The Marx Brothers on the Radio.
In the 1930's commercial radio in the United States was huge. Many of the very big companies had their own shows, and many big stars of the time took the opportunity to earn lots of money for very little work endorsing them. In 1932 the Standard Oil Companies (makers of Esso) were on the lookout for stars to host their nightly 'Five Star Theatre' shows for them on NBC (they had a half hour slot every night) - and for their Monday night slot they approached Groucho and Chico Marx .
How it all started.
Groucho and Chico (obviously Harpo wouldn't have made much of an impact on radio) were paid $6,500 per week for the show. This was an offer too good to refuse. And they didn't... They hooked up with two writers - Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin. (To put their wages in context one of the biggest stars of the day was Greta Garbo, and her weekly wage from MGM was also $6,500 - and that was for 40 to 50 hours work...)
Arther Sheekman's account of events for how the concept of the show came about is himself, Perrin, Groucho and Chico were on a train discussing ideas for the show. No one had any. Eventually Sheekeman came up with the idea of Groucho as a Shyster lawyer and Chico as his incompetant assistant. No one was overly enthused with the idea but the dining car was open, so they quickly adjorned there anyway.
Beagle, Shyster and Beagle.
The first episode of the show went out on the 28th NOvember 1932. The original title was Beagle, Shyster and Beagle - Attornies at Law (according to one of the episodes the 'Shyster' was named after a shyster lawyer who had run off with Groucho's (characters) wife - and was included as a show of gratitude).
Man : I happened to be in court this morning when I heard your thrilling address to the jury sent that man to prison for five years, where he belongs.
Flywheel: My speech sent him to prison? (Laughs) That's a good one on the jury. I was defending that guy.
After the first episode a slight problem arose when a real lawyer, named Beagle, threatened to sue the show. He was hastily paid off and by episode 4 the show name had been changed to Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel (the Flywheel name was later reused by Groucho in The Big Store).
In the show Groucho plays Waldorf T. Beagle (later Flywheel), an attorney. In Episode One he hires an assistant called Emmanuelle Ravelli (Chico : he has the face of a bloodhound, and his other features aren't so good either). The only other character who makes it into every show is Flywheel's secretary, Miss Dimple.
Mr Ravelli, you looked for a job for eighteen years! How is it you didn't find one?.
I don't know Miss Dimple, I think it was just good luck.
Most of the episodes in the series deal with the firm's inability to get jobs, and the horrendous handling of any jobs they do get. There are running themes as well - notably the fact that they're always broke, and that Ravelli is an idiot (this man may look like an idiot, and talk like an idiot, but don't let that put you off - he really is an idiot!). Occasionally in order to get extra money Flywheel and Ravelli will take on other jobs as well, such as cooks, detectives or doctors!
Tie in with the films.
A good deal of the material from the shows either appeared in later films or was being 'recycled' from earlier films. Indeed, one of the episodes uses virtually the entire plot from 'Horsefeathers'. The film that uses more material from the series than any other is undoubtedly Duck Soup. It's virtually impossible to find a single episode of the radio show that doesn't have at least one joke that appears in the subsequent movie, including the 'shadow' routine, Chicolini's defense and the idiot quote above.
The researcher and the BBC.
In the thirties very few shows were actually recorded (people prefered live shows) and hence there are very few excerpts from the original shows still in existence. For a long time it was thought that the content of the shows had been lost, but then a researcher named Michael Barson found that almost all of the scripts had been submitted to the National Library of Congress in the 30's. In fact, of the 26 shows, only episode 21 was missing. A compilation of these scripts was first published in 1988 by Pantheon books. Due to these scripts now being available again the BBC (God bless it) re-recorded 3 series of episodes with actors impersonating the original artists. The results are actually pretty good, and a double cassette was available to buy from the BBC Radio Collection. Fuller details of the BBC recordings can be found here. Photos of the BBC cast can be seen here.
The Marx of Time and You Bet Your Life.
Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel was never brought back after that first run of 26 episodes finished on the 22nd May 1933. Soon after they finished Groucho and Chico were back working with Harpo and Zeppo on Duck Soup . They did return to radio the following year (1934) in a very short lived show called 'The Marx of Time' where they would comment on news stories. Unfortunately this didn't last more than a few episodes. After that the Marx Brothers never really made any further forays into the medium for many years. At one point Groucho helped develope a show (it was a kind of family sit-com), but was not enthused about the outcome and another actor took over the role. Eventually though Groucho did find his feet in the medium with the long running quiz show 'You Bet Your Life' which spent three years as a radio show before transferring to tv for a further ten years.
And Finally, the Worst Pun of all Time :
Groucho : Look at him, sitting there conscience stricken.
Chico : At'sa what I always say boss. Don't conscience stricken before they're hatched.