Groucho Marx fans will be delighted with Synergy Entertainment’s three-DVD set Groucho Marx TV Classics, which offers about 12 hours of material featuring his trademark wit.
Before he became the wisecracking, cigar-holding, mustachioed film icon, Groucho (born Julius) got his show business start on the vaudeville stage as a singer in 1905. Over the years, he worked as part of a music act with various family members, including a few well-known brothers. They eventually realized they had a talent for comedy and incorporated it into the act.
The Four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo) became so popular they went to Broadway in 1924 (I’ll Say She Is) and then Hollywood in 1929 (The Cocoanuts). They had great success throughout most of the 1930s as a quartet for five films at Paramount and then as a trio after Zeppo left the group for two films at MGM. Their last three films at MGM weren’t as good as their previous work, and with their contract up, they planned for 1941’s The Big Store to be their last until Chico’s gambling debts caused the brothers to reunite for two more films.
As solo performers, Groucho had the most success with the game show You Bet Your Life. It began on radio in 1947 and concurrently became a TV program in 1950. The radio show ran until 1956 and on TV until 1961. The way the game works is two contestants play as a team and answer trivia questions in order to win money.
The 16 shows collected here appear to be from different seasons as the rules change. In one episode the contestants are supplied a stake of $100 and add to it by selecting certain dollar amounts tied to questions. If they guess wrong, they lose half their bankroll. In another episode they are told if they answer four questions, they win $1,000, and if they miss two questions in a row they are out. Usually two teams compete in an episode and the one who makes the most money returns for a bonus round. Also, each episode features a secret word like “show” or “hand” that if spoken by a contestant wins them $50 each.
However, that game show element is of little importance to the viewer as the real pleasure derived from You Bet Your Life is watching Groucho’s quick adlibbing skills as he interacts and jokes with the contestants. He is playful with the ladies and gives him a rough time to wrestler Red Barry by constantly calling wrestling fake. It’s also interesting to meet the people of the time like Peggy, who in 1958 didn’t believe a woman should be President.
The third disc is a grab bag of Extras. The You Bet Your Life pilot (54 min) from 1949 is taken from a kinescope shot on 16mm. “Stag Reels” (25 min) involving Groucho likely wouldn’t seem to have much appeal until it is revealed they are actually deleted scenes from the show were cut for being too risqué for television at the time.
Two episodes of the variety show Hollywood Palace, from 3/14/1964 (58 min) and 4/17/1965 (53 min). Salem Cigarettes is the sponsor and they claim they can freshen your taste…with cigarettes. The shows feature animal acts, singers, comics, entertainers, puppets, dancers, acrobats, and comic sketches. They offer real treats to Marx Bros. fans. The 1964 episode contains the song “Dr. Hackenbush,” which was cut from A Day at the Races. A young Raquel Welch helps introduce the next week’s show. The 1965 program finds Groucho paired with Margaret Dumont for a rendition of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” from Animal Crackers and he also sings with his daughter Melinda.
“See You at the Polls” (28 min) from 10/9/1956 is PSA from The American Heritage Foundation telling people to vote in the upcoming election. It is an all-star Hollywood affair with sketches and songs. Such notables as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Rosemary Clooney join Grouch. Anybody Can Play (25 min) from 1958 is a game show with You Bet Your Life announcer George Fenneman as host. Items have to be identified, such as pictures of dressed-up movie stars, miscellaneous objects, song titles, and people’s measurements. Groucho’s appearance on a Thanksgiving-themed episode of Dinah Shore’s radio show Bird’s Eye Open House from 11/22/1945 can be heard.
Although many of these programs are public domain, it’s great to have them collected in one set, especially the rare material making up the extras. Unfortunately, they aren’t in the greatest condition. The video image is marred by marks and dirt and at times, it becomes unstable and moves up and down. Another flaw is the liner notes on Disc Two list all the secret words wrong except for two episodes. Yet, those things are minor in comparison to all the entertainment Groucho Marx TV Classics offers.