Thursday, December 23, 2010

On DVD: "Groucho Marx: TV Classics"

It’s sort of funny, how easily Groucho Marx made the transition to television—considering how much trouble he’d had breaking into every other medium he’d tried his hand at. He toured vaudeville for years, with various combinations of family and friends, before he and his brothers finally come up with an act that was any good; they only moved to the “legitimate” stage after burning bridges on the vaudeville circuits, and that was with a thrown-together revue made up of spare parts and songs which no one expected to go anywhere. The Marx Brothers are among our most beloved screen comedians, but their first film, the silent comedy Humorisk, was reportedly so bad that it disappeared after one screening. And though Groucho’s rapid-fire wit would seem perfect for radio, he watched several vehicles (both by himself and with brother Chico) inexplicably flop.

So it was with a sense of “why the hell not?” that Groucho took up radio producer John Guedel on his offer to host a quiz show; the result, You Bet Your Life, was an immediate hit when it debuted on ABC Radio in 1947. When TV began to eclipse radio not long after, Guedel and Groucho moved the show to television with very little adjustment; the TV and radio versions ran concurrently for some time, but even after it was television-only, the show still looked like the recording of a radio show. It ran on television for over a decade, racking up over 400 shows. Sixteen of those shows are collected on the three-disc Groucho Marx: TV Classics collection, along with a third disc of additional Groucho TV goodies.

Guedel was inspired to create a quiz show for Groucho after producing a Bob Hope radio special, in which his ad-libs broke up Hope and nearly stopped the show. Guedel’s brainstorm was that the quiz would mostly serve as an excuse to engage contestants from all walks of life, giving Groucho the opportunity to display his well-known rapier wit, and giving the guests the opportunity to win an extra cash prize if they said the “secret word” (brought by the show’s trademark Groucho duck). Most shows would have two to three pairs of contestants, usually a man and a woman; after an interview segment (greatly edited for maximum laughs), Groucho would ask trivia questions of the guests, with the assistance of announcer and quintessential straight man George Fenneman. Those who won the quiz would have an opportunity to come back later and take a chance on a bigger prize. Those who lost could win a few extra bucks by answering a dummy question, along the lines of “Who wrote The Autobiography of Ben Franklin?” or “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

Much was made at the time of Groucho’s peerless skill as an ad-libber—how did he come up with all those hilarious one-liners? Of course, the illusion of Groucho the improviser was carefully cultivated by the show’s press machine; though some of his barbs were thought up on the spot, many were prepared by gag men from pre-interviews with the contestants and projected onto an off-stage screen for Groucho (you can occasionally catch him squinting to read his “extemporaneous” comments).

But it is just as silly to summarily dismiss those segments in light of what we know now as it was for earlier audiences to assume they were purely off-the-cuff. Part of Groucho’s genius was his ability to make tightly-written, well-constructed jokes sound like he was just making them up; lest we forget, he had folks like George S. Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, Morrie Ryskind, and Al Boasberg writing his film dialogue. It takes real skill to do what he did on You Bet Your Life—when he’s told by a female contestant that her husband is a barber who moonlights as a drummer, damned if it doesn’t look like he just comes up with his response (“I guess on the weekends it’s a relief to look at skin that doesn’t have hair on it”). Many of his most memorable encounters were with fairly flamboyant ethnic folks—here he meets an Italian gentleman who keeps spelling his last name, a feisty Mexican restaurant owner, and French-Canadian actress Fifi D’Orsay—and with those who saw the show as a chance to show and tell, like the man who can chew wood or the woman with the performing myna bird.

The sixteen episodes in this set, all culled from the Chysler-DeSoto “Tell ‘em Groucho sent you!” years, are all good ones, average to slightly above; much of the run is in the public domain, so there have been several collections from lesser labels, and a couple of these episodes have popped up other places. His encounter with wrestler Wild Red Berry, for example (“I’ve never been to one of your matches, but I’d love to go to a rehearsal”) appeared on Shout Factory’s You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes collection—as well it should have—and a couple of other ones were slightly familiar from the cut-out bins. But the well of available episodes is deep enough to allow for a mostly fresh batch, and all are fun. The real value of the set, however, is in the third, bonus disc.

The Hollywood Palace was ABC’s attempt to challenge The Ed Sullivan Show with a similarly eclectic lineup, but presented with a rotating cast of guest hosts. These two episodes are presented complete with pre-show tape roll and vintage commercials from sponsors like Salem cigarettes, Schlitz beer, Playtex brassieres, Right Guard deodorant, and Beltone hearing aids. The March 14, 1964 show finds Groucho giving a funny but too-brief opening monologue, then introducing a dancing elephant act, a puppeteer, a French crooner, a flamenco dancer, singer Jenny Smith, comic Lee Allen, and—for the Dick Van Dyke Show fans—a two-act by Morey Amsterdam and Rose-Marie. He also does a brief closing bit (see photo) with the show’s “Billboard Girl” Raquel—later to become a movie star and pin-up under her full name, Raquel Welch. But the highlight comes halfway in, when Groucho resumes the auspices of his favorite character, Dr. Hackenbush (from A Day at the Races), for a good old-fashioned doctor sketch (Patient: “I’ve got a good mind not to let you look at me!” Groucho: “If you had a good mind, you wouldn’t have come here at all!”) and a performance of the Kalmar & Ruby song named after the character (which Groucho performed just about everywhere but in Races).

The April 17th, 1965 show boasts another international lineup (“all kinds of people from all over the world, all of then without talent,” Groucho quips): a Danish acrobatic act, a Scottish slapstick comic, a Spanish dance troupe, a South African singer, comedian Shecky Greene, singers Gordon and Sheila MacRae, and his own daughter Melinda, performing a pop song with a more-than-passing resemblance to Petulia Clark’s “Downtown,” as well as a duet with her dear old dad. The best is saved for last, though: Groucho’s old foil and seven-time co-star Margaret Dumont joins him for a performance of “Hurray for Captain Spaulding” from Animal Crackers, interspersed with some jokes from the picture (including the “elephant in my pajamas” line) and some new lines as well. The play off each other beautifully, and it’s wonderful to see them together one last time; she would die of a heart attack within days of the taping.

You Bet Your Life was a television institution for eleven years, and brought Groucho Marx more late-career success than he could have imagined. The focus on his rapid-fire wit (improvised or no) has made it far more venerable than any other 1950s quiz show, and it’s always a treat to sit back and enjoy a few episodes. But the real value, for “Marxists” anyway, of Groucho Marx: TV Classics is that third disc of rare and lesser-seen one-offs and gems—the two Hollywood Palace shows alone are worth the price of the set.

"Groucho Marx: TV Classics" is available now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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