“The feeling that all this has been heard somewhere before hung heavy thru-out the premiere,” wrote Billboard’s Sam Chase in giving a pretty lukewarm review to a new radio quiz show in 1947. It turned out Chase couldn’t have been more wrong. The show was “You Bet Your Life,” and it spawned a different kind of radio, and then TV, quiz show—where the game wasn’t as important than the dialogue between the witty host and the somewhat befuddled contestants. It spawned similar shows because of the one, the only Groucho.
Groucho Marx’s career hadn’t been going a lot of places for a while by 1947. He made some movies that Marx Brothers fans would rather forget. He starred on a radio show (“Blue Ribbon Time”) that didn’t put him anywhere near the Benny-Hope-Skelton echelon of air performers. But Hope’s producer, John Guedel, and Marx put together a formula that worked. A formula based on wit. It was a far cry from toothy Bert Parks screeching “Stop the music!”
Groucho was known for many things in the Marx Brothers films. One of them was his greasepaint moustache. When “You Bet Your Life” reached television (where it really took off after bouncing around on three radio networks in four seasons) in 1950, Groucho had real lip-hair. If you thought he grew it strictly for television realism, guess again. Here’s an Associated Press column from December 1, 1948 which reveals he had already done it, and why he did it.
GROUCHO DOFFS HIS FAMOUS MUSTACHE, MULLS “OTHELLO”
By BOB THOMAS
AP Movie Writer
The famed swath of grease has disappeared from Groucho’s pan. In its place is a home-grown Anthony Eden-like brush with which the comic appears quite happy.
“It might open new possibilities for me,” he commented. “Who knows — next season I might play ‘Othello.’”
The old grease mustache helped to bring him fame, but it became a monster to Groucho’s ambitions to play fairly legitimate roles, he said.
“I couldn’t play with real actors when I had it on,” he complained. “It gave an unreal quality to any scene I would be in.”
• • •
GROUCHO’S ENTHUSIASM for the new brush stems from the fact that he doesn’t like making Marx brothers pictures. Ask him how he feels about them and you get a reaction that makes you believe he was properly tagged:
“They’re murder. You go through a lot of strenuous physical labor and spend all your time worrying about new routines and writing half the dialogue.”
Then ask him about his pictures alone, such as his current “It’s Only Money?”:
“It’s burglary. I almost feel ashamed to take the money. You’re handed a script and all you have to do is read the lines.”
• • •
YOU MIGHT JUDGE from this that there will be no more Marx brothers films—which is something the boys say each time they make one. Groucho is definite about this:
“There will be no more Marx brothers pictures — except for ‘The Marx Brothers Story.’ All we have to do now is find four Larry Parkses.”
• • •
GROUCHO GREW the mustache after the Broadway flop of “Time for Elizabeth,” which he wrote with Norman Krasna. But don’t get the idea it was merely a disguise to leave town with. He still thinks the play was good and he has no kind words for the New York drama critics.
“Never have I read such venomous, vitriolic reviews,” he commented. “They seem to resent the fact that I didn’t inject my own sardonic, sarcastic character into it. After all, I wasn’t in the play—I was the co-author.”
Groucho said he was going to fight the critics, but decided not to. He’ll stick to movies and his successful air show. Concerning radio, he concluded:
“That’s like stealing money, too.”
We opened this post with a quote from critic Sam Cohen. Lest you think he was completely off-base about “You Bet Your Life,” he said this toward the end of his review: “What prevented the show from falling into complete mediocrity was the energetic spieling of Groucho, whose zany, if sometime purplish comments brightened the proceedings.”
It’s debatable whether the game portion of the programme could be called “complete mediocrity,” but Groucho’s “zany, if sometimes purplish comments” are still pretty funny today. And they gave the show two Emmys and a Peabody and kept it on the air for 13 seasons.