
the contract-tearing scene where Chico and Groucho tear out the clauses
in a contract that they don't understand, and the famous crowded state-room
sketch where more and more people keep entering Groucho tiny room on board
the ship. There is also a lot of the fast banter that the Marx brothers
are famous for. Take this exchange between Groucho and Margaret Dumont
from the beginning of the film:
Mrs. Claypool: Mr. Driftwood, three months ago you promised to put
me into society. In all that time, you've done nothing but draw a very
Driftwood (insulted): You think that's nothing, huh? How many men do
you suppose are drawing a handsome salary nowadays? Why, you can count
them on the fingers of one hand, my good woman.
Mrs. Claypool: I am not your good woman!
Driftwood (tenderly): Don't say that, Mrs. Claypool. I don't care what
your past has been. To me, you'll always be my good woman. Because I love
you! There. I didn't mean to tell you, but you...you dragged it out of
me. I love you!
Mrs. Claypool: It's rather difficult to believe that when I find you
dining with another woman.
Driftwood: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her?
Mrs. Claypool: No.
Driftwood: Because she reminded me of you.
Mrs. Claypool: Really?
Driftwood: Of course, that's why I'm sitting here with you. Because
you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about
you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (To the
camera) If she figures that one out, she's good.
One actress that really stuck out to me was Kitty Carlisle. I
had mainly known her from her many game show appearances, but she did an
excellent job in this film, and even sang her own songs. I was surprised
that she didn't make more movies after this one.
One of the things that Thalberg did with the Marx Brothers was to make
their movies less frantic, and give them higher production values.
This approach worked, and the box office receipts rose. All of their
movies had musical numbers and this one is no different. They wisely
added some comedy bits in the middle of the songs so that the movie wouldn't
grind to a halt, and that seemed to work well.
This movie was cut be censors during WWII. Since the movie was
going to be shown overseas to servicemen, all references to Italy were
removed, about three minutes worth all together. Unfortunately, the
preformed the editing on the negative itself, and no copies of the original
cut of the film exist. While this is a tragedy, the film is easy
to understand as it is, and none of the cuts stand out with the exception
of the opening shot. Originally there was a title card identifying
the location as Milan, and then showing some of the natives singing opera
as they worked. This scene was cut, and the movie opens without an
establishing shot. It just jumps into the action, which actually
seems appropriate for a Marx Brothers movie.
This DVD has the original mono audio track. The quality of the
soundtrack is a little lower than I was hoping for. There is quite
a good amount of hiss in the background throughout the entire film.
Granted that this is a film that is nearly 70 years old, but there are
other films from this age that sound much better. Aside from that
the dialog was easy to understand.
This film was presented in its original aspect ration of 1.33:1.
The image had a fair amount of grain to it, a little more than I would
have liked. There are also several missing frames through the film
that result in jump cuts. The blacks were more of a very dark gray,
but aside from those defects the picture looked fine. There was a
good amount of detail and the contrast was excellent. This movie
could have looked much worse, and the grain shouldn't prevent anyone from
buying this film.
This disc is packed with some great bonus material!
Commentary: There is a running
commentary by Leonard Maltin. This is the first commentary I have
heard Mr. Maltin give, and it was a mixed bag. Whenever I see him
on TV or interviewed, I always get the impression that he is reading his
lines off of cue cards. This commentary is no different. He
doesn't sound natural and relaxed. He also sounds a tad pompous and
talks down to the audience a little, partially to fill up the time.
At one point while two people are talking on screen he says, "Here we have
what they like to call 'exposition.'" During one of the musical numbers
he comments, "This is known as 'selling a song'." I had to laugh
out loud at those. He also spends a good amount of time describing
the scene that you are watching on the screen. Again, I think this
is to prevent long gaps in the commentary, which I don't have any problem
Aside from those critiques, his comments were very interesting.
He related many funny anecdotes about the brothers in general and the filming
of this movie in particular. He points out the character actors
who have small bits and fills us in on their careers. If you don't
mind his speaking style this was a good insightful commentary.
Remarks on Marx: This 34-minute
documentary talks about the Marx Brothers and this movie. It has
many interview clips with friends and movie scholars, and gives a nice
overview of the group. There are many interesting stories and anecdotes
including how they got their nicknames.
Groucho on The Hy Gardner Show:
This 5 minute excerpt from a 1961 TV show has Groucho talking about his
relationship with Irving Thalberg. Groucho was pretty old by this
time, but he still knew how to tell a story. I wish they had included
the entire show.
How to Sleep: This 1935 short
won an Academy Award for best short subject. It's an amusing look at how
to cure insomnia.
Sunday Night at the Trocadero:
This reel long short has a studio executive going to the famous restaurant
looking for new talent. There is a lot of singing, and appearances
by famous stars. Groucho has a small cameo.
There is also a trailer for the movie.
While the audio and video quality is not perfect, they are not too bad.
The movie itself is very funny, and should be in every comedy film library.
Add to that the copious extras and this is a great disc to own. Highly