Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Groucho Marx: You Bet Your Life: The Lost Episodes (1950)****

During the Great Depression, The Marx Brothers made America laugh when the country needed it most, and by the end of WWII were winding down their movie careers. But while Chico and Harpo were getting too old for physical slapstick comedy, Groucho’s witty mind was still razor sharp. In 1947 ABC radio debuted You Bet Your Life, a weekly quiz show hosted by Marx and his smooth, yet amusingly un-hip announcer George Fennemen.

In 1950, the show jumped to NBC and that extraordinary new medium, television, where it enjoyed an amazing 11 year prime-time run. Since most of the 400-plus episodes are public domain, there are many You Bet Your Life compilation discs out there, and this reviewer has made it a point to see just about all of them. But The Lost Episodes is by far the best collection. I’m not sure what qualifies these shows as “lost” but I strongly suspect they were considered too racy and off beat to be included in the standard syndication packages that were sold to TV stations as family entertainment in the 1970s and 80s.

In this set, we meet folks like comedian Ernie Kovacs, boxer Archie Moore, Gary Cooper’s mom (who is a scream) as well as a host of less famous, but no less interesting, figures. And speaking of figures, there are a few of those buxom young lasses scattered about who bring out the lecherous best in Groucho, and the double-entendres fly with abandon.

It’s also interesting to see how the rules of the quiz, the prize money and contestants’ expectations changed over the years. In the early episodes, guests were lucky to walk away with ten dollars, and the ones who did were giddy with excitement. In later years, the grand prize was $10,000, a staggering sum for 1959. Yes, it’s old. Yes, it’s dated. Some of it’s just plain weird. But for escapist belly laughs with a history lesson thrown into the mix, Groucho fans will be mighty glad these lost episodes turned up.