Madcap comedy at its best – “A Night at the Opera”

Updated: Oct 12


BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

Right, Groucho Marx plays Otis B. Driftwood, who has dinner with the venerable Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), a millionaire heiress that he has promised to “present to society.” And, Herman Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann), director of the New York Opera Company.


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“A NIGHT AT THE OPERA” – WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION

Blu-ray; 1935; Not Rated

Best Extra: Robert Benchley's Oscar-winner “How to Sleep” included in “3 Vintage Shorts”











HERE'S A MYSTERY for the ages: What did Margaret Dumont know and when did she know it?

An experienced and classically trained actress and opera singer, the formidable Ms. Dumont appeared frequently as Groucho’s hoity-toity foil in seven Marx Brothers’ films including “A Night at the Opera.” Legend has it – and is promoted by Leonard Maltin in his commentary – that she never “got the joke.” Everything the loony siblings did went right over her well-coiffed head. Her position as straight-woman wasn’t acting at all.

I tend to go with Kitty Carlisle, who plays the ingénue soprano Rosa in one of her earliest on-screen appearances here. Carlisle actually worked with Ms. Dumont, and posits that Margaret Dumont knew exactly what she was doing and how to go about it. She’s often referred to as “the fourth Marx Brother” due to her perfect comic timing.

We'll let you decide.


(1) “A Night at the Opera” premiered on November 8, 1935. (2) Groucho Marx with his trademark dark greasepaint mustache. (3) Driftwood meets Mrs. Claypool in Milan, Italy. (4) 21-year-old Kitty Carlisle as opera singer Rosa Castaldi, and Harpo Marx as Tomasso, the dresser for tenor Rudolfo Lassparri. (5) Chico Marx as Fiorello and aspiring tenor Ricardo played by Allan Jones, father of 1960s pop singer Jack Jones.







Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) is in Milan with the venerable Mrs. Claypool (Dumont), a millionaire heiress he has promised to “present to society.” Enter Herman Gottlieb, played by Sig Rumann at the start of his multi-film collaboration with the Marx Brothers, as the director of the New York Opera Company. Groucho convinces Mrs. Claypool to invest $200,000 in the opera, cementing her place in society.

The current production in Milan is “Pagliacci.” The singer is a snarling meanie played by Walter Woolf King. His dresser is an odd little man with wild blond hair who never says a word, but manages to communicate his desires with little or no trouble. We are introduced to Carlisle’s character, a toothsome young soprano in love with aspiring tenor Ricardo (Allan Jones). And wouldn’t you know it – Ricardo went to the conservatory with Fiorello (Chico Marx – the only character in the film who sports an “Italian” accent). Of course, Chico and Harpo the dresser know each other from way back.

Will the youngsters find true love with the aid of the lunatic siblings? What do you think?

There are two big musical set pieces, and one of the most iconic comedy bits ever put to film, the famous “stateroom scene.”


(1) The “sanity clause” bit between Groucho and Chico. (2) Rosa Castaldi sings during the opera “Pagliacci.” (3) Tenor Rudolfo Lassparri (Walter King) tells Rosa that New York Opera director Herman Gottlieb is coming to see him about an opportunity to sing in America. (3&4) Rosa tells Ricardo goodbye, as she joins Lassparri on the S.S. Americus for its transatlantic trip to New York City. The two are contracted to an upcoming opera. (5) The crowd cheers for Lassparri to sing before casting off, but he says, I have a slight tough of laryngitis. (6&7) Instead, Rosa sings Alone as Ricardo joins from the dock.








The film jumps right into the restaurant scene with Groucho, Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman. If it seems kind of a rough start, that's because there was an entire establishing shot telling the audience that we’re in “ITALY – WHERE THEY SING ALL DAY AND GO TO THE OPERA AT NIGHT.” It was a big musical number that had Italian citizens singing and dancing in the streets to music from “Pagliacci” as the camera moves into the restaurant. According to Leonard Maltin, the advent of WWII impelled MGM to cut all references to Italy and Italians, and they chopped it from the original negative. However, according to MPAA records, MGM did the cutting in 1938 at the behest of the Italian government as they didn’t like the way the film made fun of Italian people.

You may recall that the fella running Italy in 1938 – Benito Mussolini – wasn’t known for his sense of humor.

EXTRAS

The Warner Archive Collection delivers a batch of excellent bonus features. As mentioned above, actor/writer Robert Benchley is in top form as both the narrator and the subject in “How to Sleep,” a short film based on an actual study by the Mellon Institute and the Simmons Mattress Company. Its Oscar-winning success inspired two more shorts featuring the veteran of the Algonquin Round Table: “How to Train a Dog” and “How to Behave.”

The "3 Vintage Shorts” is accompanied by two more featurettes: “Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West,” an MGM travelogue, and “Sunday Night at the Trocadero,” a scratchy 21-minute short showcasing the top Hollywood talent of 1937 at the legendary night club.

There’s an interview segment from 1961’s “Hy Gardner Show,” wherein Groucho speaks to what happened in Irving Thalberg’s office after the Hollywood icon kept showing up late for meetings. Also find a documentary, "Remarks on Marx,” with material from fans Carl Reiner and Dom DeLuise, with Kitty Carlisle reminiscing about her experience in “A Night at the Opera.” A theatrical trailer and commentary track with Leonard Maltin round out the extras.




The Famous Stateroom Scene

(1-7) The most iconic comedy bits ever put to film ends up with 14 people inside of Otis B. Driftwood’s No. 58 Stateroom. The cast of characters included: Three stowaways (Fiorello, Tomasso, and Ricardo) three maids, two repairmen, a woman looking for her Aunt Minnie, a manicurist, three waiters, and Driftwood.







AUDIO

The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio mono soundtrack is mostly clear except for the "Sunday Night at the Trocadero” short, which is also quite fuzzy. The movie itself fares much better, with clean dialogue balanced with effects and score by Herbert Stothart, who won an Academy Award for “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). He also composed scores for “The Yearling” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Subtitles are included only for the film.

VIDEO

The 1080p transfer (1.37:1 aspect ratio) was sourced from a recent 4K scan. It’s a near-stunning upgrade from the old DVD. Contrast among blacks, whites and mid-tones is good; so are clarity and detail. A fine wash of film grain maintains that classic cinema appeal. Dirt, scratches and burn marks have been erased. Pretty good for an 85-year-old film.

Keep in mind the bonus features didn’t get video and sound enhancements, and subtitles are missing. A shame since they were available on the old DVD. "Trocadero" suffers the most in visuals and sound, though it’s still accessible.

The antic speed with which the Marx Brothers delivered material can wrongly give the impression that there was a lot of ad-libbing and improvisation going on. With a script by George S. Kaufman, (that George S. Kaufman, Pulitzer Prize winner for ‘Of Thee I Sing” and “You Can’t Take It with You”) and Morrie Ryskind, Thalberg had the company take the show on the road and perform it live in front of vaudeville audiences. They took note of what got laughs, how long they were, and what fell flat.

This might be one of the first test markets.

Improvisation? Brain surgeons aren’t as prepared as the Marx Brothers were when it came to performing their comedy.

— Mike Reynolds


(1-3) During the transatlantic trip stowaway Ricardo sings “Cosi-Cosa,” while Harpo plays “Alone” and Chico entertains the children with “All I Do Is Dream of You.” (4) Harpo falls off the ship. (5) The three stowaways unsuccessfully pose as a trio of bearded aviators. (6) Driftwood gets fired by Mrs. Claypool the four contemplate their next move.






A Night of the Opera - New York City


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