In the 1930s, 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 look out 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 of the Marx Brothers.
How it All Started
Groucho and Chico1 were paid $6500 per week for the show. At the time this was an enormous amount, one of the biggest stars of the day was Greta Garbo, and her weekly wage from MGM was also $6500 - and that was for 40 to 50 hours' work. This was an offer too good to refuse. And they didn't...
They hooked up with two writers - Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin. Arthur Sheekman's account of events for how the concept of the show came about is that he, Perrin, Groucho and Chico were on a train discussing ideas for the show. No one had any. Eventually Sheekman came up with the idea of Groucho as a shyster lawyer and Chico as his incompetent assistant. No one was overly enthused with the idea but the dining car was open, so they quickly adjourned there anyway.
Beagle, Shyster and Beagle
The first episode of the show went out on the 28 November, 1932. The original title was Beagle, Shyster and Beagle - Attorneys at Law. According to one of the episodes the 'Shyster' was named after a shyster lawyer who had run off with Beagle's 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 four the show name had been changed to Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, a name which was later reused by Groucho in The Big Store.
In the show, Groucho plays Waldorf T Beagle/Flywheel, an attorney. In episode one he hires an assistant, who goes on to appear in every show, called Emmanuelle Ravelli played by 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.
Dimple:Mr Ravelli, you looked for a job for 18 years! How is it you didn't find one?
Ravelli: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 defence and the idiot quote above.
A Researcher and the BBC
In the 1930s, very few shows were actually recorded, as people preferred the feeling of live shows. For this reason, 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 entirely, but then a researcher named Michael Barson found that, in the 1930s, almost all of the scripts had been submitted to the National Library of Congress. 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 re-recorded three series of episodes with actors impersonating the original artists. The results are 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 22 May, 1933. Soon after they finished, Groucho and Chico were back working with Harpo and Zeppo on Duck Soup. They returned 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. The Marx Brothers never really made any further forays into the medium for many years. At one point, Groucho helped develop a show, a kind of family sitcom, but was not enthused about the outcome, and another actor took over the role. Eventually though, Groucho did find his feet in the medium of radio, with the long running quiz show You Bet Your Life which spent three years on the radio before transferring to TV for a further ten years.
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.