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.
Sam Wood's "A Night at the Opera" is a film filled with the typical Marx Brothers fun. No comedy group has proven so adept at squeezing out laughs from any situation. The chaotic energy produced by the Brothers truly is something to behold as no circumstance can escape unscathed from their manic, yet wildly entertaining, comedic destructiveness.
Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) is a fast-talking manager who tells Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) that he can get her into high society if she agrees to invest her money in the New York Opera Company. The head of the opera company, Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) wants to use her money to hire Italian sensation Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) but Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and Fiorello (Chico Marx) want to steal the spotlight for their friend Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), an up-and-coming tenor waiting for his big break. Also figuring into the mix is Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle), the beautiful soprano who is in love with Ricardo but who is also being pursued by Rodolfo.
"A Night at the Opera" is actually a sweet love story at its core. The destined pairing of Ricardo and Rosa is the one element of the story that keeps the film moving forward. So engaging is the couple that you're cheering for them from the start. However, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico together make up a comedic force that just will not be ignored. They do their very best to steal your attention away from the young lovers and they succeed as usual. Whether it is Otis crowding everyone from the bellhop to the manicurist into his stateroom or the diabolical plan of the trio to make the opening night audience despise Rodolfo, you cannot help but smile at The Marx Brothers' exploits. The supporting actors are also in fine form as Dumont, King, Jones, and Carlisle maintain enough screen presence to keep from being overshadowed - no small feat when you consider who their co-stars are. Take a look at "A Night at the Opera" and brace yourself for the most fun you will ever have at the opera.
This movie is a hilarious farce mocking opera.