Wednesday 8 May 2019

Groucho Wouldn't Do It Again

A game show without flashing lights, screaming audiences, multiple zooming cameras or even a tote board? You couldn’t make one today; producers demand all that extraneous TV tumult.

That description, however, fits You Bet Your Life. You couldn’t make the show today anyway, because it featured the one thing that made it what it was—the late Groucho Marx. Even he couldn’t duplicate its success when the show was reworked in 1962 into Tell it to Groucho. (The less said about the Cosby You Bet Your Life, the better).

Those old black-and-white You Bet Your Life shows still holds up. Witty insults never go out of style. Groucho was a master.

The show was still on the air in 1958 when this wire service profile of the-one-the-only was published. It capsulizes his life story. Would he live it all over again? Anyone who knew Groucho would know his answer.

The Groucho Rags-to-Riches Story
Kicked Into Acting, Pushed Into Fame

By Hal McClure
Associated Press Writer
HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 4—Two middle-aged men watched a young fellow bound into the men's grill at a swank Beverly Hills country club. "Wouldn't you like to be his age and starting all over again" sighed one.
"I can't think of a more revolting idea," snapped the other. "I've been through life once and that's enough for me. I hope to live for many years, but if I knocked off tomorrow I wouldn't have any kick coming.
"I wouldn't go through the whole damn thing again for all the money in the world."
The speaker was Groucho Marx. At 63, he stands at the top of a remarkable career, recognized as one of the nation's great wits.
He has a pretty young wife, a rambling nine-room home in Beverly Hills and all the money he'll ever need.
On Sept. 25, he began his 12th season as combination quiz and quip master on "You Bet Your Life" (NBC-TV), a job he calls one of the softest snaps in show business.
But it was a long, rough road to the top for Groucho. Small wonder he doesn't want to go back. He once said:
"I was kicked into acting by my mother and if I hadn't been, I'd now be on relief. I've always been terrified of dying broke or of being a failure."
Groucho was born Julius Marx in New York City. He was the third son of a poor Alsatian immigrant and the ambitious daughter of a German magician.
Minna Marx—everyone called her Minnie—dedicated her life to pushing her sons into fame in the show business. Her brother, Al Shean, was a member of the Gallagher and Shean vaudeville team and Minnie loved the theatre.
She saw to it that Chico (Leonard) took piano lessons. Harpo (Arthur) learned to play the harp himself. The family was poor and only Zeppo (Herbert), the youngest son, reached high school.
Young Groucho wanted to be a doctor. He loved reading and enjoyed being by himself. But he made his first stage venture just before his 11th birthday, serving a brief hitch in Gus Edwards' Kid Troupe.
Four years later, in 1910, Minnie Organized the Three Nightingales—Groucho, a tenor and a girl. When Harpo joined them, they became the Four Nightingales. "The Four Vultures would have been more like it," says Groucho.
After " countless whistlestops, tank town theaters and dirty saloon dressing rooms, the Four Marx Brothers act—Chico, Harpo Gummo (Milton) and Groucho—was born.
It was spanked into a comedy act one dusty day in Nacogdoches, Tex.
A runaway mule started a minor riot outside the Marx makeshift theater and the audience left them flat to join the fun. The infuriated brothers began a frenzied burlesque of Texas and Texans. The pandemonium inside the theater soon became greater than that outside, the audience returned to investigate and stayed to cheer.
The madcap Marx brothers broke up during World War I. Harpo and Gummo enlisted while Groucho and Chico entertained at the camps. After the war, they resumed their careers. Zeppo replaced Gummo in the act.
Their musical, "I'll Say She Is," was a smash hit. Then came “The Coconuts,” and "Animal Crackers."
Their first movie was a film version of "The Coconuts" in 1929. Following rapidly were "Animal Crackers, "Monkey Business," "Horse Feathers," "Duck Soup," "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the Races."
These early pictures—their best—had one thing in common: Uninhibited zaniness.
Groucho's trademark was a perpetual stoop, ill-fitting frock coat, waggling cigar, furiously wriggling eyebrows and a knowing leer. His clarion call was "Never give the sucker an even break."
Groucho spouted a barrage of horrendous puns, scathing insults and non sequiturs, such as this one: Man: I met a lady inventor the other day. Groucho: I'm glad he invented ladies.
But critics and fellow comics rate Groucho far above the run-of-the-mill comedian who relies heavily on situation gags and writers. Groucho is a real wit, a master of the geniune ad lib.
His meeting with Houdini the magician is show business legend. Houdini, performing the then new trick of threading a handful of needles in his mouth with his tongue, called on a nondescript little man in the audience to come on stage.
“Do you see any needles or thread hidden under my tongue?” asked Houdini. The volunteer peered intently into the magician's mouth, but did not speak. "Speak up," commanded Houdini. "Tell what you see." "Pyorrhea," declared Groucho brightly. The audience roared.
But in the middle 40s, Groucho's fortunes took a downward turn. The Marx brothers had scattered. Groucho's last radio show laid an ostrich-sized egg. His last movie, "Copacabana," excited no one.
His comeback started on a Bob Hope benefit radio show. During a comedy routine Hope dropped his script. Legend has it that Groucho promptly stepped on it. Marx denies this.
But what followed was one of the funniest ad lib bits in radio history. Producer John Guedel was in the audience and offered Groucho "You Bet Your Life." The TV show went on in 1947 and was an instant success.
Guests on the show come in for the barbed side of Groucho's flashing tongue, but they expect it. He once asked a professional wrestler if wrestling bouts were fixed.
"That's just a dirty rumor," cried the wrestler.
"How many dirty rumors have you wrestled lately?" asked Groucho.


  1. Of course with Cosby making news today, his revival will continue to fall into obscurity and give a new meaning to "the less said about it, the better".

    The Buddy Hackett revival wasn't too shabby as I recall, or at least the last time I saw it.

  2. When I started watching reruns of YOU BET YOUR LIFE a few years ago, I'll admit it took a little getting used to. Not the show itself or that it is in black-and-white. It was all the grainy close-ups and that so many shots are oddly off-center. I didn't begin to understand that until I learned that for most of the show's run, the sponsor's logo was prominently displayed on the set. When NBC syndicated the show following its network run, they went through the episodes and optically enlarged every frame of film where the sponsor's logo was visible and cropped it out.

    John Guedel said that NBC called him sometime in the early 1970s to ask if he wanted a set of prints of YOU BET YOUR LIFE. They had decided the show had no further commercial value and were planning to destroy their negatives and prints. Guedel stopped that and was able to get the series reissued to the syndication market, where it did good business, its reappearance coming during the nostalgia craze of the '70s.

    1. Rich, that's when I first saw it. The editing was atrocious but there was no other way they could get rid of all those DeSoto references.

  3. So true.I remember seeing the blur or shine they would put on the microphone obscuring NBC. Stuck out like a sore.