You Bet Your Life (1950–1961)
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Groucho was a comic genius who was a master of one liners and clever repartee. The most famous joke about the woman with the big family who told Groucho she loved her husband and Groucho replying, "I love my cigar too but I take it out of my mouth once in a while," never aired in Arkansas (KARK, NBC, Channel 4, in Little Rock) because of censorship. But Groucho's retort made the rounds and everyone knew about it.
I was too young to know the Marx Brothers, though later I was able to enjoy their classic movies. So when Groucho had a brother on his show I would see him for the first time. I vividly remember one program when Harpo was guest and he almost outdid Groucho. Chico too nearly stole the show from Groucho the night he was on. I remember Groucho would have his daughter on from time to time. She was about my age. I don't know what ever happened to her. As I recall she was not shy and had talent.
The "secret word" was a popular gimmick for the program. At first a young lady in abbreviated attire would come out when someone said the word, which the audience knew but the contestants did not. It took me a while to get used to the duck coming down which replaced the girl, even though as I remember she still appeared now and then.
George Fenneman was not only an elegant announcer but did well as straight man for Groucho. He was a quiet, unassuming person, very likable, who sometimes would have a clever comeback line when Groucho tried to embarrass him. He also announced for the popular "Dragnet" series and had a part in the horror classic "The Thing from Another World."
As Groucho stated, "No one goes away broke." There was a consolation price for the guests who lost if they answered a trick question, usually, "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?" although some did miss it. Groucho would keep asking silly questions until they got their money. Truly, no one ever went away broke.
"You Bet Your Life" was probably shot on a theater stage, as I remember curtains behind the performers. The announcer/straight man George Fenneman, stood nearby (left side of TV screen), his dark hair lying tight against his scalp, perhaps slicked down with Brylcreem or something similar. (To see Fenneman in a dramatic role, watch the original version of the movie "The Thing.") When this show aired on TV in the 1950s, I was in grade school so the verbal humor, aimed at adults, usually went over my head. From a kid's perspective the best part of the show was the institution of the "secret word," announced to the audience (but not the contestants) before contestants appeared on the stage. If a contestant uttered the secret word during the show, he or she would win extra money. Groucho mentioned this concept when introducing the guests at the start of their appearance ("Say the secret word and win $100.") If a contestant said the secret word, it was acknowledged with the appearance of a puppet-type duck that was lowered from above on a string or wire. The duck's mouth held an envelope containing the money and its face was modeled after Groucho's: mustache, thick eyebrows, and (I think) a cigar in its mouth. Great fun!
They were immediately put to good use, as Channel 2 immediately launched feature films in some very strategic spots. First off, they inaugurated the Saturday Night 10:30 to Midnight(time approximate)slot with the top films that they had under the Umbrella Heading of "THE BEST OF MGM!"* The weekday nightly film, which started at either 10:30 or 11:00 entitled, "THE LATE SHOW." Logically, if there was a Late Show, then there had to be a daily afternoon film and it was called, (Are you ready for this one?)"THE EARLY SHOW!", in the 4:30 to 6:00 slot.
Well, it was the reason for this extended intro and seemingly unrelated couple o' paragraphs,that we both labored under. Of these 3 Marx Brothers, the first 2 were an Italian immigramt/Italian Impersonator, Chico with all his double talk routines, imitation Italian accent and malapropism; and brother, Harpo, mute on the screen but capable of generating as much laughter as any 2 lesser funny men.
And with them, was a young, energetic monologist, who used heavy greasepaint to feign bushy eyebrows and heavily mustachioed face. It was sort of shocking to a 5th Grader, but this young bespectacled and cigar smoking' guy looked like a younger version of a favourite TV Comedian of ours, Groucho Marx! What a shock to find-out that t'is was the very same fellow! You see, to a 'Baby-boomer' a film like this one, A DAY AT THE RACES(1935), was looked upon as a prequel to NBC TV's YOU BET YOUR LIFE!
Most of any folks of about 60 years got their first view of a middle-aged, sharp witted, fast on the draw, quick on the come back, Groucho. We learned of their movies at MGM later. Still later, we discovered 4 Marx Brothers when their five Paramount Pictures were also sold to television.
But as for our Groucho, he was the MC of this non spectacular quiz format half hour. The format of the game varied as little from season to season, as various ways of gaining about the same end were given tryouts over the 11 seasons. (That's eleven (11) years, not counting the show's Genisis on NBC Radio.) As Groucho's straight man and foil, Announcer George Fenneman, was present for all of the TV segments. George was the perennial "Good Sport" American Citizen. Whatever the craze or stunt, Groucho had George do it. Where something odd called for a 'volunteer' to act as a tester, Mr. Marx always 'volunteered' George. Whenever a lovely, young and eligible Lady would appear, you could be sure Groucho would try to act as 'Matchmaker'. All the time, never a mention of George's being happily married with children, already! There was some rumor that Fenneman did not like his Boss, and that Groucho mistreated him. In later years, George dispelled such as strictly bunk! In some latter day interviews for television special(THE UNKNOWN MARX BROS., I think), Mr. Fenneman proved him to be a true fan of the Marxes when growing up. He made mention of seeing the on-stage material try-outs that the Brothers did for their first MGM Pictures He saw them over and over again, never guessing that he'd work with Groucho one day.
The featured contestants were mainly just common folk, selected from the studio audience. They would have their time talk with and get interviewed by Groucho. Groucho would have benefit of summaries of each person's occupation, interests and peculiarities. The banter would back and forth, and everybody took their turn on the carpet.
As it was a filmed rather than live presentation(no video tape in use until 1958), naturally, it was edited. The crews reportedly filmed about an hour and left in the best to fill out this half-hour. This wasn't cheating, as Groucho was as fast with the barb as anyone and being TV, everything had to be sharply timed, split second precision and "humming" like a fine Swiss watch with jeweled movement.
In addition to the 'common folk', a large number of celebrities from the Worlds of Hollywood, the Sports Page and others of the Famous and Infamous, made regular appearances teamed with the regular folks. As just a sampling we remember*** seeing such luminaries as Boxing Legend- Mickey Walker, Action/Western Star-Ray "Crash" Corrigan, Singer-Bobby Van, The Champ(Himself)-Joe Louis,USC Football Twins Marlin McKeever and brother(?), the 'Dixie Derrick', World's Strongest Man-Paul Anderson (fresh from victory at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics), Mr. Universe-Reg Lewis, Pro Wrestlers "Wild" Red Berry and 600 lb.'Haystacks' Calhoun, Pacific Coast League(later American League)Umpire-Emmett Ashford. Character Comedian, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez,with a little radio experience got 'discovered while a contestant on YOU BET YOUR LIFE!
Groucho never forgot the family either, as Harpo made an "unscheduled" appearance in order to hawk his 1961 autobiography, HARPO SPEAKS! Chico and Harpo were also seen in commercials for Prom Home Permanent.
As for commercial identification their with the program was a pair of now defunct cars from the Chrysler Corporation, who acted as the footer of bills for several seasons. We could count on the ending of each show to include Groucho's popping out of a port-hole, imparting his wisdom with, "....and be sure to stop in and see your local DeSoto/Plymouth Dealer! And when you do, tell him Groucho sent you!", ending it with a couple of rapid eyebrow raises!
And through all seasons, all shows, Groucho Marx proved himself to be a most intelligent, well (self)educated and decent of a man. He always seemed to be rooting for the contestants to win.
George Fenneman,the announcer and straight man for Groucho's antics really was a great off load character for Groucho.
I wish they would bring this program back in re-runs. Originally it was on channel 11, KPLR TV in St.Louis at 10:00 p.m. MOn-Fri..
Really I am a 60's on up fan of television, and some of the crap they have on now, couldn't hold a candle to the early days of television.
Walter R.Deyherle St.Louis, Missouri
I only recently became aware that episodes on "You Bet Your Life" are available on the internet through places like eBay, so I have taken full advantage of that and have purchased quite a number of discs and boxed sets of the programs which my wife and I have since been watching with very great enjoyment. So, for those of you who would like to see episodes of this classic, they are no further away than where are are right now (on the internet).
Even the De Soto/Plymouth commercials from the time are enjoyable; promoting cars that may by modern standards be difficult to drive in a straight line - sorry to any De Soto fans out there. Nonetheless, they are a great accompaniment to this great series of programs.
By the way, about the programs, the game show was never intended to be the major part of the entertainment. It was Groucho who was the star not the contestants or the cars that the show so heavily promoted.
My summary, these programs are absolute classics and I feel very fortunate to have been able to buy some of them because some group of people had the foresight to see that it would be better to get them out on DVD than to lose them all together in a film vault somewhere.
10 out of 10 from me.
Also sharing in the fun was George Fenneman, announcer, straight man and scorekeeper. In an episode where Groucho, Edgar Bergen, and their daughters Melinda and Candice teamed up to win money for the Girl Scouts, Fenneman became the quiz master for that segment.
The most memorable contestant on the show was Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, a poor, illiterate Hispanic father who brought the house down since he was very funny. He later when on to roles in several movies. Phyllis Diller made her national TV debut on You Bet Your Life and in a later episode, Groucho's brother Harpo made a cameo appearance.
Fortunately, contestants never left the show broke. If they didn't do well in the quiz, Groucho would ask a question such as "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" or one I remember "In what city is the London Times published?"
Despite the several format changes to the quiz segment, You Bet Your life was a very funny show, thanks to the one, the only GROUCHO!
Running on TV, it first premiered on radio, for an unprecedented 11 seasons, the mystique of the show was the host himself. Filmed before a live studio audience, and shown on film for TV, afraid of the censors, the Network Exec's didn't want their show be cut into non- sequiturs.
George Fenneman, the Narrator and foil for Groucho's ad-libs and asides, was the perfect voice for the show. Often upstaged and caught off guard by Groucho's remarks, the unflappable Fenneman was the perfect gentleman.
The show was literally all about Groucho, and his wit. There was more gamesmanship than game, and often the questions were secondary to the rapport between Groucho and the contestants.
Hilarious and spontaneous, Grouch could get the contestants to reveal more about themselves, than they would in a private conversation. Taken from a much more conservative era, Groucho would often push the boundaries of what was appropriate for that time, and turn it into classic and harmless fun. Groucho's perfect timing and delivery were impeccable, and the use of "Julius", the Lucky Duck to present a hundred dollar bill to the player who would say the "Secret Word" of the day, was a stroke of genius.
The Love for this Show, is unparalleled. Now mostly forgotten in the annuls of TV History, people would flock to their TV sets, for a half hour of unpredictable consequences in Black & White, flickering across America through the rooms of TV households, in the darkness of the p.m., outbursts of chuckles and belly laughs could be heard from the darkest recesses of the land.
There was unity.
The staying power of this show was a testament to the talented writers and Groucho, whoever heard of a show with this much staying power, based alone on one person, but the time and place were a perfect vehicle, for someone whose life was based upon living on his wits, and that is the true testament of a man, named "Groucho."
It was , and is a TEN, out of TEN.
Today, I enjoy DVD's of the series as much as I did then. Of course, the byplay between Groucho and the contestants was the main magnet, then and now. Also, seeing regular people being interviewed was and remains a good contrast to celebrity TV. Often just plain folks would show a winning personality once Groucho's playful banter put them at ease. Now it's nostalgic seeing the fashions and styles of that day (1950's). He did have celebrity guests on from time to time, but they weren't the staple.
What I didn't know then that I know now-- thanks to IMDb-- is that more preparation went into the show than it appeared. So, you may want to gander at IMDb's Trivia section for details. Nonetheless, the laughs endure. At the same time, the show stands time's test thanks to Groucho's peerless skills and maybe the guy down the street.
It's hard to categorize this show. It's a game show but it's hardly "21". They spend perhaps five of the show's 30 minutes with Groucho asking silly questions, ("What was the profession of that great painter Rembrandt?") and handing out minuscule prizes, ($50 bills). The rest of it is the great comic's banter with his guests, which include show business people, (Sammy Kahn was in this one), and "regular" people, (a couple of beautiful young ladies who worked for NBC- the National Biscuit Company). Sammy even gets to sing a couple of his tunes. The show could easily be called "A Date With Groucho" because that's what it really is.