With his film career winding down, Groucho Marx made a smooth transition to radio and television as the host of You Bet Your Life, a hugely popular game show where pesky matters like prize money, questions, and the game itself often seemed irrelevant. When Groucho's last great showcase was firing on all cylinders, it was easy to imagine that he'd forget all about the show's perfunctory quiz portion and let his witty banter with guests carry him to the end credits.
You Bet Your Life worked hard to create the illusion that it was entirely improvised, even going so far as to omit any writing credits. It was at least partially scripted, but that ultimately doesn't matter. What's important is that the show feels improvised, that it sustains an aura of thrilling unpredictability in which seemingly anything could happen—the rules of polite behavior were discarded, and Marxian mayhem ruled. Decades before Howard Stern, Marx let his anarchic id run wild on national television, delighting in asking questions that flouted decorum. When a female contestant indignantly refuses to answer Marx's query about her age, he persists, refusing to take her hint. When a wrestler with a flamboyant oratorical style and a predilection for five-dollar words comes on the show, Marx asks whether professional wrestling is fixed, and whether the guest's professional success is attributable to his diligence in reading his scripts.
You Bet Your Life fed the endlessly flirtatious Marx an inspired array of colorful, eccentric, and sometimes famous guests who played to his innate curiosity about the human condition, as well as to his bottomless, compulsive hunger for laughs. When the two impulses clashed, the quipster almost always won out. Television could take Marx out of vaudeville, but it could never take the vaudeville out of Marx, who could turn even the sharpest-witted guest into a TV version of his cinematic foil Margaret Dumont. He could be a generous and even gracious host, and he seemed to take a genuine interest in his guests (particularly attractive women), but it was always clear who was running the show, literally and figuratively.
This three-disc You Bet Your Life box set lovingly collects 18 half-hour episodes from the show's run, along with a fascinating assortment of extras, the most bizarre and hypnotic of which is a failed pilot called The Plot Thickens. A show so flagrantly perverse in form and content that it makes Cop Rock look formula-bound by comparison, the peculiar hybrid is a panel show in which Marx, a real-life detective, and fellow panelists watch a short film documenting a crime, cross-examine actors remaining in character from the film, and then finally guess at the culprit's identity. Hosted by Art Linkletter's son, written by Psycho scribe Robert Bloch, and created by gimmick-crazed B-movie showman William Castle, The Plot Thickens also featured a slinky female "bailiff," and, as a mascot, a black cat named Lucifer. No longer reined in by the responsibilities of running a show, Marx lets his randy-uncle persona reach libidinous new heights as he leers his way through a professional dead-end that matches the train-wreck fascination of Skidoo, his unfortunate cinematic swan song.
The main attraction, however, serves as a showcase for Marx's famed wit, feisty intellect, and genius for ad-libbing first, a talk show second, and a game show a distant third. You Bet Your Life was smart enough to give Marx a loose, relaxed forum to strut his stuff, then politely get out of his way. This DVD set serves as a testament to the enduring wisdom of that strategy.