In the mid-1930s, the Marx Brothers flopped hard with their Paramount comedy Duck Soup (later named by the American Film Institute the fifth-funniest film ever made). Licking their wounds and watching fourth brother Zeppo retreat from performing, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo hung their shingle at MGM, where Irving Thalberg had a vision for their future success. His formula: make the brothers more likeable with careful solicited sympathy, make the comedy funnier by diluting it with more music and romance, and perfect the script by taking it on the road and timing each laugh with a stopwatch. The result is the Marx Brothers' classiest, most representative--and, some would argue, funniest--feature. One thing is certain: A Night at the Opera is a highly influential, laugh-out-loud film-comedy masterpiece.
Groucho Marx—the lecherous, cigar-chomping shyster in greasepaint eyebrows and moustache—conjures himself in a clever entrance by misdirection, and immediately begins firing on all cylinders with a classic dowager confrontation in a Milan restaurant. She's Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, Groucho's favorite foil); he's Otis B. Driftwood, an opportunist who positions himself between Claypool and New York Opera managing director Herman Gottlieb (Sig Rumann) to field for himself Claypool's investment in the opera.
Gottlieb's after Rodolpho Lassparri (Walter Wolf King), a celebrated and hateful Italian tenor with designs on his youthful co-star Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). Rosa only has eyes for the struggling tenor Riccardo (Allan Jones), whose old school buddy Fiorello (Chico Marx, in his resplendent faux-Italian street dialect) offers to serve as Riccardo's manager. Harpo Marx plays Tomasso—a dresser fired by Lassparri for wearing all of the costumes (at once)—with his typically magical abandon, mute but otherwise unconfined.
By virtue of an accidental encounter with Fiorello, Driftwood inadvertantly signs Riccardo instead of Lassparri. The deliriously absurd contract scene lobs one priceless line after another (my favorite: "If my arms were a little longer, I could read it. You haven't got a baboon in your pocket, have you?") as Driftwood and Fiorello try to out-con each other. In quintessential Marx fashion, the characters mutually concede the meaninglessness of their own verbal gymnastics by scene's end. Driftwood: "Now just, uh, just you put your name right down there and then the deal is, is, uh, legal." Fiorello: "I forgot to tell you. I can't write." Driftwood: "Well, that's all right, there's no ink in the pen anyhow." (Playwrights and Marxist collaborators George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind get script credit, though several uncredited scribes took whacks at the razor-sharp script.)
The action shifts to the docks, where the ingenues vigorously serenade each other with the Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown hit "Alone" (sample lushly romantic lyric: "And though I may be alone/I'm not/Alone/As long as I find you in every dream/I know/I'll see you each night in the moonlight's gleam..."). Later, Jones sings the novelty number "Cosi-Cosa" and, climactically, an opera duet with Carlisle. Beside their potent vocal character, Jones and Carlisle both have nice chemistry with the Marxes. Rosa sets sail, but soon Riccardo, Fiorello, and Tomasso emerge from Driftwood's steamer trunk. The starving stowaways set the stage for the riotous "stateroom scene," which elevates claustrophobia into a masterfully constructed and compounded joke.
Duck Soup's zany, mile-a-minute satire is incomparable, but A Night at the Opera has a little of everything the Marxes had to offer. Chico pauses for his signature shoot-the-keys piano solo (played delightfully, in an unbroken take, to an audience of children), followed by a double feature from Harpo: a priceless, proto-Victor Borge routine at the piano and a jazz-classical riff on "Alone" at the harp. At the height of his powers, Groucho flicks lascivious eyebrows and flings lewd double entendres; his loping gait races him into and out of punchlines with dazzling dexterity. Likewise, all three brothers make a door-slamming farce sequence a live-action cartoon of highly improbable fluidity.
Director Sam Wood must get some credit for A Night at the Opera's loopy rhythm and all-ages appeal. Witness the sequence in which Harpo--in a matter of minutes--drops into the ocean, ascends to the height of the mast, then swings into the cabin holding three distinguished bearded aviators. Lifting the beards with childlike enthusiasm, he unnests a moth before wielding a pair of scissors ominously. Soon, Wood makes it obvious that all of that was merely a prelude for a stowaways in disguise scene trapping Chico in a delicious doubletalk speech and the "half-goat" Harpo into another inspired prop-comedy routine.
Not even these lunacies can prepare a first-time viewer for the brilliant, unrestrained hilarity of the Marxes' most fully realized finale: the fast-paced twelve-minute unmaking of a performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore. From the moment Harpo slips "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" into the conductor's score to the spiriting away of Lassparri, the laughs (and gasps, as Harpo's high-flying acrobatics wreak havoc on Lassparri's aria below) fly fast and furious. A Night at the Opera offers sublime mayhem of the highest order.
The effervescent A Night at the Opera looks great on DVD. Some unavoidable jumps in the film come across smoothly, with no audio dropouts (save one split-second exception). It's anyone's guess as to whether the few jumps owe to wear on the available prints or the post-war edits Leonard Maltin describes on his personable, infectiously affectionate commentary (when his prepared comments lapse, prepare for some long gaps). Despite Groucho's pants being a tad noisy and the light, quickly-forgotten hiss on the nearly 70-year-old soundtrack, Warner gets "bravos" for a fine presentation.
The newly minted 34-minute documentary "Remarks on Marx" tosses together the comments of Marx expert Robert B. Wiede, film comedy professionals from the inexplicable Dom DeLuise to fellow Sid Caesar scribes Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, and even a couple of contemporaries who worked with the brothers Marx: writer Irving Brecher (Go West, At the Circus) and A Night at the Opera star Kitty Carlisle Hart. The comedians dissect the brothers' anti-authority anarchy and, in particular, indelible sequences like the contract and stateroom scenes (perfect examples of Thalberg's idea to hone material--down to split-second timing--on the road). Wiede and Carlisle Hart provide the most intriguing dish, enough to justify the pleasant half-hour.
This crown jewel in Warner's The Marx Brothers Collection (also available separately) comes with a few vintage materials, as well, primary among them a five-minute clip of a laconic Groucho on a 1961 episode of The Hy Gardner Show. Here, from the horse's mouth, we get the oft-repeated tale of confronting and befriending the much-feared MGM production head Irving Thalberg. A theatrical (re-issue) trailer is included, complete with the best-ever variation on MGM's roaring Leo. Rounding out the extras are two vintage shorts: Robert Benchley's Oscar-winning "How to Sleep" (a quaint eleven-minute gag parade) and the twenty-minute "Sunday Night at the Trocadero," a cutesy song-and-dance revue with fleet celebrity cameos (notably Groucho and then-wife Ruth).
Warner's disc of A Night at the Opera is a no-brainer for anyone who cares about movies or comedy, and if you've never sampled the Marx Brothers, here's the perfect place to start.
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