When the Marx Brothers shifted from Paramount Pictures to MGM, they had been in decline at the box-office and they were worried. Their new producer, the boy-wonder and über-mogul, Irving Thalberg, told them that their next film, "A Night at the Opera", would have half as many laughs and make twice as much money. He was right.
Fans of the Marx Brothers are split as to whether the carefully crafted "A Night at the Opera" is better than or inferior to the manic and chaotic Paramount features. I find myself in full agreement with the two most knowledgeable Marx Brothers fans of them all, Groucho and Harpo. Both say in print that "A Night at the Opera" is the best film they ever made.
The Marx Brothers spent the first half of their careers in small-time vaudeville. In fact they never made it into the big-time vaudeville circuit with such mega-stars as W.C. Fields, Eddy Cantor and Fanny Brice. Being the Marx Brothers, they made the wildly unlikely jump from vaudeville obscurity to Broadway hit with a show called (for no good reason that Groucho could ever recall) "I'll Say She Is". Their next hit show was "The Coconuts", which Paramount filmed during the day in New Jersey while they performed at night on New York's Great White Way.
The Brothers never forgot or lost faith in their vaudeville roots. They did not create their comedy, they forged it before live audiences, seeking shades of nuance or timing by direct experience. In the expansive Hollywood of Thalberg's day, MGM not only understood the Brothers' ways, it put them on the road to test out their comic paces. Many years ago, when this film first showed up on televison, my father told me that he had seen the Brothers do the stateroom scene at (I think) the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco. He remarked that the staged scene had been rather different from the filmed version. Alas, I did not think to ask him what the differences were. Ah, well, I was young and foolish then.
So much for the Marx Brothers, now to the opera part of "A Night at the Opera". Believe it or not, much of the material in the movie is not all that exaggerated.
• Lassparri, the tenor-villain is portrayed as a self-centered womanizer. In our own time, a rather well-known tenor has certainly been accused of treating female choristers as though they were part of his harem.
• Famous soprano A, not so many years ago, famously ejected slightly less famous soprano B from her assigned dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera because B's room was a few steps closer to the stage than A's.
• The wonderful Margaret Dumont portrays Mrs. Claypool as a wealthy woman who turns her money into artistic clout and becomes the object of pursuit by both charlatan (Groucho) and impresario (Sig Ruman). The old Metropolitan Opera House was originally built because the previous building did not have the requisite number of boxes to seat all the aspiring Mrs. Claypools in sufficient glory.
• The misadventures of Sig Ruman's choleric impresario are not so very different from those of Giulio Gatti-Cazzaza, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera during the glory days of Caruso, McCormack and Ferrar. The latter two, for example, were often profitably teamed by Gatti-Cazzaza as the doomed lovers in "Carmen", despite the inconvenient fact that they actively despised each other. And Gatti-Cazzaza had it easy in comparison with the fabulously harried Colonel Mapleson, who spent years on the road with troupe after troupe of operatic misfits and oddballs.
Kitty Carlisle, who plays Rosa, was actually a star of middling magnitude at the Met. As movie actors go, she sings extraordinarily well, although I would not have cast her as the formidable Leonora in "Il trovatore" [note the correct spelling and capitalization, you non-opera fans.] Kitty Carlisle Hart is one of those wonderful creatures whose existence has made the world a better place. When last I caught sight of her, she was as radiant as ever and had become in the real artistic life of New York what Mrs. Claypool had only aspired to.
Allan Jones (father of crooner Jack Jones) was a tenorish baritone or maybe a baritonal tenor whose real strength was in operetta. He gets through what are, in fact, the relatively easy portions of the killer role of Manrico with some grace.
Some Amazon reviewers have indulged in hand-wringing about all the music introduced into the film at the expense of the Brothers. Except for the operatic material, Kitty Carlisle's only song is a pleasant operetta-ish duet with Jones called "Alone". Jones has just one more, "Così Cosá", a big song and dance production number filled with comic bits for the Brothers.
Finally, the opera:-- "Il trovatore" is recognized by opera buffs as simultaneously one of the most thrilling masterpieces ever composed and one of the silliest things ever to be put on stage--all this before the Marx Brothers ever took a hand. Without the Marxist interpretation, the "Il trovatore" production shown on the screen would probably have been rated as pretty good with an adequate (but no more) soprano, excellent production values for the gypsy chorus scene and a crackling good tenor--not Jones but the villain, Lassparri. I've never been able to find out who he was, but whoever dubbed in the singing voice of Lassparri was a tenor of the first rank. I am always a little disappointed that when he storms back onto the stage to make a comeback, he is booed off before he gets out more than the first words of the aria, "Madre infelice".
Thalberg knew his business. The Marxes knew theirs. This is their joint masterpiece and one of the greatest comedies ever made.
HONK!--and two boiled eggs.