Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
A Night at the Opera (1935)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

In the polished, classic parody scene of the comic absurdity of all legal contract negotiations and legalese, Driftwood negotiates with agent Fiorello about the contents of the opera singer's contract. The scene is a non-sensical, fast-talking dialogue of baffling non-sequiturs and pointless negotiation, progressing until all unwanted, disputed, unintelligible, and offending clauses are removed from their respective copies of Riccardo's proposed contract - by ripping them off and throwing them away. At the scene's conclusion, they are perplexed to find that they have no contracts at all - only scraps of paper.

The Classic Contract Scene

To start the scene, Driftwood hands a "duplicate" of the contract to Fiorello. Both contracts stretch to the floor. Fiorello thinks duplicate means "five kids up in Canada." Driftwood volunteers to read the contract, because Fiorello can't:

Driftwood: All right, fine. Now here are the contracts. You just put his name at the top and you sign at the bottom. There's no need of you reading that because these are duplicates.
Fiorello: Yeah, they's a duplicates.
Driftwood: I say they're duplicates.
Fiorello: Why sure they's a duplicates...
Driftwood: Don't you know what duplicates are?
Fiorello: Sure. There's five kids up in Canada.
Driftwood: Well, I wouldn't know about that. I haven't been to Canada in years. Well go ahead and read it.
Fiorello: What does it say?
Driftwood: Well, go on and read it!
Fiorello: You read it.
Driftwood: All right, I'll read it to you. Can you hear?
Fiorello: I haven't heard anything yet. Did you say anything?
Driftwood: Well, I haven't said anything worth hearing.
Fiorello: Well, that's-a why I didn't hear anything.
Driftwood: Well, that's why I didn't say anything.
Fiorello: Can you read it?
Driftwood: (Driftwood struggles to read the fine print) I can read but I can't see it. I don't seem to have it in focus here. If my arms were a little longer, I could read it. You haven't got a baboon in your pocket, have ya? Here, here, here we are. Now I've got it. Now pay particular attention to this first clause because it's most important. It says the, uh, "The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part." How do you like that? That's pretty neat, eh?...
Fiorello: No, it's no good.
Driftwood: What's the matter with it?
Fiorello: I dunno. Let's hear it again.
Driftwood: It says the, uh, "The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part."
Fiorello: (pausing) That sounds a little better this time.
Driftwood: Well, it grows on ya. Would you like to hear it once more?
Fiorello: Uh, just the first part.
Driftwood: Whaddaya mean? The...the party of the first part?
Fiorello: No, the first part of the party of the first part.
Driftwood: All right. It says the, uh, "The first part of the party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the first part of the party of the first part shall be known in this contract" - Look, why should we quarrel about a thing like this? We'll take it right out, eh?
Fiorello: Yeah, ha, it's-a too long, anyhow. (They both tear off the tops of their contracts.) Now, what do we got left?
Driftwood: Well, I got about a foot and a half. Now, it says, uh, "The party of the second part shall be known in this contract as the party of the second part."
Fiorello: Well, I don't know about that...
Driftwood: Now what's the matter?
Fiorello: I no like-a the second party, either.
Driftwood: Well, you shoulda come to the first party. We didn't get home 'til around four in the morning...I was blind for three days!
Fiorello: Hey, look, why can't-a the first part of the second party be the second part of the first party? Then-a you got something.
Driftwood: Well, look, uh, rather than go through all that again, whaddaya say?
Fiorello: Fine. (They rip out a second part of the contract.)
Driftwood: Now, uh, now I've got something you're bound to like. You'll be crazy about it.
Fiorello: No, I don't like it.
Driftwood: You don't like what?
Fiorello: Whatever it is. I don't like it.
Driftwood: Well, don't let's break up an old friendship over a thing like that. Ready?...
Fiorello: OK. (Another part is torn off.) Now the next part, I don't think you're gonna like.
Driftwood: Well, your word's good enough for me. (They rip out another part.) Now then, is my word good enough for you?
Fiorello: I should say not.
Driftwood: Well, that takes out two more clauses. (They rip out two more parts.) Now, "The party of the eighth part..."
Fiorello: No, that's-a no good. (Tearing.) No.
Driftwood: "The party of the ninth part..."
Fiorello: No, that's-a no good too. (Tearing again with very little remaining, only skinny, thin slivers of paper) Hey, how is it my contract is skinnier than yours?
Driftwood: Well, I don't know. You musta been out on a tear last night. But anyhow we're all set now, aren't we?
Fiorello: Oh sure.
Driftwood: (offering his pen to Fiorello to sign the contract) Now just, uh, just you put your name right down there and then the deal is, is, uh, legal.
Fiorello: I forgot to tell you. I can't write.
Driftwood: (unperturbed) Well, that's all right, there's no ink in the pen anyhow. But listen, it's a contract, isn't it?
Fiorello: Oh sure.
Driftwood: We got a contract...
Fiorello: You bet.
Driftwood: matter how small it is.
Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here? This thing here.
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause. That's in every contract. That just says uh, it says uh, "If any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified."
Fiorello: Well, I dunno.
Driftwood: It's all right, that's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a 'sanity clause.'
Fiorello: Ha, Ha, Ha. Ha. Ha. You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!
Driftwood: Well, you win the white carnation.
Fiorello: I give this to the cows.

Lassparri joins Gottlieb, Mrs. Claypool, and Driftwood who sail back to New York on the S.S. Americus with the opera company. [It is a surprise to remember that the film's setting has been Milan, on foreign shores.] As they walk up the gangplank to the ship, Mrs. Claypool sets up a punchline dripping in sexual innuendo:

Mrs. Claypool: Are you sure you have everything, Otis?
Driftwood: I've never had any complaints yet!

Riccardo is left behind to stay in Italy. The vain Lassparri is begged to sing by a crowd of followers before the ship leaves, but he declines - claiming that he has laryngitis. The despicable performer reveals the real reason for not singing to Gottlieb: "Why should I sing for them when I'm not being paid for it?" When asked to sing instead - and noticing Riccardo dockside, Rosa gladly obliges, and ends up in a duet "Alone" (written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, later famous for their contributions to Singin' in the Rain (1952)) - singing with Riccardo. Although Rosa encourages Gottlieb to consider taking Riccardo along to sing in New York, the opera company owner remarks: "Not a bad voice. Some day perhaps when he has made a reputation." During dockside goodbyes on deck, Fiorello kisses Rosa goodbye, and Tomasso kisses everyone goodbye.

While being transported on top of a steamer trunk (Mrs. Claypool's) through the hallway corridors on board the ship bound for New York, Driftwood's load collides with another steamer trunk being moved by another porter. Driftwood senses an opportunity to sell insurance and swindle the hapless steward: "I have here an accident policy that will absolutely protect you - no matter what happens. If you lose a leg, we help you look for it." He exchanges a $1 dollar bill in the steward's pocket with his own $540 Milan hotel bill.

During his long, gliding ride on the steamer trunk to his own room (while singing the entire time), Driftwood delivers a love note from Riccardo to Rosa, to make her feel less depressed. At Mrs. Claypool's room, he strides into her "classy layout" and succeeds in embarrassing her by unromantically romancing her, and then inviting her for a seduction scene in his own stateroom:

Driftwood: Ah, twin beds, you little rascal you.
Mrs. Claypool: One of those is a day bed.
Driftwood: A likely story. Have you read any good books lately? (He lies back on her bed with a book)
Mrs. Claypool: Mr. Driftwood, will you please get off the bed? What would people say?
Driftwood: They'll probably say you're a very lucky woman. Now will you please shut up so I can continue my reading?
Mrs. Claypool: No, I will NOT shut up! And will you kindly get up at once?
Driftwood: All right. I'll go. I'll make you another proposition. Let's go in my room and talk the situation over.
Mrs. Claypool: What situation?
Driftwood: Well...uh...what situations have you got?
Mrs. Claypool: I most certainly will not go to your room.
Driftwood: OK, then I'll stay here.
Mrs. Claypool (succumbing finally): ...All right, I'll come, but get out.
Driftwood: Shall we say, uh, ten minutes?
Mrs. Claypool: Yes, ten minutes, anything. But go!
Driftwood: Because if you're not there in ten minutes, I'll be back here in eleven...with squeaky shoes on.

The Classic Stateroom Scene

[Famed comedian Buster Keaton (the 'Great Stone Face'), as an MGM studio comedy/gag writer, contributed much of the content of this scene. He had performed a similar skit, a changing room scene, in one of his earlier films, The Cameraman (1928), his next-to-last silent comedy.]

In the most famous scene of the film (and one of the most memorable comic scenes of all time) - the classic, slapstick crowded "stateroom scene," Driftwood finds himself in Suite # 58, a telephone-booth-size stateroom on the cruise ship, courtesy of Gottlieb. When the steward attempts to cram the steamer trunk into the cozy room, he asks: "Wouldn't it be simpler if you just put the stateroom in the trunk?"

He is aghast to see three stowaways, Fiorello, Riccardo, and a sleeping Tomasso curled up in the bottom drawer of the trunk, pop out into his tiny compartment. Fiorello warns Driftwood to be quiet:

Fiorello: Shh. Don't wake him up! He's got insomnia and he's trying to sleep it off.
Driftwood: That's as grisly a lookin' object as I've ever seen.

At any moment, Driftwood expects a romantic rendezvous (tete-a-tete) with Mrs. Claypool in his room, so he wants his quarters to be cleared out: "You know the old saying, two's company and five's a crowd." But they refuse to leave until they've been fed. Driftwood wags his finger at them: "And you fellows be quiet. Remember, you're stowaways!" Fiorello steadfastly promises more than once: "We no say nothing!"

So Driftwood steps into the hallway and calls for the ship's steward to order a meal. In a hilarious dialogue with the steward (Stew), he places an order that is supplemented by additional orders from behind the stateroom door. Each time Tomasso honks his horn, the hard-boiled egg order is changed:

Driftwood: I say Stew...
Steward: Yes, sir.
Driftwood: What have we got for dinner?
Steward: Anything you like, sir. You might have some tomato juice, orange juice, grape juice, pineapple juice...
Driftwood: Hey - turn off the juice before I get electrocuted. All right, let me have one of each. And, uh, two fried eggs, two poached eggs, two scrambled eggs, and two medium-boiled eggs.
Fiorello (requested through the door): And two hard-boiled eggs.
Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs.
Tomasso (signaling another egg order with his horn honk): HONK!
Driftwood: Make that three hard-boiled eggs...and, uh, some roast beef: rare, medium, well-done, and overdone.
Fiorello (repeating his order): And two hard-boiled eggs.
Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs.
Tomasso: HONK (signaling an amended order)!
Driftwood: Make that three hard-boiled eggs....and, uh, eight pieces of French pastry.
Fiorello (repeating his order): And two hard-boiled eggs.
Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs.
Tomasso: HONK!
Driftwood: Make that three hard-boiled eggs.
Tomasso: HONK! (a shorter honk)
Driftwood: And one duck egg. Uh, have you got any stewed prunes?
Steward: Yes, sir.
Driftwood: Well, give 'em some black coffee, that'll sober 'em up!
Fiorello (requesting his order a fourth time): And two hard-boiled eggs.
Driftwood: And two hard-boiled eggs.

After over a dozen more honks from Tomasso, a dozen more hard-boiled egg orders are made. Driftwood ends the order by asking the steward if any tipping is allowed on the boat. Eagerly, the steward replies that there is. Driftwood asks if he has two fives, and the steward snaps back: "Yes sir." Driftwood lets him down: "Well, then, you won't need the ten cents I was gonna give you." Back inside the stateroom, Driftwood angrily reprimands the simple-minded Fiorello for promising to be quiet:

Driftwood: If that steward is deaf and dumb, he'll never know you're in here.
Fiorello: Oh, sure, that's all right.

A persistent procession of people from the ship's staff parade into Driftwood's tiny shoebox cabin no bigger than a closet. Already crowded with four individuals (Fiorello, Tomasso and Riccardo, and Driftwood himself), he takes a perverse pleasure in encouraging each new intruder to enter:

  • (Individuals # 5-6) Two chambermaids to make up the room (they later prop up Tomasso). Driftwood encourages them to enter: "Come on in, girls, and leave all hope behind." [Groucho's greeting has a slight resemblance to the inscription at the gates of the inferno of Hell in Dante's The Divine Comedy: "ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE."]
  • (Individual # 7) An engineer to turn off the heat.
  • (Individual # 8) A manicurist to trim Driftwood's nails. ("I hadn't planned on a manicure, but I think on a journey like this, you ought to have every convenience you can get...You'd better make 'em short. It's getting kind of crowded in here.")
  • (Individual # 9) The engineer's large assistant.
  • (Individual # 10) An inquiring young woman wandering around for her Aunt Minnie and asking to use the phone. ("Well, you can come in and prowl around if you wanna. If she isn't in here, you can probably find somebody just as good.")
  • (Individual # 11) A determined, gum-chewing, cleaning washwoman to mop up. ("Just the woman I'm looking for. Come right ahead. You'll have to start on the ceiling. It's the only place that isn't being occupied. Tell Aunt Minnie to send up a bigger room too, will ya?")
  • (Individuals # 12-15) A large number of staff stewards bearing trays loaded with egg orders and dinner.

Each of the 15 occupants that are entangled together must find space in a nook or cranny of the miniscule stateroom. The grande dame, Mrs. Claypool shows up in her finest costume and opens the door, letting loose the above-mentioned people in an avalanching torrent of bodies into the corridor.

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