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 true Groucho.
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
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
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.