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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » You Bet Your Life - The Lost Episodes
You Bet Your Life - The Lost Episodes
Shout Factory // Unrated // September 23, 2003
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted July 22, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A newish label called The Shout! Factory has compiled a 3-disc set of what are being called 'lost episodes' from Groucho Marx's long-running television show, You Bet Your Life. Eighteen half-hour episodes are slotted onto the three discs, each annotated with its airdate and guests. According to the advance publicity, these particular episodes were never shown after their first airing, never included in resyndication packages. A twenty-page booklet that comes with the set might have more answers, but as Savant was provided with unmarked check discs to review, I'm left with my best guesses.

All in all, Groucho shot 423 of these great shows between 1950 and 1961, after three years of doing much the same thing on the radio. Groucho was delightful on the radio, but the opportunity to use his face (which read well on the crude television monitors of the day) is what makes the difference. Groucho is of course subdued from his years as an anarchic comedy star in the movies, but his face, timing and incredible wit are augmented with the memories of every gag he ever heard in vaudeville.

The format of the show is more plain-wrap than the average public access show. Groucho sits at a desk. The featureless background and the desk bear the current DeSoto or DeSoto-Plymouth ad logo. There are only four camera angles: a closeup on Groucho, two angles on his guest-contestants, and a wide shot. Groucho almost never gets up, and instead nurses a cigar. George Fenneman, the amiable announcer, makes awkward entrances, tries to explain the game rules through Groucho's harassing comments, and hustles the contestants on and off screen.

What makes the shows timelessly wonderful is of course Groucho. Before putting the quiz questions to his guests, he asks them about themselves, kidding them with sly comments, feigned misunderstandings, and clever twisting of their words into strange meanings. He doesn't utilize jokes, per se, so there's really no script. He is the show: the amazing thing for Groucho fans, or students of stand-up comedy, is how Groucho pulls off instantaneous comeback lines that are consistently hilarious and appropriate to the personalities of the his guests. If the guests aren't nervous before he gets to them, they certainly become so while trying to keep up with Groucho's constant good-natured ribbing.

In a comedy juggling act, Groucho keeps his contestants on their toes and makes fun of his show's format, often with merciless comedy jabs at straight man Fenneman. All the while, he charms the studio audience (and us) with his priceless facial reactions and subtle eyebrow language. He crowds the line of 1950s broadcast taste, but is never less than good-natured and always treats his guests well, even if he sometimes reduces them to tears of laughter.

The guests are almost as much fun as Groucho. Looking back from 40-50 years, they're a less a bunch of nervous stiffs shoved out onto the stage than they are real people, the kind that existed before media consciousness divided Americans into celebrities and bozos. If they're composed, Groucho soon has them laughing un-selfconsciously. He pokes fun, but lets them retain their dignity. The unheralded stars of the show are the backstage people who choose these engaging personalities. Whether square, hip, shy or extroverted, they aren't suckers, victims, or fame seekers as we now have on reality shows. We like these people, and Groucho brings them out. One expects to see one's favorite aunt walk on stage.

There are lots of lively, spirited older people - you know, the kind that you can't see on television now. Some of the old birds match Groucho for spunk, actually taking control of the comedy for a moment, as if inhabited by the vengeful spirit of Margaret Dumont. Groucho obviously loves all of them.

Every once in awhile, celebrity guests would be slipped onstage. We get very special peeks at Ernie Kovacs, Art Linkletter, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez and a few others. Gonzalez is presented as a driver from a radio station in Texas, but it's obvious that he's a ringer doing an on-air comic audition. He's funny (despite his dumb-Mexican racist act) but not in the same spirit as the rest of the shows.

In college, we watched the reruns to cheer on Groucho's razor wit. George Fenneman became our hero, the way he tries to hide his own personality and sense of humor behind his announcer's professionalism, as if he were covering the Hindenberg disaster and needed to stay on task. Every so often he just loses it under Groucho's harassment, and shoots back a remark, much to his regret. Poor George is Groucho's fall-guy when the show needs enlivening - he can't really give the works to the guests, but there's always George, who can be counted on to become flustered every time Groucho throws a monkey wrench into the format. It's great fun.

The Shout! Factory's 3 disc set of Groucho Marx "You Bet Your Life" The Lost Episodes has a nice menu system that lays out each disc's 6 episodes, and each disc's available extras. And there are a bunch of them. Groucho's original audition tape sounds as if he's been doing the show for years already. Each disc has a 'stag reel' of clips excised by the censors. Some of these are innocent-looking head-scratchers, but most have conversations circling around the unspoken subject of sex, while Groucho milks the audience for dirty thoughts. It's all hilarious and incredibly clean. One great clip has Groucho confusing a gorgeous Swedish model who can't follow his meaning. She just stands there with this giant grin, trying to keep her composure as she realizes there's some blue joke afoot that she doesn't understand. It's priceless.

Most of the other extras are sponsor-related. There are no commercials in the show breaks, which is disappointing until one realizes that the vintage spots for the balloony DeSotos are accessible in the special features. The spots are crude and the cars look like 5-ton tanks with giant chromed grilles. One lengthy item meant as a dealer incentive promo has Groucho playing company spokesman and his producer and director telling how the show is filmed, with 8 paired cameras to avoid film runouts. We also learn that Jerry Fielding, future composer of The Wild Bunch, is the show's music coordinator. As the show is done radio style (I get the notion that it might go out at the same time on the radio) the music we hear appears to be live.

The wealth of sponsor material makes us think that the prints (with the original "It's me! Groucho!" opening) may have come from GM, although the shows have NBC copyrights. The print quality and encoding are good to okay. The sound is also adequate. On the 'stag reels' it's much poorer, but we've got our ears peeled for every vocal nuance.

I wish I could read the 20 page booklet. If it's got more information and insights on the show, this might be a definitive collection of 'The Best of Groucho' (one of the re-syndication titles).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Groucho Marx "You Bet Your Life" The Lost Episodes rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good, but archival quality
Sound: Good
Supplements: 1947 Groucho radio version audition, original commercials, Xmas Promo for DeSoto, The Making of You Bet Your Life for DeSoto (17 min), 20 pg booklet
Packaging: ? not provided
Reviewed: September 6, 2003

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