To fully appreciate this film, one should watch it from a DVD and be able to stop, back up and replay portions. That's because it is a very talkative story and much can be missed. After watching it the first time, I didn't think much of it as a comedy. Yet, some of the dialog in places went by so fast that it didn't register. So, I watched it again the next day. I found myself stopping, backing up and replaying bits of scenes constantly. In so doing, I discovered some very witty, clever and funny lines of dialog that I missed in the first viewing. And, that pointed to one of the problems with this film. More on that later, after the critique of the movie itself.
"Tonight or Never" is a sophisticated comedy built around a rising European opera singer and her entourage. Nella Vago has been engaged more than three years to the principal benefactor of the Royal Budapest Opera, Count Albert von Gronac. But she has never been in love. And, while she has a marvelous singing voice, her entourage and true opera experts know that her singing lacks the heart and soul that would make it great. The possible solution to both of these problems in her life appears when Nella sees and later meets a handsome admirer from the opera, Jim.
A great deal of the story, and its humor, is built around three aspects in the film. The first is that Jim's full name is never known until the end - because, halfway into the story, his name in the newspapers is significant. The second is that Nella's music and voice teacher, Rudig, is a wealth of information, including much obtained via an apparent flourishing gossip network of people in the service trades. And, third, is the mistaken notion by Rudig and others, which then is believed by Nella, that her handsome admirer is a gigolo and companion of the Marchesa Bianca San Giovanni The latter was herself a great prima donna of the opera in the past, with a notorious reputation.
This movie was based on a Broadway play of the same title, in which most of the main characters from the stage reprised their roles on film. And, that includes Melvyn Douglas as Jim Fletcher in his cinema debut. The other main male character - Rudig, is played superbly by Ferdinand Gotttschalk. The Academy Awards didn't have Oscars for best supporting actor and actress until 1936. Gottschalk surely would have been nominated and probably have won it if it had been offered in 1931. The other stage roles carried into this film by the same actors were the butler, Conrad (played by Robert Greig); Nella's maid, Emma (played by Greta Meyer); and Count Gronac (played by Warburton Gamble).
The two main females, Nella and the marchesa, are played by Gloria Swanson and Alison Skipworth. Both had started in silent films where Swanson had been a major star for more than 15 years. Swanson's role was apparently planned to renew her star status that had gone into a slump with the advent of sound pictures. One other character with a small part is Boris Karloff playing the waiter.
The is a very good, very funny film; but one in which many audience members may miss much of the humor because of the long stretches of dialog. They aren't rapid-fire, but nearly so. This problem is somewhat of a puzzle, because, although in silent films actors didn't have to worry about dialog, stage actors did. With so many of the cast coming over from the stage, one would have expected more care in delivery. This is a problem mostly with Gottschalk and his character, Rudig. He has a substantial number of lines. Grieg, on the other hand, is very deliberate and spot on with his lines as the butler.
Then, Swanson herself speaks some lines, with Grieg, Gamble and Douglas, that fly by rather fast. And, she also detracts from the film in another way. Swanson apparently hadn't overcome the exaggerated facial expressions that were so vital in silent films. And, perhaps the director, Mervyn LeRoy, and cinematographer were partly to blame for the frequent closing in on Swanson's face - again a practice in silent films. That just further exacerbated the problem of seeming over-acting. And, a third the problem here is Swanson's makeup. She is clearly made up for stage performance. Someone with her large (beautiful) and spaced eyes and striking looks should have been toned down when she wasn't made up to go on stage. So, all of these things together reduce this film by at least one star.
Still, this is a very good and entertaining film that adults should enjoy. Here are some favorite lines.
Nella Vago, "Why do you repeat such gossip to me?" Rudig, "'Cause you want to hear it." Nella, "I don't." Rudig, "You do." Nella, "I don't." Rudig, "You do." Nella, "I don't." Rudig, "You dooo". Nella, "I don't."
Rudig, "He's only a simple gondolier. No training in his voice. But what a heart. Mmmm!"
Nella Vago, "Don't all great artists have lovers?" Rudig, "My dear, all great artists ARE lovers."
Rudig, "For an artist, it is more important to love than to be loved."
Marchesa Bianca San Giovanni, "Close the window. The music's too exciting for me."
Nella Vago, "I'm really ashamed to mention it, but this town is notorious for gossip."
Jim Fletcher, "You did everything in the world to get in here. Now you're in, why try to get out?"
Jim Fletcher, "I wanna hunt my women, not have them come after me."
Emma, "And, professor, she was singing in the bathtub. I never heard her do that before." Rudig, "Stop there. I don't like that singing in the bath business."
Emma, "Are you crazy, Conrad? He's our new excellency."
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