It’s a story that I’ve told many times before, but I don’t recall ever telling it in this column. I’ll try to keep this telling brief. When I was seven years old I saw a Marx Brothers movie on TV, “Duck Soup,” and I was blown away. That discovery of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo led me to explore the classic movie section at my local video store and was the catalyst that gave me a lifelong obsession with the films of Classic Hollywood.
Unlike other comedy teams of the era, the works of The Marx Brothers have been a bit underserved on blu-ray. A few years ago Universal, who owns the five films the team made at Paramount, released those movies in a box set with much celebration. But the group’s latter MGM work hasn’t seen the light of day yet in the format. Their first MGM film “A Night at the Opera” is often cited as their best film.
Next week Warner Archive corrects this by bringing “A Night at the Opera” to blu-ray. This particularly excited me. For those of us who grew up watching and discovering classic films in the VHS era, it can be a bit surreal to see these movies looking so sharp and clear. That was the case when I checked out this new blu-ray of “A Night at the Opera.”
By the time of “Opera,” Zeppo decided he wanted to take more of a backseat in managing the boys, so this time it’s just Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, a business manager for the rich Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont as what is a Marx bothers movie without her?). Mrs. Claypool is an arts patron and wishes to pay a pompous singer $1,000 a show to come and perform at the opera company in New York she is associated with.
While the pompous star is filled with ego and dreams of becoming a star in New York, two young lovers and smaller singers at the company also hope to come along to find their big break in New York. The boys sneak along on the ocean cruise from Italy to New York. All of this serves as a plot for which to hang in the boys’ routines. The Marx Brothers famously took their routines from their films on the road to perform them for audiences, both to test the material and to see where the laughs would be. They actually pause in the film so the audience’s laughter doesn’t cover up the next joke.
“A Night at the Opera” isn’t the pure anarchy of the Marx Brothers’ earlier films, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less funny. This is one of the all-time great screen comedies. A movie that is as funny now as it was when it was released in 1935. Sure, some things haven’t aged well, but Groucho Marx’s brand of delivery doesn’t seem to age. The movie is a joy and a big favorite of mine.
Generally speaking, the Marx Brothers MGM films have survived in better shape than their Paramount films—though no original negatives for any of them still exist, that I’m aware of. This new blu-ray is sourced from a 4K restoration made using 35mm preservation elements. The results are stunning. I’ve watched “A Night at the Opera” many times over the years, and this is the best the film has ever looked at on home video. Little details that really make it shine on blu-ray are traces of textures on costumes, and a general sharpness that for many years was hiding behind dirt and scratches.
All of the very good bonus features from the Warners DVD release of “A Night at the Opera” have been ported over here. These begin with a wonderful commentary by the always enjoyable Leonard Maltin, a featurette “Remarks on Marx,” an appearance by Groucho on a talk show discussing MGM chief Irving Thalberg, and three vintage short subjects—the highlight of which is humorist and Groucho’s fellow member of the Algonquin Round Table, Robert Benchley’s Oscar-winning “How To Sleep.” The film’s trailer rounds up the package.
For Marx Brothers fans this disc is a must-own. The movie has never looked as good on home video as it does here. What a joy to have this comedy treasure on blu-ray. I was so excited to see this one, and knowing it was in the hands of Warner Archive meant you knew the results were going to be good. This one comes highly recommended by yours truly. See you next week.