Robert Dwan, who directed the show “You Bet Your Life,” with Groucho Marx, on both the radio and television, died last Friday at the age of 89. I learned about it from his daughter, the documentary filmmaker Judith Dwan Hallet, who is a family friend. It is clear from both the obituary, and this interview with Judy in * Sarah Lawrence Magazine, that Groucho Marx was a big presence in their lives. He certainly didn’t seem like an easy man to work with, the LA Times* article describes a typical phone call:
In his book, Dwan recalled that when he began working with Groucho, he first had to learn how to talk to him. It was, Dwan wrote, “a skill that took considerable nerve and a knowledge of how his mind worked.”
Dwan: (On the telephone.) Groucho …
Groucho: Oh, it’s you again.
Dwan: Yes. Groucho, I …
Groucho: You just said that.
Dwan: It’s about the show tonight. We have a peculiar …
Groucho: All our shows are peculiar.
Dwan: … problem with one of our contestants …
Groucho: All our contestants are peculiar.
Dwan: The problem is that this one is 93 years old.
Groucho: That’s his problem. Serves him right for leading such a dull life.
Dwan: Anyway, he’s from Hawaii …
Groucho: From where?
Groucho: I’m all right, how are you?
Because of the restrictive codes in the 1950s, much of Groucho’s humor wouldn’t get buy the censors. They worked around this by recording an hour long show and then editing it down to thirty minutes. Robert Dwan did the editing, and when he was interviewed about his book As Long As They’re Laughing : Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life on NPR (you can listen here), they played some of the clips that never made it to the show, including this one:
Groucho: “Now suppose you became a famous actress, and then you met somebody you liked and got married. Would you be willing to quit acting and be a housewife and a mother?”
Woman contestant: “Well, I think if you keep your feet on the ground you can combine both. That’s what I’d like to do.”
Groucho: “Well, if you keep your feet on the ground, you’ll never be a mother.”
Not all of the Hallet’s experiences with Groucho were so silly. Judy, who is making a film about Marx, remembers this moving incident from her childhood:
She and her father, along with Marx’s wife and 11-year-old daughter, had accompanied him on the tour of Europe. In Dornum, the German town where Marx’s mother had been born, the travelers discovered that the Nazis had obliterated all Jewish graves, and removed from the local church the old register of inhabitants from his parents’ generation. Marx hired a car with a chauffeur, and told the driver to take the group to Adolph Hitler’s grave in Berlin.
It was surprisingly easy to get there. The car slipped through a checkpoint into a devastated gray and brown city of people in solemn clothing. Marx told the chauffer to drive to the bunker where Hitler was said to have committed suicide, where he was supposedly still buried.
The rubble at the site was about 20 feet high. Wearing his characteristic beret but without the trademark cigar, Marx alone climbed the side of the debris. When he reached the top, he stood still for a moment. Then he launched himself, unsmiling, into a frenetic Charleston. The dance on Hitler’s grave lasted a minute or two.
“Nobody applauded,” Hallet says. “Nobody laughed.”