Classic Video Showplace


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The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of RCN or any other agency, organization, employer or company. 

For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.

Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on RCN TV with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances. 

Over the last few years there’s been a resurgence of interest in game shows with popular 24-hour channels devoted to the genre like “Buzzr” and “GSN.”

Even major networks have brought back forms of old format game shows–some dating back to the early 1950s but with new guests and hosts–back to prime-time television.

But one of the most unique and popular game show formats that’s been impossible to reproduce is the Groucho Marx piloted vehicle, “You Bet Your Life.

Following a string of popular movies with his famous Marx Brothers in the 1930s and early 1940s, Groucho hit a lull from an entertainment production standpoint around the World War II era.

His later movies failed to equal his earlier success and Groucho also longed to find his niche as a solo act.

However, very few media vehicles provided the format for what his style was best suited – the art of ad-libbing. He struggled as a scripted actor and also did not have much success as a pure stand-up comedian.

According to Groucho’s son, Arthur Marx, in his book, “Life with Groucho,” it was John Guedel, producer of the Bob Hope radio show, who envisioned a new project for Groucho.

During a guest spot on Hope’s show, the audience was in an uproar over a nearly completely ad-libbed comedy bit by Groucho, who was angry that the host kept him waiting so long before bringing him out for his appearance.

Guedel speculated that Groucho would flourish playing off different guests on each program and, in between comedy bits, asking contestants questions from which they could win money. And “You Bet Your Life” was born.

An even more forward-thinking idea for this program – they recorded over an hour worth of programming for each individual episode, enabling them to edit out less funny bits or improv jokes that did not go over too well.

Editing the show was also a must in order to get by radio and television network sensors.  Groucho frequently used risque humor and double entendres that would often test sensors’ approval.  The ability to cut out any jokes that went over the line allowed Marx to push the envelope more than other TV shows of that era without upsetting any sponsors.

“You Bet Your Life” became one of the first early television successes as its format easily transferred from radio to television in 1950. In fact, the program became so popular that it was simulcast on both mediums – one of the very few programs ever to accomplish this.

The show was a great success with an original run that spanned 14 years.  Because of the show’s simple format and the fact that so much of the program was based on Groucho’s comedy bits, “You Bet Your Life” was one of the few game shows that survived the quiz show scandal in the late 1950s.

Groucho’s popularity also soared to new heights during the show’s run although most people at the time didn’t know that his trademark mustache, thick eyebrows and round glasses were fake during his early years.

In his book, “The Secret Life of Bob Hope,” his son Arthur recounts a story where his father was on a train with other celebrities. When they all got off at the train station, no one paid attention to the makeup-less Groucho — with fans mobbing all the other famous movie stars. Feeling rejected, Groucho quickly slipped back on the train, put on his makeup and then exited the train in grand fashion — drawing most of the fans’ attention to him and away from the other celebrities.

The show also had a successful syndication run and was repackaged as “The Best of Groucho” and continued to broadcast many years later.

According to the Los Angeles Times, in 1973 NBC mistakenly felt the show had become too slow for a modern audience.  They sold the rights to Guedel and Marx, who immediately put the show back into syndication and it once again became a popular program for stations to run for several more years.

It also went down in television history as the medium’s first ever show produced in front of a live audience.

The format has been repeated several times over the last few decades, featuring several popular comedians as the show’s star.  None of them has ever reached the success of the original and not a single one of the remakes lasted more than a single year. 

A “You Bet Your Life” marathon starring Groucho Marx will be featured on Monday evening, June 8, starting at 9 pm on RCN TV.

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.