Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why I’m a Marxist Part I: Groucho

Okay, I’ll admit it – I’m a Marxist.  I’ve been a Marxist for as long as I can remember, dating back to my earliest years of grade school.  And I don’t see it changing any time soon.  I’m a Marxist for life.  (Note to the NSA: this is an old, venerated American tradition called humor.  Just go with it.)

Hard as it is to believe now, but at one time it was possible to be young in the US and have aesthetic and emotional attachments to cultural artifacts of previous generations.  When I grew up in the 1970s, it was just as easy to be a rabid fan of The Marx Brothers or, say, Bela Lugosi, as it was to appreciate Elton John or The Beatles.  Culture was a more amorphous stew of new and old, good and bad, the tried-and-true and the newly emerging.  Radio dramas from the 1940s could still be heard in reruns on radio along with Top 40 programs, and late night television was awash in classic American cinema.  It was a wonderful time to grow up, if one was awake, because the great kaleidoscope of American culture was spread out before you.

That has largely changed.  Our culture has become too fragmented, our viewing and listening habits too balkanized, and our deep and abiding suspicion of anything remotely challenging has shrunken the offerings of our cultural landscape.  It is, I believe, the sneaking suspicion that something not contemporary may be too challenging -- too slow, too much story, not loud enough – that has consigned so much of American culture, both high and pop, to the contemporary dustbin.

Not so just a few decades ago.  And no figures from the Golden Age of American pop culture loomed larger – in college campuses or grade school playgrounds – than the comedy team The Marx Brothers.  It is arguable that the Marx Brothers were more popular in the 1970s than they were in their heyday of the 1930s.  It is a success story that has no real equal in American entertainment, except, of course, for the continuing popularity of the more proletarian Three Stooges.

During this reclamation, the aging and increasingly frail Groucho Marx (1890-1977) managed a one-man show at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and appeared on just about every television venue that would have him.  It was a wonderful coda to a remarkable career, and one that, we hope, made up for many real-life disappointments and setbacks.

Born Julius Henry Marx in New York, Groucho was pushed into show business by his mother, Minnie.  She was convinced that a family act would be a hit, and all five brothers would eventually work onstage as a team or separately.

Chico, the oldest brother, was a compulsive gambler and womanizer who seemed, oddly enough, to be mother’s favorite.  Things came easily to Chico, and Groucho resented that.  Harpo, who clearly had some kind of undiagnosed learning disability, was often the subject of Groucho’s most condescending jokes.  However, Harpo was a genuinely happy man – he had a talent for happiness that Groucho lacked.  (Indeed, Groucho was deeply suspicious of happiness.)  The two younger brothers, Zeppo and Gummo, never really embraced show business, but Groucho felt a responsibility towards them, and often made arrangements to further their careers and businesses.

In fact, Groucho played father to his brood of brothers, something that their real-life father Sam could never quite pull off.  It is perhaps this early imposition of responsibility and obligation that soured Groucho so early in life, and made his private relationships so fraught.  He married three times, twice to women young enough to be his daughter, and spent his sunset years with a conniving adventuress who sucked away his energy and cash while trying to establish herself as a Hollywood player.

But, whatever messiness of his private life, Groucho was probably the most gifted comedian of the 20th Century.  He had all the gifts: he looked funny, his voice was funny, his walk and mannerisms were funny; he was a gifted physical comedian and a comedic lord of language.

Groucho’s métier was the insult; this has been much degraded of late, but with Groucho it was an art form.  Groucho’s insults relied on real wit, not merely funniness, which is, in the final analysis, the ultimate indication of intelligence.  We could easily fill up multiple pages with examples, but here is one delirious scene from Horse Feathers (1932).  Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, romances college widow Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd) in a rowboat while she tries to steal information on the upcoming college football game:

Wagstaff:   This is the first time I've been out in a canoe since I saw The American Tragedy.

Connie:       Oh, you're perfectly safe, Professor, in this boat.

Wagstaff:   I don't know. I was going to get a flat bottom but the girl at the boat house didn't have one.

Connie:       Well you know, Professor, I could go on like this, drifting and dreaming forever. What a day! Spring in the air.

Wagstaff:   Who, me? I should spring in the air and fall in the lake?

Connie:       Oh, Professor, you're full of whimsy.

Wagstaff:   Can you notice it from there? I'm always that way after I eat radishes.

The football team's signals fall out of Wagstaff's coat pocket into the water and drift by Connie. He boasts that he has a second set of signals in his other pocket: Luckily, I've got a duplicate set in my pocket. I always carry two of everything. This is the first time I've only been out with one woman. Then, she attempts to use baby talk on him to divulge Huxley's football signals:

Connie:       Do you know, Professor, I've never seen football signals? Do you think a little girl like me could understand them?

Wagstaff:   I think a little girl like you would understand practically anything.

Connie:       Is gweat big stwong man gonna show liddle icky baby all about the bad footbawl signals?

Wagstaff (startled): Was that you or the duck? 'Cause if it was you, I'm gonna finish this ride with the duck.

Connie:       If icky baby don't learn about the footbawl signals, icky baby gonna cwy.

Wagstaff:   If icky girl keep on tawking that way, big stwong man gonna kick all her teef wight down her thwoat.

The Marx Brothers made some 13 films in all; some brilliant (Duck Soup, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races), some awful (At the Circus), but all worth seeing, even if for only occasional glimpses of genius.

In the 1950s, Groucho became a solo act, serving as quiz master for You Bet Your Life on both radio and television.  Here was Groucho in his element – talking to a broad cross-section of people and deploying his killer wit.  Oddly enough, this was Groucho’s most celebrated star turn before his great revival in the 1970s, and though amusing, You Bet Your Life was never as inventive, transgressive or fall-down funny as his classic films.

If you have not seen the early Marx Brothers films – particularly the films made at Paramount: The Coconuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup – do so without delay.  They are among the most wonderful artifacts of American pop culture.


lyle said...

I had read somewhere that the Marx brothers used to read the screen play for their films in front of live audiences so as to get the timing correct., which is why the laughs are never 'buried' in the film. Do you know if this is correct? And yes, I remember college there was a general attitude of ' yes, we can talk about Citizen Kane, but let's go see Animal Crackers'.

James Abbott said...

Correct! Many of the bits of their earlier films derived from their stage plays. Both A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races were done, in part, on stage for months in advance of filming to get things just 'right.' What I would've given to have been at one of those performances!