One of the best American comedies ever made, A Night at the Opera finally makes its Blu-ray debut thanks to the Warner Archive Collection. Starring the family comedy team The Marx Brothers - Groucho, Chico, and Harpo with the musical talents of Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. This is peak form Marx Brothers with pitch-perfect comedic timing wrapped up in a delightful musical love story about two struggling opera singers. Warner Archive Collection offers an upgrade to sing about giving the image a much-needed refresher with respectable audio and all previous bonus features. If you’re a Marx Brothers fan, no collection is complete without A Night at the Opera - Must Own.
For Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) success has found her on the stage as she’s been recruited to go to the famed New York Opera Company with star Rudolofo Lassparri (Walter Wolf King). For Rosa’s lover Riccardo (Allan Jones), success is elusive even though he’s the finest young talent of a generation. Soon to be separated by an ocean and career - the Marx Brothers Groucho, Chico, and Harpo just might be able to help Rosa and Riccardo stay together and rescue the New York Opera Company from the stuffed shirts running it.
When you try and catalog the films of the Marx Brothers, I feel there’s a perfect linchpin point in their careers - before A Night at the Opera and after A Night at the Opera. Before, you had the irreverent madcap comedies the likes of Monkey Business, Coconuts, and their absolute funniest film - Duck Soup. These are movies where the plot is but a mere trapping to frame up the quick-witted hijinks of the brothers and find some way to showcase their musical talents for a brief moment. You can walk into any one of these movies with twenty minutes left and start laughing because nothing that happened before really mattered or needed to make sense. The jokes fly so fast you’re past the point of being confused about what’s going on.
After A Night at the Opera, you had plot and story-focused gems like A Day at the Races, and the charming At The Circus. These were movies that felt tightly scripted, less madcap, and far more focused on churning out the familiarity of predictable musical comedies than unleashing the brothers to do their thing. By this point, Zeppo had long left the group as he kept getting pushed out of the comedy and tossed into the thankless “love interest” role. Without Zeppo, they relied on the talents of Allan Jones, Charles Drake, and Kenny Baker to fill in the musical voice talents or handsome lead. As each entry went on, this formula gradually became stale, and by the time Go West came out, the shtick had pretty well played out. There were still laughs in these later movies, but there’s good reason Groucho found lasting success in television than in films.
Smashed in the middle of these two career halves rests A Nigth at the Opera. The perfect combination of irreverent madcap off-the-cuff comedy and plot-focused storytelling. The opening scene in the restaurant almost feels like a reintroduction to this brand of comedy with stalwart comedy punching bag Margaret Dumont’s Mrs. Claypool frustratingly waiting for Groucho’s Otis B. Driftwood to arrive for dinner - when he’s been sitting right behind her the entire time. With Groucho slinging off the pointed one-liners with ease, he’s also introducing the story of the picture and setting the stage for all the conflict this operatic musical will face with Sig Ruman’s twirling mustached Opera Company manager Herman Gottlieb.
After that, the rest of the gang is quickly introduced with Harpo’s daffy Tomasso and Chico as the scheming Fiorello who find their way to help our starcrossed operatic lovers Riccardo and Rosa. While Groucho gets to be the plot foil mingling with the main players flaying them at every turn with a sharp-witted joke, Harpo and Chico again get to show their talents with an array of instruments. When the time comes for some physical comedy, Harpo steps up to the plate for the hilarious climax. Even Groucho’s one-liners can't keep up with Harpo swinging from one piece of set scenery to another!
To the strengths of this specific film, I find A Night at the Opera is the biggest audience pleaser. Again going back to the two halves of their careers, I find people who’ve never seen a Marx Brothers movie have an easier time with this one. It’s not as fast-paced with the jokes, you get a little more time to digest the punchline, and the plot helps motivate the comedy. If you’re one of those people who never saw a Marx Brothers film - start here. If you find yourself with tears streaming down your face with a deep gut ache from laughing so hard, you can go back and enjoy all of their original classics in the Marx Brothers Collection. Hopefully, Warner Archive will keep rolling out the later films to Blu-ray because I highly recommend A Day at the Races, At the Circus, and A Night In Casablanca is their last genuinely good film.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection ushers the Marx Brother’s A Night at the Opera onto Blu-ray. Pressed on a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard case and loads to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
After living a long life with a rough but decent DVD, A Night at the Opera comes to Blu-ray with splendid results. From the minute Leo the Lion appears you can appreciate the improvements in clarity and grain structure. This is a fine grain transfer where film grain is still visible and organic appearing without being nearly as noisy as the old DVD. The next appreciable improvement comes with the lack of frame judder. During the credits of the old DVD and during several sequences - there was quite a bit of judder that come in and shake things up. That’s not an issue here, the image is perfectly stable throughout.
Given this film is over 85 years, the improvements in detail are on a scene-by-scene basis. Several soft shots remain but when full details are appreciable it looks terrific. Facial features, costuming, Groucho’s greasepaint mustache - all come through with great clarity. The grayscale is also in terrific shape offering stable transitions from light to dark with strong shadow density and without any crush issues or blown-out whites. Again, there are some cooked-in photographic issues that keep some sequences from fully benefiting from the format, but there’s nothing getting around those. All in all, I’m very pleased with this transfer and it’s easily the best I’ve seen this film look.
A Night at the Opera arrives with a robust DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. Now the trick with a track like this is that the performers tended to stress test the recording equipment of the era. If you’ve heard Allan Jones sing in recent releases like Show Boat, the recording struggles to keep up with their higher registers. Kitty Carlisle in particular stresses the mix with the high notes and her vibrato. Thankfully any distortion is minimal and the track manages the majority of the film’s workload amiably. Dialog is always clear so you never miss a joke and there are enough background sound effects to give a sense of space and dimension to any given scene. Some slight hiss crops up here and there, but nothing compared to past releases offering a much cleaner and clearer experience.
This disc picks up all of the old bonus features of the DVD and adds an extra short. Leonard Maltin’s audio commentary is interesting, but it’s also a little dry. The documentary Remarks on Marx is well worth picking through as is Groucho’s appearance on The Hy Gardner Show from 1961. The three vintage shorts are cool enough but far from the main draw of this selection.
A Night at the Opera isn’t just one of the best Marx Brothers movies, it’s also one of the finest comedies ever made. The laughs come hard and fast and the lovely musical numbers with a terrific supporting cast make this a true gem in the Marx Brothers’ catalog. Their films were never the same or quite as good as they were here. Warner Archive Collection upgrades this classic to Blu-ray with excellent results. The film has never looked or sounded better and all of the previous bonus features have been carried over along with a new vintage MGM short. If you’re a Marx Brothers fan, this is an essential Must Own addition to the collection.