Marx of Distinction 

The secret word is out: You Bet Your Life is on DVD

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Thanks to the advent of the DVD, television networks have found an ideal, profitable format to preserve their heritage. If the technology had arrived in 1972, a short-sighted NBC employee might not have erased the first 10 years of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show to make room for other programs.

The same fate almost befell another TV landmark: Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. Incredible as it may seem, most of The Lost Episodes in the Shout Factory’s recent three-DVD set might have been lost forever. During the early 1970s, the same geniuses at NBC planned to destroy all the YBYL programs for the sole purpose of freeing up warehouse space. Fortunately, Groucho and producer John Guedel thwarted this cultural crime and successfully reissued the comedy-quiz shows for late-night syndication.

Running from 1947 to 1961 on radio and television, the 30-minute program became the perfect vehicle for Groucho’s ad-lib mastery and razor-sharp wit. This was the cigar-wielding persona viewers remembered—more so than the greasepaint-mustachioed Marx Brother of the silver screen.

You Bet Your Life was directed by the late Robert Dwan, who gave Groucho the freedom to ad-lib and gently insult contestants while 35mm cameras rolled for nearly an hour. Dwan then selected and edited the best moments. Groucho offered his unique appraisal of the director’s talent: “Bob, I have nothing but confidence in you—and very little of that.”

Upon viewing the Lost Episodes collection, it is difficult to overlook DeSoto-Plymouth’s dominant sponsorship of You Bet Your Life and the major role Groucho played in the selling of its automobiles—even lending his trademark image to its used-car dealerships. The outtake reels, promotional films and DeSoto commercials featured in this set make fascinating and historic viewing.

Most importantly, there’s the pleasure of seeing 18 You Bet Your Life programs for the first time since the 1950s—a belated find comparable to the “lost” Jackie Gleason kinescopes that surfaced in 1985. The result is a valuable addition to Groucho’s comic legacy, with a few radio excerpts thrown in for good measure. A particular highlight occurred during the first season when Groucho interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Story, a California couple who raised 20 children. However, the funniest exchange never reached the airwaves:

Groucho: “Why do you have so many children?”

Mrs. Story: “Well, because I love my children and I think that’s our purpose here on earth. And I love my husband.”

Groucho: “I love my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”

The Shout Factory has since followed this long-awaited treasure with You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes. The three-DVD set includes a plethora of special guests (ranging from Joe Louis to Phyllis Diller), Groucho blooper reels and vintage commercials, such as the famous “Creamy Prom” spot with brothers Harpo and Chico.

After You Bet Your Life ended its 528-episode run, Groucho and producer Guedel attempted a new format in the early 1960s with three less-than-stellar pilots, all showcased in the Best Episodes set. The inclusion of these unsuccessful ventures does throw the overall collection somewhat off-balance. Nevertheless, there are enough memorable laughs to satisfy any die-hard Marxist.

Even at the peak of his television popularity, Groucho rubbed some viewers the wrong way. In an oft-quoted story (best recounted in Steve Stoliar’s 1996 memoir Raised Eyebrows), a rather angry woman confronted Marx during an afternoon at Disneyland. What follows is history.

Woman: “I wouldn’t watch your show for a hundred dollars a night. The way you treat those [contestants] is disgraceful. My husband watches it every week, but I can’t stand it.”

Groucho: “Where are you from?”

Woman: “Salt Lake City.”

Groucho: “Are you a Mormon?”

Woman: “Yes.”

Groucho: “If they still allowed polygamy in Salt Lake City and you were one of 10 wives, and your husband came home with that certain look in his eye, you would be the last one he’d choose!”

To quote the immortal words of writer Arthur Sheekman, “There is a funny man.”


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Scott Rivers

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