A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
(director: Sam Wood; screenwriters: George Kaufman/Morris Ryskind/story by James K. McGuinness; cinematographer: Merritt B. Gerstad; editor: William Le Vanway; music: Herbert Stothart; cast: Groucho Marx (Otis B. Driftwood), Harpo Marx (Tomasso), Chico Marx (Fiorello), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Claypool), Kitty Carlisle (Rosa Castaldi), Allan Jones (Ricardo Baroni), Sig Rumann (Herman Gottlieb), Robert E. O’Connor (Detective Henderson), Edward Keane (The Captain), Walter Woolf King (Rodolpho Lassparri); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving G. Thalberg; MGM; 1935)
“A winning film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Under their new studio of MGM’s watchful eye and their new producer Irving Thalberg, things changed for the artistic worse even though the Marx Brothers got bigger budgets and better production values from their new affiliation (at Paramount they made the outrageous low-budget films of Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, and Horse Feathers). MGM had Sam Wood direct them for the first-time, a run-of-the-mill helmsman at best, as the Marx Brothers begin their gradual creative descent into mediocrity. The studio wanted to control the Marx Brothers’ unrestrained zany antics and have them behave in a more reasonable fashion, which the Brothers agreed to after their film Duck Soup was a commercial flop. The “Opera” experiment was commercially successful, as this turning point film became their highest grossing film ever. Though uneven there’s still much to admire in “Opera,” such as the comedy and high-polish gloss and a good script (credit must go to George Kaufman & Morris Ryskind). Yet the narrative is filled with too many uncomfortable filler scenes and a tepid love story, with the romantic leads just too boring to care about–they served the same function as TV commercials, as a time to tune out when they were onscreen. At the time of this film’s release, the Marx Brothers were at their most popular and had just wisely dumped straight-man Zeppo (the unfunny one).
The film is built around the Marx Brothers’ attempts to give a pair of Italian opera singers who are also lovers, Rosa Castaldi (Carlisle) and Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), a chance to be together in the opera. Groucho Marx is a shyster, nobody promoter Otis B. Driftwood. His wealthy patroness is the dignified dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), who pays Driftwood to get her into high society but he has done nothing so far. Driftwood schemes to make good on his bogus promise by introducing her to self-important opera entrepreneur Gottleib (Sig Rumann); the scheme is to get Mrs. Claypool to invest in Gottleib’s opera company, and her entrance into society is assured. Meanwhile the conceited Lassparri chases soprano Kitty Carlisle, who is in love with aspiring unknown tenor Allan Jones. When Gottleib signs Lassparri, who sails from Italy to America to appear in the opera, Jones stows away in Groucho’s tiny cabin to be near Carlisle. Jones’s manager is Chico, with Harpo just around for the cruise and to make subversive trouble and play the harp. Soon the Brothers prove they are willing to sabotage Lassparri’s opening night performance to promote Jones’s career and romance. The Marx Brothers, as expected by the Depression-era audience, team up to poke fun at high society and show off their lack of respect for authority and their total disregard for proper social behavior.
The Marx Brothers have a number of classic unforgettable scenes: the ‘Party Of The First Part’ contract, the ‘backstage bed-switching,’ and the ‘overcrowded stateroom’ are among my favorite all-time madcap Marx Brothers routines. Add to this the always hilarious standby routine between the leeringly flirtatious Groucho and the haughty Margaret Dumont (who is just great!), and you have a winning film.
REVIEWED ON 5/5/2004 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/