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"You Bet Your Life"
on May 30, 2009
I wonder how many young people today--that is, anyone younger than 50--know or enjoy Groucho Marx. A product of the Vaudevillian Age, Groucho with his brothers Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo starred in a series of memorable slapstick films in the 1930's and 1940's. It was the age of Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges, but Marx Brothers films--full length features--were in a class by themselves.
While Zeppo never looked entirely comfortable in the quartet, Harpo and Chico were pure slapstick performers. Groucho enjoyed physical slapstick and was not above heaving a pie or sliding down a fire escape in his films, but his true talent was "verbal slapstick" and his one-liners have taken their place in American cultural history. [My personal favorite: "I would never belong to any club that would have me as a member."] After World War II Groucho's verbal dexterity made him a natural to ease into the medium of television, and he remained a celebrity of the small screen through the 1960's.
This collection of letters is drawn primarily from the television years, though gratefully the full correspondence [undated, in the text] between Marx and the legal department of Warner Brothers is retained in full. Warner Brothers contended that the Marx Brothers' proposed film, "A Night in Casablanca" was an impingement upon the studio's film, "Casablanca," made famous five years earlier by the performances of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. An outraged Groucho put pen to paper alleging that Warner Brothers' claim to exclusive rights to the name of the city of Casablanca was overreaching. By the end of the first letter he had outrageously undermined the rights of Harry and Jack Warner to their own names, pointing out to Jack that another Jack, Jack the Ripper, "cut quite a figure in his day." 
However, the Warner Brothers correspondence is the highlight of what is generally a modestly humorous survey of letters, ranging from 1939 to 1966. The majority are post-1950 when Marx enjoyed success with his long-running "You Bet Your Life" TV venture. Marx shows considerable ambivalence about television. His own show required little heavy lifting and made him a fair amount of money. But Marx in his correspondence, particularly with men of letters, belittles the medium as a junkyard. His letters to aging classic actors express sympathy that television, as a rule, did not cultivate significant artistic performance. Marx was evidently a voracious reader and he worried that the children of his day were losing interest in books because of the popularity of television.
Marx does not write much, if anything, about his wives. The reader is left to his or her own devices to figure out the makeup of the Marx household from year to year. He has Jerry Seinfeld's eye for the humor of daily life, such as misadventures with repairmen and large companies. He seemed to have enduring problems with the IRS, which crop up incessantly in the texts. He maintained good relations in writing with all his brothers. Harpo, in particular, was a fair writer in his own right. Curiously, Groucho, with his eternal leer and infamous double entendres on film and TV, reveals a bit of a prudish side in his letters. The writer who hoped to do a film with Mae West "if she doesn't die from curvature of the bed"  expresses in other letters his disgust over Broadway plays that have crossed the line of good taste into crudity and vulgarity. The moral boundaries of the noted wit are somewhat amorphous, to say the least.
In his preface to the collection, Arthur Sheekman compares Groucho Marx to Falstaff as "the cause of wit in other men." This is remarkably on target. One of the strengths of this work is the inclusion of letters written to Groucho. Throughout the wide range of correspondences with actors, writers, politicians and the like, one sees a tendency in Marx's correspondents to slip into "Groucho-ese" so to speak, a wit mixed with attention to detail and mild self-deprecation. The sheer breadth of correspondents from the higher echelons of show business--George S. Kaufman, Abe Burrows, Irving Berlin, David Susskind, S.J. Perlman, Arthur Sheekman, Leo Rosten, to cite but a few--give evidence of the old saying that the entertainment world is indeed a small town.
It speaks well of Marx's way with words that the book is an amusing read despite its being dated and peopled from several generations past. It is too eccentric to be called a genuine history, but it serves as an entertaining timepiece for an era when an aging actor could captivate the nation's television viewing audience with no props but a good cigar and a dagger wit.