I've probably seen the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera" over two dozen times, and it never fails to make me laugh. The Brothers created an instant hit with the comedy in 1935 and an instant classic as well.
The Marx Brothers got their start in movies as Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, filming their stage hit "The Coconuts" for Paramount in 1929. Then followed "Animal Crackers" (1930), "Monkey Business" (1931), "Horse Feathers" (1932), and "Duck Soup" (1933). But "Duck Soup," today often considered their best film, was a box-office bomb, and by this time Zeppo, playing the eternal straight man to his brothers' zaniness, quit the team. The Marx Brothers weren't sure if they'd ever work again. But Irving Thalberg, the young genius head of MGM, came to the rescue. He lured them to his studio, gave them a tighter script than they had ever performed in before, a rather silly subplot involving two young lovers (Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle), bigger production numbers, and a larger budget than the boys had ever seen. The combination worked, and "A Night at the Opera" became the most financially successful movie the Marx Brothers made, leading to six more movies at MGM before they retired the act in the mid 1940s.
Forever looking to puncture the ballon of pomposity, the Marx boys found a perfect object for their manic buffoonery in the often stuffy opera scene. In "A Night at the Opera" the Brothers manage to deflate every wealthy, snobby patron of the arts they can find, while at the same time managing never to denigrate the music of opera one bit. Indeed, the movie contains a good number of bits and pieces from Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci" and Verdi's "Il Trovatore" and probably introduced opera to any number of people who might not have appreciated it before. In any case, it's the people, not the music, the Marxes are after, and they do it with abandon.
Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, his typical fast-talking con artist with the quick quip trying to make an easy buck by swindling rich matrons, in this case a Mrs. Claypool, played by one of Brothers' perennial foils, Margaret Dumont. Ms. Dumont was ideal for these kinds of roles because she always played it so straight, never appearing to understand the jokes that were perpetuated at her expense. It's good acting. Also on the pompous side are a snooty opera singer, Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter King), who gets a good comeuppance by the movie's end; the manager of the New York Opera Company, Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman); a snoopy detective, Henderson (Robert Emmet O'Connor); and various New York City dignitaries.
Chico and Harpo play old friends, Fiorello and Tomasso, who are helping another old friend, Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) win his girl, Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle), and snag a singing job for Ricardo with the NY Opera. As usual, Chico is the Italian-mangling punster, going on a mile a minute with double entendres, and Harpo is the mute clown in blond curls and trench coat.
The story line is divided into three parts of about the same length. Part one takes place in Italy, where all the participants meet up; part two is on an ocean liner heading for America; and part three is in New York City. Each part has its own share of classic gags, which I hesitate even to mention for fear of spoiling the fun for those who haven't seen them. But I will. A couple, anyway.
In part one, we have the famous "Sanity Clause" gag. It's possibly the single most memorable line from any Marx Brothers film ever. In part two, we have the stateroom scene. It's possibly the most memorable extended comic episode in any film, period. And in part three, we have the climactic opera sequence. It is complete anarchy and totally hilarious. As Groucho says of the old gypsy in "Trovatore," "Boogie, boogie, boogie!"
In addition to the music of Leoncavallo and Verdi, two new tunes were introduced to the public, songs that had been kicking around the MGM lot for a while and were made popular by the film. The first is "Alone," by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, sung by Ms. Carlisle. The second is "Cosi-Cosa," music by Kaper and Jurmann, lyrics by Ned Washington, sung by Mr. Jones. The songs do nothing to impede the general lunacy of the proceedings.
Finally, no tribute to the best Marx Brothers' movies can be complete without mentioning the celebrated American playwright who helped write many of them, George S. Kaufman, the same fellow who authored "Dinner at Eight," "You Can't Take It With You," "The Man Who Came to Dinner," and "George Washington Slept Here." To have such a distinguished comic dramatist on your side can't hurt.
With a great cast, some of the funniest lines in movies (Henderson: "I see the table is set for four." Driftwood: "That's nothing. My alarm clock is set for eight"), pleasing music, and a goofy story line, "A Night at the Opera" is a comedy gem. Some younger viewers may find it's not racy enough or not politically incorrect enough or not hip enough for them, but for me the movie was all of those things when it was made and has simply improved with age.
It's obvious that Warner Bros. obtained the very best print of the film they could find and transferred as well as could be expected. The absence of any lines, scratches, or age spots also indicates they may have cleaned it up a bit, too. The black-and-white contrasts are vivid, with blacks especially deep. The only flaw is that there is a fine grain visible most of the time that gives the overall appearance of the picture a slightly gritty look. In other words, the video is fine and better than I've ever seen it, but it's still not perfect.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack does a great deal to clarify the audio compared to my old videotape of the movie, but it doesn't clean it up enough not to notice a small degree of background noise. The problem I always had with the tape was the high amount of noise and the generally muffled vocal passages. These issues have largely been rectified on the DVD, and dialogue is now rendered more clearly audible. Just don't figure on much in the way of dynamic range or frequency extremes; this is a pretty old sound recording, and only so much can be done with it.
I was delighted by the extras Warner Bros. included on the disc. They may not be as numerous or as extensive as on some more flashy, two-disc DVD releases, but they make up for sheer quantity in their quality of entertainment. First, there is an audio commentary with film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who waxes enthusiastic at every turn but provides a wealth of technical and historical information about the film, too. Equally enlightening is an all-new, thirty-three minute documentary, "Remarks on Marx," that includes background and reminiscences about the Brothers from comedians, comedy writers, and film experts. Then, there's a brief interview with Grouch Marx taken from television's old "Hy Gardiner Show" in 1961. The highlight of the bonuses, though, is Robert Benchley's 1936 Academy Award-winning short subject, "How to Sleep," the droll, deadpan comic author an absolute crack-up. Also of nostalgic interest is a second vintage short, "Sunday Night at the Trocadero," with Reginald Denny. The extras conclude with twenty-six scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
I hope I've made my point that "A Night at the Opera" is one of the highlights of Hollywood film comedy. Whether or not it's the best of the Marx Brothers' comedies will remain a matter of opinion, but for me it right up there at the number-one spot.
"A Night at the Opera" may be bought alone or in a five-disc box set that includes all seven of the movies the Marx Brothers made for MGM. Although the MGM Marx Brothers movies became tamer and tamer after "A Night at the Opera," they all provide at least a few good laughs. "A Night at the Opera," "A Day at the Races" (1937), and "A Night in Casablanca" (1946) may all be had separately, but you have to buy the whole box to get the double features of "Room Service" (1938) and "At the Circus" (1939) and "Go West" (1940) and "The Big Store" (1941). For me, it would be worth the investment.