The Secret Word is Groucho
by Groucho Marx with Hector Arce
An review from 1977 by David Pietrusza
Being a living legend is better than being a dead legend
and 86 year old Groucho Marx certainly seems to enjoy
basking in some well deserved sunshine—whether it's
picking up a special Oscar, doing a concert at Carnegie
Hall, campaigning for Tom Hayden in the California
primary, or in this case, collaborating on books.).
That it is not his best, we should not carp about. We are
lucky to have him still with us, even if he is not turning out in
this volume anything near the truly sidesplitting hilarity of
his 1959 work, Groucho and Me or the fascinatingly brutal
candor of his recent Marx Brothers Scrapbook.
Groucho eventually tried to stop publication of the latter.
Perhaps, because of that, he has turned to another
collaborator, this time a more conservative one, Hector
Arce.. The result is more factually accurate, greatly less
abrasive, much less interesting, and probably less of the
The question at hand in The Secret Word Is Groucho is
You Bet Your Life, Groucho's smash TV hit of the 1950s
which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity under the
moniker The Best of Groucho. With a respect for
accuracy and sensibilities previously unknown to his
written works Groucho gives the full behind-the-scenes
story of the program.
When Groucho began the show his career was at its
lowest ebb since he and his brothers had been blacklisted
from vaudeville by the Albee circuit in the early l920s. The
Marx Brothers had gone 10 years since their last big
movie hit and nothing was on the horizon —nothing that is
except a radio game-show producer named John Guedel.
Guedel, who was the mastermind of Art Linkletter's House
Party show, had heard Groucho trading ad libs with Bob
Hope on a radio special for Walgreen's Drugs (this was
1947 and television was still around the corner). He
decided that Julius Henry Marx was just what he needed to
make his, new show a hit.
Groucho felt he needed Guedel and the job of quizmaster
like he needed a hole in the bead. After having been the
toast of Broadway and the star of MGM's biggest grossing
movies, he was less than enthused with the offer but as no
one else, was even remotely interested in his talents at the
time he took it
The show began its life on the ABC network that at the
time was not even the third network it ranked fourth behind
NBC, CBS, and Mutual. Although ratings were hampered
by the general scarcity of ABC stations, the show was as
immediate success for its sponsor, Elgin-American
Compacts, which promptly sold out its entire product and
as a show of gratitude shortened the show's scheduled
season because it no longer had anything to advertise.
But the show came back the next year and soon outgrew
both ABC and Elgin-American. Moving first to CBS and
then to NBC and television in 1950, the show became one
of the hottest properties on the air and remained so until
the early 1960s.
The show featured a steady parade of interesting guests
from generally ordinary walks of life and lively doses of
Groucho's wisecracks, puns and insults. Some viewers
took offense at his less-than-polite tactics but few
contestants minded the jabs—most in fact expected them
and few were affronted—and some even were able to give
back as well as they took.
Questions have arisen over how much of the show was ad
fibbed. When it was on the air, the show officially had no
writers but on the staff, snuck into other titles were men
like Hy Freedman and Howard Harris, whose job was to
construct a framework of opening and closing gags along
with some prepared lines for in between to give Groucho a
base from which to work.
The contestants, although carefully screened prior to being
selected for the show, never met Groucho before the
show—except for the show's first three episodes (the
practice was dropped as they accomplished little except
to rob the program of spontaneity).
But on the whole, You Bet Your Life was as close to off
the cuff as television was allowed to get in that era.
The show's trademarks developed one at a time. Jack
Slattery did the announcing chores before a young George
Fenneman came aboard. The secret word was there from
the beginning, though the duck was not. Both the duck and
such consolation questions as "Who is buried in Grant's
Tomb?" were Groucho's idea.
The show carefully avoided the quiz-show scandals that
befell such competitors as The $64,000 Question by an
emphasis not on big prize money but on personalities and
wit. If a person wanted to earn really big money, You Bet
Your Life was not the show to do it on.
Anyway, the show is still running and so is Groucho. Over
a phenomenal twelve years on network television, he
added another phase to a remarkable career.
There will never be another like him.