A Night at the Opera: Film Review

The Marx Brothers are kind of hard to review. You’re either down for their antics or you’re not. If you’re down for their antics, the question becomes whether the connecting plot of A Night at the Opera is enough to string the bits together. I think it is, but it really depends on your taste in comedy.

Movie poster for A Night at the Opera

The basic premise of A Night at the Opera is that Groucho is Margaret Dumont’s business manager. The names are generally unimportant for Groucho and Dumont, as they generally play the same characters with different names in Marx Brother films. Dumont is a patron of the arts, having sponsored a season of New York Opera through the planning of Groucho. Meanwhile, Harpo & Chico are solid bros to Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), a talented chorister and tenor who needs his big break, and who is in love with soprano Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle). Castaldi is also being courted by star tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King). Chico tricks Groucho into signing Baroni instead of Lasparri to come to New York. Hilarity ensues.

Ultimately the rest of A Night at the Opera is vignettes that are set up by this plot. This works because the plot revolves not around the Marx Brothers as their characters, but rather the love triangle of Castaldi, Lassparri, and Baroni. Instead, the comedy revolves around the Marx Brothers – and specifically their interactions with the plot, and how they play off the main players in the plot.

For example, we have a dialog scene backstage with Chico and Baroni, establishing their relationship. There’s some light comedy here, but mainly playing off them being solid Bros, leading to Baroni agreeing to have Chico be his agent. This scene is fairly light and brief – and without that, we don’t get the Contract Scene with Groucho & Chico. You know the one:

Lasparri refuses to let Chico, Harpo, and Baroni on the cruise ship to the US due to Baroni being a rival (and Harpo having conked him on the head before the Contract Scene), to set up the three having to hide in Groucho’s steamer trunk – mainly to set up this scene:

You notice that Baroni is in the room, but he’s very much not engaged in main slapstick – it’s the three Marx Brothers and the array of cruise ship staff. If you notice the characters who verbally (or car horn) contribute to the food order, it’s just the three Marx Brothers. Technically Baroni is there for most of the scene, but you could have him somehow manage to slip out in the confusion and nothing else about the scene would change.

It’s as if the love triangle plot is a moon caught in orbit around the planet that is the Marx Brothers. The moon still has tidal impact by being the actual plot that leads to the jokes, but the jokes are where the film lives.

If this works for you (which it did for me), then A Night at the Opera is absolutely a Marx Brothers film you need to see. Otherwise, if the Marx Brothers flavor of comedy doesn’t work for you (to which I say it’s perfectly fine if it doesn’t work), then this movie won’t fly.

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