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Thursday 28 January 2010

Icon Series: Indelible Marx - Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx, Sig Ruman and Margaret DumontImage via Wikipedia

“Here’s to our wives and girlfriends – may they never meet!”

Julius Henry Marx, most famously known as Groucho Marx, is perhaps the wittiest comedy actor I have ever had the pleasure of hearing or watching. His fast-wit skill, along with his other talents, was perfected with his four brothers, Chico, Harpo, Gummo and Zeppo, through the hard graft of the Vaudeville stage and then brought to big screen with the advent of "talkies" and finally ending with a hugely successful game show.

“I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception”

I first got into the humour, caricature and icon of Groucho Marx when I was 17 years old. That was some four decades after Groucho’s golden age in films. In fact, I was only 13 months old when this wondrous comedy icon passed away. It was winter of 1993 and my father had won a couple of industry awards for his work with animals in films and one of the prizes was a coffee table book on the history of films. I was drawn to this light reading and enjoyed looking up the various icons I had become interested in over the years. When it came to comedy, Groucho Marx was the only one of famous siblings mentioned. The photo showed him wooing his regular straight foil in the movies, the great Margaret Dumont. I read the short bio with interest, particularly noticing the witty quotes that were all attributed to this comic legend. I mentioned him to my business studies tutor just off hand and she immediately confessed to being a fan of the Marx Brothers, telling me more about the rest of the gang. I was about to see them all for myself before the year was out.

“I read in the newspapers they are going to have 30 minutes of intellectual stuff on television every Monday from 7:30 to 8. to educate America. They couldn't educate America if they started at 6:30”

As luck would have it that Christmas Channel 4 television were showing most of the Marx Brothers’s great films. I taped as many as I could and was mesmerized by the creativity and surreal comedy exhibited throughout these pictures. Each of the three comic brothers had a charm. Chico was perhaps the worst Italian impersonator ever to grace the silverscreen, but was actually given some of the best lines and gave some entertaining piano pieces. Harpo represented the main slapstick in the film, which despite growing up in a circus, has never been my favourite type of comedy. Nevertheless, he was a very loveable character and his harp playing was part of the inspiration behind some of my wedding day plans some 14 years later. However, Groucho remained my standout favourite. His rapier wit and crazy asides appealed to my own idiosyncratic takes on life.

Africa is God's country--and He can have it.”

Before 1993 I just saw Groucho here and there in snippets of films or homages in my favourite cartoons or comedies. I didn’t realize just how much of a huge cultural impact he had on the world of entertainment or how deeply linked he was in my own culture. The Warner Brothers cartoons frequently referenced the Marx Brothers, often quite literally with cameo pastiches along with other celebrities of Hollywood’s golden era and also in their anarchic comedy. Bugs Bunny, for example, is a development of the Groucho Marx caricature. His distinctive Jewish New York accent, his mastery of the non sequitur and the line, “Of course you realize this means war” are all hallmarks of Groucho. Bugs Bunny has even done his own literal pastiches of Groucho, most notably in 1946’s “Hair-Raising Hare” and 1947’s “Slick Hare”.

“I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought I'd rather dance with the cows until you come home”

Marx, a little like Shakespeare, is has soaked so much into popular culture that he is quoted and even mimicked by those who don’t even know he existed. A physical example of this can be found in the stock joke shop costume piece of glasses with thick eyebrows and moustache. During his time working in the movies, Groucho used greasepaint to create this look along with his glasses. Like most of his gimmicks and style this was developed during his time working on stage with his brothers. According to Groucho he got fed up with having to apply and reapply a glue-on fake moustache, so painted one on instead and then did the same with his eyebrows to match the look. It became his trademark look. During the 1950s, when he worked on TV as a game show host on “You Bet Your Life”, he opted to grow a real moustache rather than paint the old one on. Groucho’s bent over walk with one hand behind his back was a parody of an affected type of walk popular in the late 19th century.

“A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere”

The brothers grew up as Jewish immigrants and were driven by a matriarchal mother who saw a glittering career for them in Vaudeville. Training an act for this time required a vast array of skills. Each of the brothers could dance, sing, perform their own stunts and gags, and play musical instruments. Chico was a pianist, Harpo became synonymous with his harp (occasionally assisted by his infamous rubber horn) and Groucho, being the most vocal, was the singer. Groucho’s songs, although not penned by him, were made immortal by his renditions. “Hello I Must be Going” from “Animal Crackers”, “Whatever it is, I’m Against It” from Horse Feathers and the unforgettable “Lydia the Tatooed Lady” from “At the Circus”.

“A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running”

The films produced by the Marx Brothers can divided up into two eras. The Paramount era saw their live stage
shows first adapted to the screen, most notably with “Coconuts”, “Animal Crackers” and “Monkey Business”. They then developed into proper films, but were still toured as a live show to refine the complex routines. Some directors to this day use a version method with preview screenings, such as Stephen Spielberg who timed the two major jumps in “Jaws” by using test audiences. Nevertheless, as John Cleese explained when he presented Groucho as one of his comedy heroes, the complex physical humour contained in the Marx Brothers will never be created today, as the live show approach before filming is no longer used. “Horse Feathers” showed a larger scale for the Marx Brothers and “Duck Soup” is arguably their finest moment. It is the definition of anarchic comedy with the Brothers completely running the show from start to end. Groucho’s character this time was a dictator of the fictitious Freedonia. Unfortunately “Duck Soup” was not a big commercial success and divided critics at the time of its release. However, it appears to have been ahead of its time as most comedians, comedy actors and film critics now agree that is a masterpiece.

“I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it”

After “Duck Soup” the Brothers left Paramount and began their second era of filmmaking with MGM. Paramount’s early features have the weakness of most early “talkies” in that they are pretty much filmed stage shows, but their strength comes from the amount of time and control given to the Marx Brothers whose antics were always going to be the draw over romantic sub-plots and, heaven forbid, a cohesive storyline. “Animal Crackers”, their third film with Paramount, contains some of Groucho’s most quoted lines. Looking back at the transition from Paramount to MGM it seems that the Brothers films were at their artistic peak. Their climb had been rapid and their descent would be very gradual. “A Night at the Opera” was their first film for MGM and I consider it to be one of their best, just falling short of the genius of “Duck Soup”. From the beginning the MGM years would see

“I'll see you at the opera tonight. I'll hold your seat till you get there. After that, you're on your own”

After films Groucho went onto a successful career in the “You Bet Your Life” radio and television show. Up until his death Groucho was regularly visited and entertained many future iconic people in the comedy world. He was paid a huge amount of respect by Woody Allen, Morecombe and Wise and Bill Cosby. Frank Sinatra loved him and rock legend Alice Copper was a fan and made friends with him in his twilight years. In 1972 Elton John sang a duet with him for “Jesus Christ Superstar”, where he famously quipped “Does it have a happy ending?”
Culturally Groucho was much closer to home than I first imagined. The Marx Brothers, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope and countless other comic actors of the early 20th century, forged their unique style, appealing gimmicks, refined skills and various routines in Vaudeville. Vaudeville was America’s equivalent to Music Hall, variety performance born out of the 19th century due to a law that prohibited the sale of alcohol in theatres. Many taverns took advantage by booking various acts, which became full shows including music, performing animals, acrobatics, jugglers, plays and comedy routines. It evolved around the time travelling circuses were also developing and the two cross-pollinated with styles and bookings to such an extent that they became distinguishable only back the fact that one was travelling and the other stationary. Even then buildings and amphitheatres were raised in the UK, Europe and America as “circus buildings”. My roots on my mother’s side run deep into circus and travelling entertainment for at least 300 years, although we are currently seeking evidence to connect my early 19th century ancestors with the one listed at the 1684 Frost Fair said to have been a Huguenot who fled from the Pyrenees to avoid religious persecution. The world of circus and variety entertainment created their own traditions separate from the rest of the showbusiness world, but encompassing circus, fair (or carnival in America), side show, travelling menagerie, burlesque, cabaret and the aforementioned Music Hall (Vaudeville).

“Before I speak, I have something important to say”

In the UK some links are still present in associations like the Water Rats, which see invited members of these various different institutions socializing in a formal club, and in newspapers like the World’s Fair. As for history, you have only to look through the reams of archive footage to be found on the Pathe News website to see royalty and celebrities up until the 1970s hobnobbing on British circus charity events and special shows. Sadly such events although extensively documented and recorded on film, in newspapers and so on are only really remembered by circus people and their fans. The rest of mainstream showbusiness and their high art cousins choose to forget just how big variety and circus really were before the advent of television, followed by a snobbery disguised as political correctness.

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book”

“Groucho and Me” – Book review

“From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it”

There are some great books out there by those who knew Groucho. “Hello, I Must be Going” by Charlotte Chandler is perhaps one of the most objective discussions on Groucho in his twilight years as the semi-retired comedy legend constantly paid host to streams of celebrities of yesteryear and the current time. “Love, Groucho” are the collected letters he wrote to his daughter. This is a wonderful heart-warming series of correspondence revealing a man who, like his brother, Harpo, loved his children very dearly. However, you cannot help but see his constant demand for attention coming through, especially in the humorous start of one letter “Dear Orphan”, where he is obviously a little annoyed by Miriam’s letter writing rate.

“I married your mother because I wanted children. Imagine my disappointment when you came along”

With so many books and documentaries discussing the great man, it is great to read his story how he would have wanted it told. “Groucho and Me” is his only autobiography although he did write a few reflective books on his times in showbusiness, which are worth hunting down. The story starts with the immigrant Jewish family growing up in near poverty. Their father was a Yorkville tailor, but their mother had big plans. She envisaged a successful Vaudeville act and that is what she got. Groucho spares little details in his depiction of the antics of his brothers, even bringing Zeppo, the straight man in the act and the movies, into a new sneakier light. It's also one of my favourite motivational books. There is a great story about one of Groucho's old school friends who visited him at different stages of his theatrical career to tell him he was wasting his life. This particular individual chose a more mundane regular job and couldn't see the future in Groucho's chosen career path. On each visit he told Groucho how much money he was making little realizing that Groucho's salary was dramatically increasing after each visit. It's a great example of how others perceive you and the world outside their own, and also representative of a time when showbusiness, particularly variety and comedy, was still very much looked down on by people in "real jobs".

“Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms”

Having said that, Groucho cares little for life's do-gooders and he often offers disparaging remarks about the anti-smoking, anti-alcohol committees of his time. He cites people he knows who have lived long reckless lives in his counter arguments, which although are hardly convincing are very representative of the celebrities of his era.

"I was outside the cabin smoking some meat. There wasn't a cigar store in the neighborhood!"

As a lover of history "Groucho and Me" is also an interesting insight into the times of Groucho's life. The era of Vaudeville, now only celebrated in retrospect, is brought to life through the little details of practicing and setting up a show, and the problems often incurred. The discipline of working these shows and having them practiced regularly in front of live audiences helped the Brothers develop detailed visual routines that have never been equalled. Events of the time provide interesting backdrops outside of Groucho's career. The Marx Brothers' start in Hollywood coincided with the Wall Street Crash. Groucho explains how he and other celebrities saw it coming and got caught in the financial disaster. It's a memorable and vivid description.

“I made a killing on Wall Street a few years ago. I shot my broker”

Despite being co-written by James Thurber, Groucho's unique voice comes through in every line. There are plenty of his anarchic and irreverent asides as well as the moments when his most famous quotes were used in real life such as his actual letter of resignation to a club, "Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member". I read it from start to finish on a trip to and from Japan over a decade ago, but it still remains my favourite autobiography and one of my all-time favourite books. I try to make my reviews balanced and as critical as possible, but this book has a very special place in my heart. It's a funny and insightful book of a great character both on and off the screen and stage.

"There's one thing I've always wanted to do before I quit: Retire."


Groucho Marx endures as an icon because no matter what you do with comedy, complete anarchy never goes out of fashion. It can’t because even the most erudite humour has to have an element of the absurd in it in order for it to be funny. Furthermore Groucho defined wit. He was a master of improvisation and couldn’t resist dishing out a one-liner if there was an opening for it. He was famously kept hours at customs when he replied the question “What’s in your luggage” with “Wouldn’t you like to know”.

But what of his flaws? Groucho fell out with plenty of people both in front and behind the camera, and he was divorced three times. As I mentioned earlier, he was clearly a very demanding person in private. However, it is difficult to point out Groucho’s flaws except for an ego that one would expect from a person so idolized, popular and consistently successful. His career had been one of rages to riches, but once he and his brothers hit Broadway they were never out of work.

Groucho’s famous wit is sexist and prejudiced against other countries. He is not overtly racist, other than the common Jewish comedy technique of poking fun at his own culture. However, in these post-politically correct times his less fashionable quips are celebrated with a sense of irony or at least an understanding of historical context. This seems to be the essence of Groucho; he could always be forgiven, despite being a person whose whole angle rested on insulting everyone. In the 1960s, the 1940s were thrown under the retrospective rose-tinted light, and the Marx Brothers were rediscovered by college and university students who loved the chaos and perhaps appreciated the surreal absurdist style of “Duck Soup” more than the critics of its day. In Groucho’s declining years he gradually deteriorated into senility. This is something mournfully reflected on in “Love, Groucho”.

There clearly was nothing quite like the Marx Brothers when they first exploded onto the scene. They marked a definite shift away from what had gone before. The changing of the comedy guard was very evident on the set of “At the Circus” when the great physical clown of silent cinema Buster Keaton was brought in as a “gag man”. He conceded there was nothing he could do with the Marx Brothers and his style was completely at odds with theirs. But what of the time when the torch was handed over to others? Charlotte Chandler does not spare us the many instances in Groucho’s last years where he recognized he could no longer sing well and his wit was much slower. He worked almost up until his death and there are some moments when one of his biggest fans, Bill Cosby shares the screen with him. Cosby, then the new comedy star, graciously gave his hero the stage and played the straight man throughout as Groucho kept insulting him. They are moving scenes in their own way, as Cosby is clearly then the man of energy and switched onto the audience of the time, and Groucho is very evidently moving his old creaking comic muscles well over a decade they had passed their prime.

Groucho, like many British Music Hall comics, was another connection to an untouchable golden era of my culture. An era that my generation of circus children could only watch in the form of films like “The Greatest Show on Earth”, “Trapeze” or “The Greatest Showman”. The time might as well have been centuries ago as far we were concerned. They brought us comfort as kids and they bring me comfort now as a 30 something, but when I was a teenager these pictures just didn’t gel with the era I was living in. Benny Hill seemed like the last vestige of the days of variety and his huge productions and bawdy humour was no match for the onslaught of “alternative” comedy. 1988, when his show was cancelled, signalled the end of an ear. Like a traitor, I left our sinking ship in my early teens and got into the comedy of Rik Mayal, French and Saunders and even Ben Elton. Then I found Groucho and the Marx Brothers movies. They brought back a type of comfort I recalled from watching the old circus films, despite their crazy antics and shameless sacrificing everything for humour approach. At 17 years old I saw Groucho Marx, a figure of that time, celebrated all through his life and in legacy as an enduring icon.

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