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Case Number 05225

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Groucho Marx: You Bet Your Life, The Best Episodes

Shout! Factory // 1950 // 570 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // September 22nd, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Treadway is recovering quite nicely from injuries he sustained when the secret word duck landed on his head.

The Charge

And now…the one…the only…GROUCHO!

Opening Statement

In preparation for this review, I read Groucho Marx's 1959 autobiography Groucho and Me. After struggling to come up with a decent summation to describe how this program came to be, I decided: Who better to tell it than Groucho himself? The following excerpt comes from the fittingly titled chapter "You Bet Your Life":

A very nice man, who for some curious reason thought he was beholden to me…used to produce a show for the Walgreen Drug Company. They did this spectacle only once a year and they didn't care how much money they spent. The result was that each year this friend of mine engaged me at a fat salary to do a five-minute spot with a partner. On this particular show my partner turned out to be Bob Hope. We both started kidding around with the dialogue, ad-libbing and generally ignoring the script. Bob, by the way, can take care of himself in this department.

Now I sound like a real ham, but the truth of it is that the routine was hilarious. When I came off the stage, a bulky, doubtful looking man sidled over to me and asked if I would be interested in doing a quiz show. "A quiz show?" I repeated rather superciliously. "Pardon me, suh, but do you live in a tree?" He said, "No, but I have many branch offices!"

I waited until his hysterical laughter subsided, then I continued, "Well, suh," (I had been drinking Southern Comfort all morning and it was creeping into my dialogue) "let me tell you-all something. A quiz show is the lowest form of animal life. Don't you know there are over fifty of them on the air this very minute, swindling the public in devious ways?" He hung his head in shame. I learned later that three of these shows were his.

Here I had just done a brilliant five-minute spot with one of America's great comedians, and before me stood this rather venal looking sneak, offering me a golden chance to disappear permanently from show business. In high dudgeon I proudly stalked away to my dressing room near the boiler room in the cellar.

He was a persistent fellow and apparently immune to insult. Large and awkward though he was, he somehow scrambled downstairs and arrived in the cellar before me. "Mr. Marx, I didn't mean to offend you" he whined apologetically as he offered me a cheap cigar which I quickly stepped on. "I realize 'quiz show' is an ugly phrase, but I don't want you to do just another quiz show. Don't you see, Groucho? The quiz part would just be a device for you to engage in conversation with a lot of strange people and interrogate them about their lives and their loves. You see, I watched you ad-libbing with Bob Hope and that's exactly what I would like you to do on my show, Grouch."

The character then took two pinches of snuff and began sneezing with such emphasis that all the dormant dust in the dressing room began blowing about, luckily half concealing me, if only for the moment, from this baleful man. Ten minutes later, the grime having settled, I eyed him suspiciously and asked "Suh, do you have a sponsor?" "Grou," he replied (I found his increasing familiarity almost unbearable, but having been reared carefully I allowed old baggy pants to gabble on), "don't worry about that. Let me put this thing together and I predict that in a year the show will be a sensational success." Despite his dubious appearance, he turned out to be a fairly accurate prophet.

Facts of the Case

Eighteen classic episodes from the 1950-61 television series You Bet Your Life have been unearthed for this three-disc collection. All are five-star classics.

•Episode 57-34 (air date: May 15, 1958)
Groucho's daughter Melinda appears as a contestant with her schoolmate Candace Bergen.

•Episode 55-17 (air date: January 19, 1956)
Old-time movie cowboy Hoot Gibson and a couple who bore eleven children join Groucho in this episode.

•Episode 55-38 (air date: June 14, 1956)
Songwriter Harry Kuby (who penned "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" for the Marx Brothers' 1930 classic Animal Crackers) appears on the show.

•Episode 58-03 (air date: October 9, 1958)
Johnny Weissmuller (the definitive screen Tarzan) joins Groucho in the famous Tarzan yell.

•Episode 60-17 (air date: January 19, 1961)
Groucho invites Mark Harris, author of Bang the Drum Slowly, on the program.

•Episode 60-31 (air date: May 11, 1961)
Harpo Marx makes a cameo appearance promoting his autobiography Harpo Speaks.

•Episode 54-25 (air date: March 3, 1955)
Heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis (then retired and in debt) competes for a chance at the top prize.

•Episode 54-30 (air date: April 7, 1955)
Infamous naturalist Boots Bootzin makes an appearance and participates in a spelling challenge.

•Episode 55-07 (air date: November 10, 1955)
French perfume magnate Edouard Cournand baffles Groucho with a French joke.

•Episode 56-31 (air date: April 25, 1957)
A married contestant flirts with George Fenneman, prompting one of Groucho's classic ad-libs: "This is real love. You don't often see that on a quiz show."

•Episode 58-07 (air date: November 6, 1958)
One of the very best of the entire run. Groucho meets an organ grinder whose monkey is a double for the iron-sharp comedian and a young couple for whom the term "in over your head" was invented.

•Episode 59-16 (air date: January 8, 1960)
Sitcom writer Max Shulman is the featured guest; Groucho makes a reference to the recent quiz show scandals.

•Episode 57-11 (air date: December 19, 1957)
Wrestling great Wild Red Berry trades barbs with Groucho. Chico is visible in the studio audience.

•Episode 57-19 (air date: January 30, 1958)
Phyllis Diller makes her first appearance on television.

•Episode 58-01 (air date: September 25, 1958)
The first episode in which DeSoto is not the show's sponsor; Groucho challenges a fencing champion contestant to a duel. The prize: Miss Finland.

•Episode 60-04 (air date: October 13, 1960)
Joy Harmon, whose biggest claim to fame was a memorable car-washing scene in Cool Hand Luke, makes her first television appearance opposite Groucho. She would later become his assistant on the short-lived series Tell It to Groucho.

•Episode 58-19 (air date: January 29, 1959)
Groucho meets a man who blows up an inner tube with his mouth.

•Episode 50-11 (air date: December 14, 1950)
The very first appearance of the trademark duck (which holds both the secret word and the $100 prize money).

The Evidence

Last spring, A&E aired a special Biography episode listing the 15 greatest comedians of all time. As you may or may not recall, the number one slot went to Lucille Ball. While she has her admirers, I do not consider her the greatest comedian of all time. That honor goes to Groucho Marx, who placed eighth on the same list. I easily consider Groucho to be the greatest comedian of all time, for many reasons. His razor-sharp wit and rapid delivery helped him deliver jokes both scripted and ad-libbed. His God-given ability to craft jokes out of simple situations and absurdities remains unrivaled in comedy today. His strong screen presence contributed to his extreme ease with crowds both large and small. Comedians tend to become repetitive, even the better ones, but Marx remains as fresh and innovative today as he appeared then. Groucho's aura of unpredictability certainly contributed as well. His generosity with fellow comedians on screen is evident throughout his work. If you are still unconvinced, there is no better evidence of Marx's gifts at work than in the 18 episodes featured in Shout! Factory's new three-disc set You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes.

You Bet Your Life is far from a normal quiz show. It may be the only quiz show in television history in which the quiz takes second place to the host. The real appeal of the program was simply Groucho Marx. People hung on the edge of their seats, leaning toward the radio or television set, just waiting to hear what could come out his mouth next. He never disappointed, often cracking jokes so quickly that the targets were still trying to register his first words. What makes You Bet Your Life so much fun to watch is the very unpredictability.

This 18-episode compilation lives up to the billing given by the title: These truly are the best episodes, at least of the thirty-plus I have seen to date. Many of the episodes are celebrity oriented, and some may complain that everyday contestants are more entertaining to watch. I beg to differ; there's nothing better than seeing a celebrity get roasted, especially by a master such as Groucho. There is a genuine thrill in seeing wrestling great Wild Red Berry become steadily more P.O.'d as Groucho keeps digging into whether or not pro wrestling is fake. (The answer is that, while the ending may be predetermined, the actual grappling is indeed very real.) The purest comedy offered within this set occurs when Groucho is given a contestant who doesn't quite catch on to his good-natured put-downs.

Shout! Factory presents all 18 episodes in their original full-frame format. Despite the use of original archival prints and a careful frame-by-frame restoration, the end result is far from perfect. Many imperfections appear in each episode, the biggest culprits being scratches and specks. Grain also appears from time to time. Despite these considerable drawbacks, I still think these transfers look superior. For years, You Bet Your Life rarely surfaced, except for a few stray episodes in the public domain and endless clip shows. The footage used for those media was often poor, with a murkiness that made the viewer wince. Shout! Factory may not have made the blemishes completely disappear, but they have restored the bright, lush black-and-white photography to fairly good shape.

Audio is the usual Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix utilized for most TV-to-DVD releases. Shout! Factory has done excellent work restoring these sound mixes. Gone are the crackles, pops, and extreme hiss that have marred earlier public domain releases. Present are a warmth and clarity unheard since the original airdates. Some light hiss does remain—tape hiss will never completely disappear from many analog recordings—but it is never a bother. The dialogue and music are rich and vibrant throughout.

Shout! Factory has put together an impressive package of worthy extras to supplement The Best Episodes. We begin with the traditional "stag reels." These are not the stag reels associated with raunchy bachelor parties but a compilation of the funniest bloopers and outtakes not used in the weekly series. The notorious blooper featuring the secret-word duck landing squarely on George Fenneman's head is here not once but twice—and is every bit as funny as it is reputed to be. As for video quality, the footage is in extremely rough shape, with a bombardment of imperfections marring the image. The sound is often poor, with the dialogue sometimes coming through as a whisper. Still, if you increase the volume and listen carefully, these reels provide solid laughs that will make your ribs ache.

Seven outtakes are included, with the option to play within the particular episodes they are culled from. While they may seem tame by today's standards, keep in mind that when these shows were taped, this was hot stuff. The important thing is that they are funny, and indeed, some of Groucho's finest moments occur in the outtakes.

Several vintage commercials from the original broadcasts have been compiled into a bonus featurette, which is featured on the second disc. Purists will undoubtedly complain that the commercials should still be contained within the episodes. As it is, this is an interesting look at commercial advertising before it became the money-fueled machine it is today. Of particular note is a commercial offered as a separate feature: a vintage Creamy Prom commercial featuring Harpo and Chico Marx. You can also view this commercial within Episode 56-31.

A commentary track for Episode 57-19 features Phyllis Diller. Diller is an animated speaker who offers unique insights and retrospective thoughts. It is wonderful that her thoughts were captured while she is still on this planet. The sole debit regarding this feature is that you cannot access the commentary using the Audio button on your remote: To access the commentary, you must select it from the menu.

The recent unearthing of three rare post-You Bet Your Life Groucho pilots will have many fans jumping for joy:

What Do You Want? (taped January 1961 during the production of the final episodes of You Bet Your Life)

With the urge to syndicate You Bet Your Life rising, Groucho and producer John Guedel decided to create another potential game show and pull the plug on the still-popular Life. With George Fenneman returning as announcer and sidekick, production began on the pilot What Do You Want?.

The format is identical to what would become Tell It to Groucho, but the end result is far superior. The unique Groucho-Fenneman chemistry is still intact and sharp. The interviews and pacing are far better than in the eventual series.
Rating: ***1/2

Tell it to Groucho (taped May 1961; air date: January 11, 1962)

While waiting for a network to pick up What Do You Want?, announcer George Fenneman ended up getting his own daytime quiz show, Your Surprise Package. When the time arrived to film a second version of the pilot, now titled Tell It to Groucho, Fenneman was unavailable. Two former You Bet Your Life contestants, Jack Wheeler and Joy Harmon, were recruited for Fenneman's slot. Two contestants from the What Do You Want? pilot were called back to reshoot their segment.

Despite the fact that the format was taken lock, stock, and barrel from What Do You Want?, Tell It to Groucho isn't as entertaining or impressive. As lead assistant, Jack Wheeler lacks the finesse and confidence that Fenneman had with the camera. He comes across as very green and mellow, and his rapport with Groucho simply isn't funny or amusing. Harmon is little more than eye candy; her sole appearance in the pilot is in a spoof of West Side Story with Groucho as a crotchety Jet. The pacing is more deliberate this time around, and the program suffers from it. Groucho is still sharp and funny, but he seems very tired from the grind of network television. Also, the contestants are simply flat and dull, especially when compared to some of the livelier ones that appeared on You Bet Your Life. It's surprising that CBS picked up this pilot for a weekly series. Not as surprising is that CBS cancelled Tell It to Groucho after twenty episodes.
Rating: **

The Plot Thickens (taped 1963; never aired)

This is a unique spin on the popular panel shows of the time. Created by the legendary William Castle (House on Haunted Hill), a ten-minute murder mystery film (scripted by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel that became Psycho) is shown to a panel of four panelists (Groucho is one of two permanent panelists) who attempt to guess who the murderer is. Of course, four suspects are trotted out for questioning.

I firmly believe that The Plot Thickens could have been one of the great game shows of the era had a network taken a chance on it. I am a sucker for mysteries and Groucho, so I am biased already. However, the ten-minute film is chock full of unique twists and suspense. Host Jack Linkletter (son of Art) holds his own very well. The endless guessing of whodunit is extremely fun. Of course, Groucho's questions rank among the funniest ever asked on any program.
Rating: *****

Closing Statement

More often than not, when a studio labels a compilation "the best of," the end results are disappointing. That is not the case with Shout! Factory's compilation You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes. All 18 episodes are truly among the best from the program's 12-season run. Unlike many quiz shows, You Bet Your Life remains as fresh and innovative as ever, and Groucho continues to reign as one of the greatest comedians to grace the screen, small or silver.

The Verdict

Visit your local video outlet today. And tell them Groucho sent you.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 97
Extras: 85
Acting: 100
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile

Studio: Shout! Factory
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 570 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Bad
• Classic
• Comedy
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Feature Commentary on Episode 57-19 by Phyllis Diller
• Original Commercials Featurette
• You Bet Your Life Stag Reels
• Outtakes
• Rare Pilots: Tell it to Groucho (1962), What Do You Want? (1961), and The Plot Thickens (1963)

Accomplices

• IMDb








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