[box cover]

A Night at the Opera

Students of the gospels of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo are often dismayed that A Night at the Opera commonly ranks as the Marx Brothers' funniest film. It's not. Duck Soup is, and by quite a margin. But that assessment is one of the paradoxes of changing times and tastes. Now hailed as the Marxes' crowning masterpiece, Duck Soup, the lunatic war farce from 1933, reputedly bombed at the box office. Whether Depression-era audiences had moved on from the quartet's whacked-out style, or the time wasn't right for a war comedy while once again dark clouds formed over Europe, Duck Soup didn't perform as well as its predecessor, Horse Feathers. The story is that the box-office drop ended the Marx Brothers' contract with Paramount. Actually, bitter disputes between Paramount and the Brothers likely had more to do with their parting of ways once their five-film contract was completed. In any case, Groucho figured that their film career was over.

Then Irving Thalberg, MGM's boy genius and the most powerful producer in Hollywood, told the Brothers that he could produce a Marx Brothers comedy with half the laughs and do twice the business. MGM being the prestige studio in town, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico leaped at the chance. (Zeppo bowed out and became an agent.) Thalberg was true to his word, and in '35 the Marx Brothers' first MGM musical comedy, A Night at the Opera, quickly became their most popular film. It dialed down the anarchic revelry of their Paramount pictures and amped up the production values and lavish musical numbers that had made MGM the taste of the times.

The napkin-thin plot gives the Marxes enough room so that, as Pauline Kael noted, "two beautifully stuffed American targets — grand opera and high society — are left dismantled, flapping like scarecrows." Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, a two-bit entrepreneur finagling his way into better straits by wooing a wealthy widow, Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, back again as the straightest of straight-women). With Chico and Harpo, together they guarantee that two young lovers — opera singer Rosa, played by 21-year-old Kitty Carlisle, and down-at-the-heels tenor Ricardo (Allan Jones) — are united both on and off the New York Metropolitan stage despite the villainy of a fusty impresario (Siegfried Rumann) and the pompous, bullying male diva (Walter Woolf King) who loves Rosa. Along the way, we discover that there ain't no Sanity Clause, how many people can fit into one stateroom, what to do with the beards of foreign aviators, the fine art of driving a detective nuts, and how to crash a party of the first part. Groucho's verbal arrows fly high and fast. The lovers' required songs are unmemorable, though Chico's and Harpo's solo performances after Jones' big "Cosi Cosa" number are their most endearing.

A Night at the Opera isn't the funniest, but it is the glossiest, most polished film in the Marx canon. So it earns its spot high on any list of classic Hollywood comedies. The stateroom scene is a highpoint in movie funny business, and the assault on Verdi's Il Trovatore is a hilarious spectacle of literally operatic proportions. No matter which character is your favorite — wisecracking icon Groucho, ethereal Harpo, or whatsamattayou Chico — each delivers on his multiple opportunities to plant a grin on your face. The semi-plot involving Carlisle and Jones is bottled ennui, though fans of the Marxes already know to wait out the sluggish parts for the scenes where the masters take over.

On the downside, A Night at the Opera is aggressively mainstream. The Marx Brothers playing Cupid aren't as much fun as when they channeled only Loki. They still let the air out of stuffed shirts and barbecue a few sacred cows, but something got lost in all that MGMness when the screen's ultimate anti-authoritarian team starting working the Andy Hardy side of the street. Director Sam Wood was poorly suited for a Marx comedy (Groucho hated him), and Thalberg's formulaic, big-budget house style was Ritalin to the Marx's anarchic, improvisational zing (and hasn't aged terribly well). Home video only accents a problem built into the performances and editing from the get-go: Because key scenes had been road-tested repeatedly in front of live audiences before the cameras rolled, some routines — such as the "There ain't no sanity clause" contract-annihilation bit — are sluggishly timed every time Groucho and company pause for movie-house laughs.

But the threesome barrel through by sheer dint of being the Marx Brothers, making this their last great film as well as their personal favorite. Its follow-up, A Day at the Races, began an accelerating slide into mediocre money-losers, a decline that was perhaps unavoidable after the death of Thalberg, the Brothers' champion at MGM, during the production of Races.

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Grabbing A Night at the Opera on DVD is a no-brainer, especially with Warner Brothers' first-rate presentation. The print comes from a very good restoration that had a theatrical release in 2003. The black-and-white image displays commendable clarity, definition, and grayscale. The DD 1.0 monaural audio is predictably thin and comes with a little hiss, but it's still plenty clear and clean and trouble-free.

A fine collection of extras begins with the commentary track by Leonard Maltin, who proves to be both a knowledgeable authority and an enthusiastic fanboy whose affection for the Marxes is dialed up to 11. His caffeinated delivery sets a new words-per-minute speed record as we get the scoop on everything from the movie's ungracefully cut opening to Marx history, character analysis, cinephilic technical points, and behind-the-scenes tales. Sometimes Maltin prattles too much ("...this is what we call 'exposition'..."), but he's on the money when he explains why we all want to be Groucho in our real lives.

A new retrospective is "Remarks on Marx" (34 mins.), an informal lovefest with Kitty Carlisle, Dom DeLuise, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Robert Osborne, and others who provide a good thumbnail of the Marx Brothers' career, then focus on A Night at the Opera. "Groucho Marx on the Hy Gardner Show" is five minutes of 1950s vintage TV footage with Groucho giving his version of the dubious but entertaining naked-in-Thalberg's-office legend.

We also get two period MGM shorts — Robert Benchley's 1935 comic "How to Sleep" (10 mins.) and "Sunday Night at the Trocadero" (20 mins.), a routine "galaxy of stars" showcase from 1937. Then there's A Night at the Opera's theatrical trailer with its perfect stand-in for MGM's Leo the Lion. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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