Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Guess the Secret Moiderer and Win $1000

Do You DARE Sit In One of These Chairs???

Shout Factory's YOU BET YOUR LIFE - THE BEST EPISODES came out three years ago, almost to the day, but it was only recently that I obtained it. Thirty or so years have passed since I last saw Groucho Marx's classic game show, and it was wonderful to see it again: every single episode made me laugh myself sick. In answer to everyone's first question: No, the Tor Johnson episode isn't included, but you do get appearances by Harpo Marx, Chico Marx (not onstage, but visible applauding in the audience), Johnny Weissmuller, Phyllis Diller, Joe Louis, Edgar & Candice Bergen, Harry Ruby and VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS' own Joy Harmon. Not a bad bang for the buck.
After making my way through all 18 episodes, and feeling more than a bit sorry to have finished so fast, I turned to the Bonus Features: three "stag reels" of bits that didn't make it to air, some outtakes that can be reintegrated into the episodes from which they were taken, various commercials (one featuring the three Marx Brothers), and last but not least, three Groucho-related pilots. There remain two of these I haven't watched yet, but the first of the pilots -- THE PLOT THICKENS (1963) -- turned out to be a revelation.
Why? Well, check out these credits from the end of the 29m episode:

I expect a lot of things when I delve into Bonus Features on a DVD, but discovering an obscure, forgotten game show pilot that is the only known collaboration of William Castle, Robert Bloch, and Groucho Marx is not one of them. This was the first Castle-Bloch collaboration, prior to Bloch's scripts for STRAIT-JACKET and THE NIGHT WALKER (both 1964).

Bailiff Warrene Ott, mascot Lucifer and district attorney Jack Linkletter.
THE PLOT THICKENS is an experimental combination of murder mystery/courtroom drama à la PERRY MASON and game show. It's hosted by "district attorney" Jack Linkletter and sidekick "bailiff" Warrene Ott), whose uniform is a black danceskin replete with tail, which Groucho pinches at one point; Warrene (THE PHANTOM PLANET, THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS) is there mostly to lend the show sex appeal, while dutifully stroking the show's unhappy-looking black cat mascot, Lucifer. There's also a panel of four celebrity "detectives," one of whom (Richard Halley) is a real-life detective; the others are actress Jan Sterling (ACE IN THE HOLE, 1984), writer Stanley Ralph Ross (later of TV's BATMAN), and of course, Groucho.

Panelists Richard Halley, Stanley Ralph Ross, Jan Sterling, and the one, the only... Groucho.

The panel are shown a 10m mystery film ("Mystery in the Crystal Ball," featuring Joe Maross as a detective named Penfield) that involves a murder and four possible suspects, then those "suspects" are assembled in four empty seats onstage, where the celebrity detectives "grill" them before a live audience. Each of the suspects must tell the truth... except for the murderer, who is given permission to lie to conceal their identity. Any celebrity who correctly guesses the identity of the murderer wins $500... and if the real detective fails where the celebrity detectives succeed, their prize amount is doubled to $1000.

Two scenes from "Murder in the Crystal Ball," featuring James Callahan, Arthur Batanides, and Linda Bennett.

I grant that it's very odd to see celebrities vying for money they intend to win for themselves, but maybe there wasn't much of a salary involved. Then again -- and this is probably the real explanation, given the show's patrimony -- maybe it's all show business. The mystery film is practically indistinguishable from the first reel of a PERRY MASON episode, and directed by a veteran of 21 episodes of that series, William D. Russell. I personally found the mystery fairly easy to solve, but the pilot was a delight anyway for Groucho's interjections of humor, his flirtatiousness with the bailiff and suspect Linda Bennett (whose IMDb page credits her with this pilot, a movie called NAKED FLAME which I do believe features her, and a couple of Sixties grindhouse pictures in which another woman of her name appeared), and the "grilling" sequences, which required four actors to act in character but without a script -- a rarely witnessed dramatic exercise with actors of this vintage.

Suspects Jay Adler, Linda Bennett, James Callahan and Kathryn Giveney have a laugh when the real killer is unmasked.

YOU BET YOUR LIFE - THE BEST EPISODES would be well worth having even without this pilot, but knowing that THE PLOT THICKENS was included, and its specifics, would have made the set absolutely irresistable to me -- and perhaps to you, too, which is why I thought I'd share the news. There remain two more pilots in this set that I haven't watched: WHAT DO YOU WANT? and TELL IT TO GROUCHO. For all I know, they might guest star Delphine Seyrig and Wild Man Fischer and be directed by Sergei Parajanov.

Apparently, with Groucho, anything is possible.

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