Following a less-than-enthusiastic response to the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, the producer of A Night at the Opera decided to test the script before live audiences and gauge how they reacted to various jokes and situations. Producer Irving Thalberg also tested the script in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. One of the authors, Morrie Ryskind, attended every performance in Salt Lake, marking gags that got big laughs, cutting unsuccessful gags, or changing to the dialogue. . He would e making the necessary corrections, eliminations, or changing the dialogue. (Salt Lake Tribune, April 13, 1935)
The Salt Lake Tribune wrote, “Those 'gags' which fall flat are 'blue-penciled,' so that by the time the organization has been around its four-city circuit the writers and producers will know pretty well just what and what not to include in the final script for a bang-up picture.” (Salt Lake Tribune, April 17, 1935)
“We are kicking ourselves we didn’t think of this before,” Groucho Marx said. "A successful comedy depends almost entirely upon audience reaction, and if anyone tells you he can sit in Hollywood and judge in advance how much Salt Lake or any other city is going to laugh at any given “gag” …don’t hesitate, put in a hurry call for the psychopathic ward. We expect our greatest help from Salt Lake, for it is our first stop, and while there will be differences between towns, we will get a definite basic idea of the script’s value.” (Salt Lake Tribune, April 13, 1935)
“Groucho, the mustached one, still bombards his audiences with a bewildering rapid-fire of wisecracks while Chico and Harpo continue to perform much the same as they have done in the past. That they are still popular with a vast majority of theater-goers was evidenced by the gales of applause and laughter that greeted them at the opening performance Saturday at the Orpheum theater.” (Salt Lake Tribune, April 14, 1935)
Playing to “capacity crowds” the “Marx Brothers Hit at Orpheum” stated another Salt Lake Tribune article. (Salt Lake Tribune, April 17, 1935
According to a National Public Radio article, on the road tour the writer would try different words or phrases to see what got the biggest laugh. And he would time the laughs so that they would know how to pace the film when it was shot."
The experiment seems to have worked. Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son said, “I saw that stateroom scene being rehearsed on the MGM lot, and there wasn’t a laugh in it. When they came back from six weeks on the road with it, they had put a wonderful comedy scene together.”
…interesting that everything was timed with a stop watch – they were interested in seeing how long it would take for a gag to move on and off the stage. Everything kept changing – gags in, gags out, etc. During the live stage performances, the writers’ secretaries sat in a box, timing the laughs. Lines would be changed for the daily shows to determine which were the “funniest.” (Linda Harris, “A Night at the Opera,” The Journal of the Alex Film Society, Vol. 3, #3, May 3, 1997)
A Night at the Opera was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1993 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The Marx Brothers are considered one of the “Greatest American Screen Legends” by the American Film Institute, rated 20 on a list of 25 males; and A Night at the Opera is included in their 2007 update of “100 Years…100 Movies” at number 85, and in their 2000 list of “100 Years…100 Laughs” at number 12.