You Bet Your Life: The Lost Episodes

This essay was first published in the 2003 Shout! Factory DVD release, You Bet Your Life: The Lost Episodes.

“Here he is . . . the one . . . the only . . . GROUCHO!” Between 1947 and 1961 that phrase began 528 episodes of You Bet Your Life starring Groucho Marx. By any standard the number is astounding. It’s a very rare feat today for a show to reach even 300 episodes. To put it in perspective, there were 270 episodes of Cheers and 251 episodes of M*A*S*H.  Add them up and there are still seven more episodes of You Bet Your Life. The Simpsons (313 episodes in their first fourteen seasons) would need nine more seasons to match Groucho, who, incidentally was seventy years old during the final season of You Bet Your Life. Let’s see what Homer Simpson looks like at seventy.

At the start You Bet Your Life did not seem like it would be a long-running hit show. By 1947 Groucho had already been in show business for over forty years and his long career seemed to be reaching its end. The Marx Brothers had retired from the movies, and Groucho was working mostly as a guest star on radio shows hosted by stars like Dinah Shore, Rudy Vallee and Al Jolson. Groucho had failed on radio with a few different shows of his own, including two with his brother Chico. He’d had a brief run as the host of Pabst Blue Ribbon Town, but he couldn’t develop the staying power in radio that contemporaries like Jack Benny and Fred Allen had found.

In March 1947 Groucho was appearing as a guest on a radio special with Bob Hope. Producer John Guedel was in the studio audience. After waiting backstage while the show ran long, Groucho finally appeared for his segment with Hope. He began ad-libbing, and Hope went right along with him. The show was being recorded and would be edited for broadcast, which prompted Hope at one point to remark, “You can start working on the record now, fellas.” When one of the scripted jokes fell flat, Groucho remarked, “Well, you can cut that out too.”  [That rare segment from The Walgreen

Guedel was impressed with Groucho’s ability to ad-lib and realized that he was held back in radio by the medium’s rigid adherence to scripts. After the show Guedel met with Groucho and offered him a chance to host a quiz program, suggesting that the format would allow Groucho to ad-lib and be spontaneous. Groucho was not impressed with the offer and considered the job of quizmaster an indignity for a man with his show business credentials. Guedel surely recognized this. In 1949 he would tell Time that “Having Groucho as emcee of a quiz show is like using a Cadillac to haul coal.” But further discussions with Guedel finally resulted in Groucho agreeing to make a demonstration record. Groucho and Guedel each put up $125 to finance the recording. It was made on September 15, 1947. Since Guedel was the producer of Art Linkletter’s popular shows House Party and People Are Funny, the record was made at the CBS studio where House Party was recorded. They used his band, led by Billy May, and his announcer Jack Slattery. [The demonstration recording, which features an obviously nervous Groucho, is included in this collection.] In this very first outing for the show, its most famous trademark was already present. At the outset Slattery announced that any contestant uttering the “mystery word” would win $1000. It didn’t take long for the “mystery word” to become the “secret word.” In fact, by the end of the audition disc Groucho was calling it the “secret word.” Armed with the record Guedel set out to sell You Bet Your Life. All three networks turned him down. But he quickly found a sponsor, and the Elgin-American company agreed to buy the air time for the show. They went to ABC since it was the newest and least expensive network. It was also the smallest and least successful.

On Monday, October 27, 1947, at 8 P.M. — a mere six weeks after the recording of the demonstration record — the first episode of You Bet Your Life aired on ABC. Billy May continued in the role of bandleader and Jack Slattery was the announcer. But Slattery’s days were numbered. A young announcer named George Fenneman was hired to read the Elgin-American commercials. Groucho took a liking to Fenneman and found that he was a good foil for his ad-libbing. By the third episode Fenneman had assumed Slattery’s role as announcer, a job he’d keep for the next fourteen years. Other small changes occurred in the early days of the show. The reward for saying the secret word couldn’t really be the $1000 that Jack Slattery promised in the audition record. The prize was toned down to a sixteen millimeter sound movie projector — not that very many people had much use for one in 1947. Eventually the secret word prize became $100. The contestants were mostly selected from the studio audience and were generally just ordinary people. Groucho once said of the show, “All I need are six curious people who are willing to exhibit themselves.” 

After initially planning to broadcast You Bet Your Life live, Groucho and Guedel decided that it would be recorded and edited for broadcast. This would turn out to be a major factor in the show’s success. Allowing the show to run for about an hour gave Groucho the opportunity to ad-lib without worry. Material that didn’t work could simply be removed when the show would be cut down to broadcast length. But You Bet Your Life was not an overnight success. A New York Times reviewer wrote, during the first season, “Among radio’s unsolved problems is the full utilization of the talents of Groucho Marx, a man of both brains and capital comic ability. Over the years he has been subjected to virtually every type of format but none really has worked out too well. Unfortunately that state of affairs still exists apropos his current effort, You Bet Your Life.” But the show slowly developed an audience as Groucho became more comfortable.

He even won a Peabody Award as the best comedian of 1948, being recognized as “the only man on the air who can work without a script and bat off a brilliant succession of witticisms.”  In a 1949 Time article Groucho said, “In the old days they almost threw me off the air if I deviated from the script. I had to sign a written pledge that I would read only what was before me. But now I’m doing what comes naturally. It’s like stealing money to get paid for this.” At the time, Groucho was “stealing” $3000 a week.

For its third season You Bet Your Life moved to CBS. The larger network vastly increased the show’s audience and You Bet Your Life, which had hovered near the bottom of the ratings lists, was suddenly in the top ten. The show’s new success had an unexpected result. Elgin-American, the makers of ladies compacts and other fashion accessories like cigarette cases and pocket watches, had to drop out as the sponsor thirteen weeks into the third season. They were a small company and simply could not produce their products quickly enough to meet the demand now that Groucho was asking his very large radio audience each week, “Have you looked at your compact lately?” Groucho and Guedel sold the sponsorship of the show to the DeSoto-Plymouth company, making Groucho America’s best-known car salesman. And in the process, Groucho’s trademark sign-off was born: “When you go see your DeSoto-Plymouth dealer, tell him Groucho sent you.”

For any successful radio program in the late 1940s, talk of television was inevitable. In June 1949 Variety reported that Groucho was negotiating with several film companies to produce a television version of You Bet Your Life. In December a test film was shot as the radio program was being recorded. It was assumed by both Groucho and the network that the show would make its transition to television on CBS, but Guedel, Groucho and brother Gummo — Groucho’s manager and agent at the time —  thought it would be wise to put the show on the open market just to make sure they got the most favorable deal from CBS.

By the spring of 1950 CBS and NBC were involved in a bidding war over the television rights to You Bet Your Life. Newsweek reported that “Groucho’s eyebrows are wobbling at the thought of TV.” Groucho told Time: “I am being wooed for the first time in my life. I’m like a dame hot out of Vassar.” CBS Chairman of the Board William S. Paley flew in from New York to make his offer. Groucho recalled, in The Secret Word Is Groucho, his 1976 book about You Bet Your Life, that Paley had followed him into the bathroom and locked the door. “‘Look’ he said to me, ‘you’re a Jew and I’m a Jew. We should stick together. You can’t afford to sign with NBC.’” Groucho was offended and noted that David Sarnoff of NBC was also Jewish. When it was all over NBC had managed to take You Bet Your Life away from CBS. The Variety headline on June 7, 1950, read, “Paley, Staffers Wail ‘Ouch-o’ In Loss of Groucho.” Groucho remarked, “It was a tough fight but I won.” Indeed he did. The new deal called for Groucho to be paid $4800 a week and to retain thirty-eight percent of the show’s profits. It was a ten year deal that included annual raises and a thirteen percent profit sharing deal for Guedel. NBC had guaranteed $4 million to You Bet Your Life.

On October 5, 1950, You Bet Your Life made its television debut on NBC. The previous evening it had been broadcast — in a slightly different version — on NBC radio. You Bet Your Life would continue on radio until June 10, 1960, leaving the airwaves one season before its television counterpart. On television You Bet Your Life was not much different than it was on radio. But there was one small change. In the early episodes a contestant saying the secret word caused a loud alarm bell to sound. Groucho found this very annoying and suggested that something should drop down — “An elephant or a pretty girl or a duck or something.”  Groucho had said the secret word. The duck became a signature image for the show. Apart from the duck there were no visual elements added for television. Production of the show didn’t change much either. The performance still ran for about an hour and was recorded for radio and filmed simultaneously. Very often material had to be edited out of the show because Groucho’s mind worked a little too quickly and he’d make a racy or downright dirty joke before he could stop himself. Or sometimes a contestant would inadvertently lead him down that path. Groucho would look straight at the camera and remark, “This is what’s known as a waste of film.” Or he’d glance over at the director and simply say, “Clip clip.” But fortunately that film was not discarded. The editors compiled an annual reel of Groucho’s unairable moments for the sponsors’ convention. Many of these moments — and the occasional non-filthy mishap, like the duck coming down and making a perfect landing on George Fenneman’s head — can now be seen for the first time in this collection.

A review of the first episode in Radio/TV Daily noted, “The format is a carbon copy of the already well-known radio program. However, via TV there is the added joy of watching Groucho jiggle his eyebrows at the contestants, smoke his cigar as only he can and toss his razor-like witticisms around as easily as a contestant can win a nice chunk of change on the program.”  Groucho was always rooting for the contestants to win some money in the quiz. But sometimes it just wasn’t meant to be, and Groucho felt that it was too negative to send people off with nothing. “When people go broke up there I’m embarrassed. I feel they ought to have something, to give the thing an up note when they leave.” Thus, Groucho’s idea for the consolation question was born. The most famous question asked of a losing pair of contestants was, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” And Groucho would always remind the studio audience not to help with this very difficult question. Over the years many others were used, but most of the time — no matter what question was asked — Groucho would respond to whatever answer the couple gave with his customary, “General Grant is absolutely right!”  The question became a national catchphrase, and in 1953 Ulysses S. Grant IV was invited to appear on the show. [That episode is included in this collection.]

You Bet Your Life’s popularity translated easily and immediately to television and the show was in the top ten right from the start. And on January 23, 1951 — after slightly less than four months on the air — Groucho was presented with an Emmy Award as the most outstanding television personality of 1950. When the show first came to television, Groucho was often asked about his moustache. The familiar greasepaint version from the movies was long gone and had been replaced by a real one. Asked about his real moustache in 1952 by TV-Radio Life, Groucho said, “My wife made me shave it off the first week I had it. My producer, John Guedel, made me grow another one. Three months later I had the moustache, but I didn’t have the wife.”  He wasn’t kidding. His second marriage had ended in divorce the previous year.

The weekly parade of ordinary folks, offbeat characters and people with strange occupations rolled on as the show sat at the top of the ratings. But there was one unpleasant bump in the road. From the beginning the show always had a ten to twelve piece orchestra. Original bandleader Billy May departed after the first radio season and was replaced by Stanley Myers. Myers left during the second season and was replaced by Jerry Fielding, who held the job until December 1953. But Fielding didn’t leave of his own accord. Nor was he ever formally fired. The Communist witch hunt of the early 1950s had come to Hollywood in 1953. The House Un-American Activities Committee came to town with a subpoena for Jerry Fielding. They actually served it to him at the show. Fielding brought it to Groucho and offered to quit. Groucho laughed it off and said he would not stand for a political firing.  NBC initially encouraged Fielding to be a cooperative witness, but the network’s feelings on the subject changed when Fielding asked, “What do I say when they ask me about Groucho?” NBC and DeSoto feared that the committee might be using Fielding to get to Groucho. After all, Groucho could easily be linked to several of the liberal organizations that the committee considered Communist fronts.

So Fielding appeared before the committee and invoked his Fifth Amendment right, an act that in those times essentially branded a person a Communist. You Bet Your Life director Robert Dwan called Fielding after his testimony and suggested he not come back to the show right away. Fielding arranged for a substitute bandleader named Lynn Murray. Apparently someone complained that Murray too had Communist ties. Fielding, who went on to become a successful composer, recalled in 1976, “. . . what could I do to really upset anything playing fanfares on the Groucho Marx show? What kind of propaganda could I get across through that medium?” Nonetheless, after the Lynn Murray incident, Fielding was unable to get in touch with anyone on the You Bet Your Life staff. Jack Meakin was brought in as the new bandleader, but he recalled that he wasn’t given the permanent position right away. “It took awhile for me to be told I had the job. What was happening, I guess, was that they were checking my background. They had to get a clearance on me.” Meakin was right. They were taking no chances. For the five weeks following Fielding’s final broadcast You Bet Your Life did not credit anyone as musical director. Groucho wrote about the Fielding mess in The Secret Word Is Groucho: “That I bowed to sponsors’ demands is one of the greatest regrets of my life.”

As other quiz shows were cancelled in the wake of the infamous quiz show scandal and failing ratings, You Bet Your Life remained in the top ten. But You Bet Your Life wasn’t really a quiz show at all. Groucho even resented the television academy putting the show in the quiz category for award consideration, stating that the show got more laughs than most so-called comedy shows. When Newsweek asked in 1957 how the show had managed to last so long, he replied, “I’m not overexposed. I focus on the guests. I let them talk until they get confused. Then I move in. I don’t prod. When some contestant puts his foot in his mouth, I just push it in a little further.” In 1959 The New York Herald Tribune wrote, “With deadly barbs and piddling cash prizes (less than $1000 each week), You Bet Your Life not only has survived the big money quiz disgrace but its end is nowhere in sight.” As audience tastes changed and westerns began to fill the airwaves, You Bet Your Life hung on. Groucho commented, “If I were just starting on TV I’d do a quiz-western. It could be very exciting. If a contestant missed a question, he would be hanged.”

By 1960 Groucho was making $7000 a week on You Bet Your Life. Each Wednesday night for the past ten years he’d eaten dinner at the Brown Derby, walked half a block down Vine Street to the NBC Studio and filmed You Bet Your Life. An hour and a half later he’d drive home. The ninety minute work week was probably a good reason that Groucho didn’t tire of the show, but the end was near. In a February 1960 interview he remarked, “I don’t want to eat at the Brown Derby every Wednesday night for the rest of my life.” During the final season plans had been made to syndicate You Bet Your Life.  Groucho had once said, “I’m relieved when people say they’ve missed my show. I don’t want them to see me every week.” Now it would be possible for people to see him every day. When John Guedel started to select episodes for syndication a former staff member from the show’s early days was uncooperative. As a precaution and since there were so many episodes to choose from, none from the first four seasons were used. Almost all of these episodes, coincidentally, had the blacklisted Jerry Fielding as the orchestra leader, so it just seemed easier to avoid any trouble by preparing a syndication package without them. Additionally several episodes from later seasons were also left out for various reasons that are now trivial.

In making the shows acceptable for syndication in 1960 some editing that would be considered ill-advised by today’s standards took place. The set always had the sponsor’s logo — usually DeSoto-Plymouth — on it and Groucho’s microphone had the NBC logo on it. The films were blown up and the framing changed to omit the sponsor logos. The NBC logos were blurred or burned out of the picture frame by frame. Needless to say these films, which were retitled The Best Of Groucho, did not present the show in its best possible light. A show that was shot on thirty-five millimeter film and carefully edited now looked no better than any primitive kinescope from television’s early days. There were 250 episodes edited in this manner, and those films are what the public has seen of You Bet Your Life for the last forty years. The syndication package was eventually pared down to 130 shows so many episodes of The Best Of Groucho have been out of circulation for decades.

For a handful of episodes the original network prints of You Bet Your Life are lost and all that survives are The Best Of Groucho versions. (One such episode is included in this collection.) The summer repeats of You Bet Your Life were also called The Best Of Groucho, but those shows were not edited. The only modification was either the replacement of the original opening with a Best Of Groucho opening or the addition of a newly filmed introduction by George Fenneman. In most cases the original prints were used for the summer repeats so several of the prints that survive for those episodes do not have the original You Bet Your Life opening.

Now, with the cooperation of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and The Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, the original prints have been located and restored for this collection. Eighteen episodes – including some that have not been seen in over fifty years – have been digitally remastered. So, here he is — restored to his original glory, in pristine condition on DVD, with lots of rare bonus material — the one . . . the only . . . GROUCHO!

© 2003 Robert S. Bader