The Bootleg Files: Groucho

BOOTLEG FILES 867: “Groucho” (1965 British television series starring Groucho Marx).

LAST SEEN: One episode is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It was never released in the U.S.

Unlikely, considering 11 of the 13 episodes are considered lost.

One of the most popular American game shows of all time was “You Bet Your Life,” which appeared on radio from 1947 to 1960 and on television from 1950 to 1961. The program’s popularity had little to do with the game, which was a rather tame question-and-answer endeavor, but with the show’s witty host Groucho Marx. The heart of the show would involve Groucho interviewing and having fun with the contestants, punctuating the conversation with one-liners and gentle wisecracks.

The program’s popularity was so strong that the BBC made inquiries in 1958 to broadcast “You Bet Your Life” in the U.K. The show didn’t make the trek across the Atlantic, but in 1965 Marx was brought to London to star in a rebooted and retooled version under the title “Groucho.” Sadly, “Groucho” turned out to be one of the most baffling flops in the beloved funnyman’s career.

While the classic Marx Brothers movies from the 1930s were popular with British audiences, Groucho Marx’s persona changed drastically from the halcyon days when he joined his brothers for big screen mayhem. The Marx of “You Bet Your Life” eschewed the greasepaint mustache, the frock coat and the frizzed hair for a more gentlemanly presentation. His joking was slower paced but still sharply funny – it was a kinder and gentle Groucho. But few Britons were aware of this – they expected the Groucho of the Paramount and MGM films and didn’t know what to make of this elder statesman-style character who arrived in the mid-60s.

Bernie Smith and Robert Dwan, two of the creative talents behind “You Bet Your Life,” arrived in London ahead of Marx to prepare the show, but they quickly realized Marx’s brand of television humor would have problems finding a British audience. Marx would later acknowledge the culture clash he experienced by complaining, “They don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about.”

Even worse, the most joyful part of “You Bet Your Life” – Marx’s lighthearted chats with the contestants – fell flat in “Groucho” because the American star had difficulty deciphering the British contestant’s accents and expressions while his stateside lingo was frequently too obscure for his new audiences. In the one extant episode that is available for online viewing, Marx often seems tense and disconnected when he asks the contestants to repeat themselves. Likewise, the guests don’t seem impressed to be in his presence – a far cry from “You Bet Your Life” when the American contestants are visibly thrilled to be on stage with Marx.

“Groucho” followed the “You Bet Your Life” format with two contestants sharing a segment to converse with Groucho and answer a series of questions for cash prizes. Jovial disk jockey Keith Fordyce took over the role of George Fenneman from the American show as the program’s announcer and Marx’s sidekick. The main difference in “Groucho” was having the questions pulled out of a hat – in this case, a proper British derby. The “secret word” feature of the original show did not show up in this version.

“Groucho” was a production of Associated-Rediffusion, which had the ITV franchise for London. ITV made the lethal error of running the show on Thursday’s opposite BBC’s very popular youth-oriented music program “Top of the Pops,” thus launching it in low ratings. The initial reviews were mostly cruel, with Derek Malcolm of The Guardian leading the pack by declaring Marx was “drowning in the damp sea of mindlessness that engulfed the screen for what seemed an interminable half hour.”

A total of 13 episodes of “Groucho” were filmed and were only broadcast once on ITV – there were no reruns and the show was never sold to other countries. Back in the 60s, there was no great thought given to preserving television episodes once they aired and too much of British television of that era disappeared by having the videos wiped for reuse on other show or were thrown out as having no perceived value. Only two “Groucho” episodes are known to survive, and only one is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting.

Whether the sole remaining episode is representative of the show is impossible to determine. The episode is difficult to enjoy, since Groucho and the contestants never click – he is constantly fishing for openings where he can engage in wisecracks while the contestants rarely seem comfortable on the stage.

It is known that the show’s ratings went up over the 13 weeks it was on the air, so maybe the lost episodes were funnier and fresher than this offering. But if this is any indication of what “Groucho” was like, perhaps it is not a tragedy that the series is mostly lost.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.