Here he is…the one…the only…GROUCHO!
As a preview of the irreverent humor of Groucho Marx, I offer the following exchange from the November 17, 1947 radio show. Here, Groucho is interviewing a couple who has twenty children. This exchange never aired on radio and no longer survives except through a transcript.
Groucho Marx: Why do you have so many children? That's a big responsibility and a big burden.
Mrs. Story: Well, because I love my children and I think that's our purpose here on Earth and I love my husband.
Groucho Marx: I love my cigar too, but at least I take it out of my mouth once in a while.
Facts of the Case
The History of You Bet Your Life
The year is 1947. The Marx Brothers had retired following the middling feature film A Night at Casablanca (although they would reunite for 1949's underrated Love Happy) and Groucho was contemplating retirement. Radio wasn't working out, with several failures under his belt. After appearing in a ten-minute sketch with Bob Hope during a March 1947 episode ofThe Walgreen Hour, producer John Guedel approached Groucho about appearing on a new radio quiz show he had been developing. Groucho initially turned the offer down, but changed his mind when Guedel said he would be allowed to ad-lib, one of his greatest strengths. In those days, radio programs usually stuck to scripts and one thing the Marx Brothers rarely did was follow the script.
Groucho and Guedel financed a demo record for the potential series. Several trademarks, such as the secret word and the basic form for the quiz, were already present. All three major networks turned it down, but with a sponsor (Elgin-American) in place, ABC took a chance on the program and six weeks later, You Bet Your Life made its radio premiere. With announcer George Fenneman (taking over from original announcer Jack Slattery from the third episode on) playing straight man to Groucho's antics, the show was an immediate hit.
For the program's third season (fall 1950), the show moved to CBS. The show was an even bigger hit than it was on ABC, because a major network now handled it. It was during this season that the proposal for a TV version was floated around. After fielding several offers, Groucho and Guedel moved the program to NBC, where it resided for the next twelve years. The radio version still aired the night before, in a slightly different version, until 1960. The TV version left the air in 1961. The end result: 528 episodes, a record that still stands to this day.
I have been a Marx Brothers fan since birth. WPIX Channel 11 in New York would run their "Saturday Comedy Classics." I was introduced to many great and unique comedians. Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Bowery Boys, the Three Stooges and last but not least, the Marx Brothers were among the many films I used to watch those Saturday afternoons. Unfortunately, as cable and video became stronger, these films ceased airing on a regular basis.
As for the Marx Brothers, I was always partial to Groucho. His quick wit and sarcastic tongue was infinitely more appealing to me than the crazy antics of his brothers. I'm not putting down Chico and Harpo. They were all special and unique and when they all appeared together, my sides hurt me from laughing. I'm just saying that Groucho was my favorite.
Anyway, You Bet Your Life was always something I heard about but never got a chance to see. By the time I arrived on this planet (April 1979), the reruns were long gone. So imagine my glee when I received this set to review. At long last, You Bet Your Life was mine!
Here I am after screening over ten hours of footage. Groucho as always performs brilliantly, with his unique gift to cook up these wicked put-downs and one-liners like no comedian has ever done before and since. Some jokes fall flat, sometimes due to a naïve guest, but Groucho always has one more trick up his sleeve to pick up any lulls. In announcer George Fenneman, he has found the ideal straight man, the sounding board for his jokes. He and Groucho have a unique chemistry that few game show hosts generate. As for the format of the quiz, it changes over seasons, going from betting money on a series of questions to changing to a different, more difficult format involving a series of questions with different monetary values. He adopted a wheel for some later episodes. By changing the gimmick, the show remains fresh rather than dating. Also, Groucho had the advantage of airing only once a week, unlike many game shows that are on most or all week. By airing only once a week, it built anticipation and allowed audiences to develop the hunger for more episodes. What killed Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is what You Bet Your Life successfully eluded.
A word before discussing the 18 episodes that appear in this three-disc collection. When the program was sold to syndication in 1960, for reasons that were pertinent at the time, the first four seasons were not included in the package. Two hundred fifty episodes were chosen and subjected to some cruel and unusual treatment. First to go would be the sponsor logo, either DeSoto/Plymouth or the later non-auto sponsors. Also, the NBC logo would be eliminated. Standard practice at the time would be to black out the offending material, which would be done by either painting over the image frame by frame or physically burning them off the prints. So if you see some black objects or blurry images while watching, this is the reason why.
Eighteen episodes from the program's eleven-year run have been restored and spread out over three discs. On a rating of zero to five cigars:
"Episode 50-01" Air date: October 5, 1950
"Episode 50-22" Air date: February 28, 1951
"Episode 51-20" Air date: February 14, 1952
"Episode 52-22" Air date: October 11, 1956
"Episode 56-03" Air date: October 11, 1956
"Episode 57-28" Air date: April 3, 1958
"Episode 50-06" Air date: November 9, 1950
"Episode 51-30" Air date: April 24, 1952
"Episode 51-32" Air date: May 8, 1952
"Episode 51-35" Air date: May 29, 1952
"Episode 52-16" Air date: January 1, 1953
"Episode 52-26" Air date: March 12, 1953
"Episode 53-20" Air date: January 28, 1954
"Episode 53-33" Air date: April 29, 1954
"Episode 54-06" Air date: October 21, 1954
"Episode 55-08" Air date: November 17, 1955
"Episode 55-15" Air date: January 5, 1956
Over the years, pristine prints of You Bet Your Life were hard to come by. After an exhaustive search, Paul Brownstein, along with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, uncovered the long missing prints. Many were in terrible shape and the UCLA Archive undertook the restoration of the prints. The fruits of their labor have been presented here. The full frame transfer looks very, very good. Keep in mind that these prints will never look absolutely perfect. Scratches, specks, and dirt still remain, a result of the "dry printing" technique often used to make dupe prints back in the 1960s. But compare these cleaned up prints with the clips used in the stag reels and you will be amazed at how clear and good they look now. There is grain present, but it never becomes overwhelming or annoying. Overall, it's a good transfer and it's satisfying for now.
Audio is in mono, staying faithful to the methods used in early television sound recording. It sounds excellent throughout, with the defects present being no fault of the discs' technicians. There are crackling sounds, the result of messy splices or particularly grimy dirt on the reel. Hiss is present, a common side effect of analog recordings. But these sounds never become overwhelming and the sound is always clearly audible.
Extras are a terrific set of rarities and unique historical material. Three stag reels are included. No, these aren't the kind you'll find at your average bachelor party, but rather a compilation of the racier moments that never made it to air. The reels (11, 18, and eight minutes in length, respectively) are loaded with side-splittingly hilarious moments, most of a sexual nature.
"Behind the Scenes of You Bet Your Life" is a 17-minute featurette made primarily for the DeSoto-Plymouth dealership who sponsored the program for many seasons. It's overlong, but no less interesting. The liner notes point out that the young woman appearing in the featurette is Eden Hartford, who became Groucho's third wife over a year later.
The September 15, 1947 audition record financed and produced by Groucho Marx and John Guedel is provided over a still frame of Groucho and his famous cigar, holding an ABC microphone. It lays out the basics of the actual program and it's interesting to hear original announcer Slattery instead of the more familiar (and superior!) Fenneman.
A ten minute segment of The Walgreen Hour featuring Groucho and Bob Hope is included for those interested in the genesis of our featured program. It is played out over a still of Hope and a clean-shaven Groucho. This is ten minutes of classic comedy brilliantly performed by two of the greatest comic minds of entertainment history. A must.
"Season's Greetings from De Soto: Laughs with Groucho" is a nine minute comedy compilation that was originally a 78 RPM record distributed to De Soto employees. It features material not featured on the program in either form. A clip from the Mr and Mrs Story interview appears here.
Four outtakes from four select episodes appear here, in terrible shape both visually and aurally. They feature material that was censored for various reasons but all feature Groucho at his finest.
Also, as a unique option, go to "Episodes" on the menu. Click on a particular episode and you'll discover that you will have a chance to view the original commercials that appeared in the original episodes!
All Marx Brothers fans, those of Groucho in particular, will adore this three-disc set. It contains a missing piece of history, one that will never likely be seen again in the coming years. The price is a bit expensive, but you will not regret spending the money needed to own this set forever. Those of you unsure, give this set a rent if your neighborhood store or Netflix carries it.
In case you missed it before, the secret word is innocent! Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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