Swans Commentary » swans.com January 14, 2008  



Groucho, Chico, & Harpo


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - January 14, 2008)   It is rare that a juvenile enthusiasm lasts into manhood and beyond but in the case of my obsession with the Marx Brothers, it has. Each time I stumble across a re-run of Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, or A Night At The Opera, the old romance is passionately rekindled.

Anyone who ever abhorred the orderliness of school, government, church services, or regular employment found in the Marx Brothers a salvationary dose of anarchy. The Brothers taught us not only that insolence was liberating but that it was a powerful weapon against oppression, the oppression that gravely serious people try to impose on free spirits.

In the maniacal horseplay of the Marx Brothers, we discovered the exhilarating gift of purloined freedom. It consisted of cocking-a-snook at all those people who were diligently trying to impose order on chaos without recognizing that chaos was sometimes the forerunner to a new order. The Brothers taught us that sometimes the best answer to doctrinaire dogmatism was not an alternative theoretical argument but a pie in the face or a swift kick in the pants -- anything that simply abolished the nauseous paradigm. In restoring child's play to the most serious issues of life, they reminded us that anarchy could produce ecstasy; that everything grave, serious, and constricting could be overthrown by absurdity. That absurdity, willfully applied, could click open the manacles of the mind and install a purer kind of sanity.

The laughter elicited by the Marx Brothers was the laughter of the unruly child pointing out that the Emperor was buck naked, that the profound and dignified philosopher had holes in his shoes, and that his fly was undone. The movies themselves were an amalgam of corny vaudeville humor, puns, and mugging and, after the passage of years, a certain amount of that wore thin. But the madcap assaults on respectability were always risible, occasionally transcendental, constantly exploding the paradoxes and contradictions of life just when it was trying to be most solemn. They reintroduced the word "zany" into our daily lexicon and, with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, it retained its original, Commedia del Arte connotation.

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Somewhere around the late 1970s when I was assembling a program on Woody Allen for the BBC, an interview was arranged for me with Groucho Marx in Beverly Hills. I was informed beforehand that he was slightly loopy, not exactly senescent or "out of it," but that it might be tough going. It didn't matter. Groucho was one of the earliest childhood icons and just seeing him in the flesh would be enough for me.

Julius Marx, behind real glasses and wispy mustache, somewhat crumpled and a little creased, was still unmistakably Groucho. He was cordial enough at the start, but about ten minutes into the interview became rather sour and even surly, as if the genial façade had been assembled just long enough for the curmudgeon to gather his ammo and come out with all guns blazing.

He was somewhat obsessed with one of Woody Allen's one-liners -- namely, "I have nothing against dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens," which he repeated two or three times as a rare specimen of Allen's wit, but unconsciously as a foreboding to himself. What questions I managed to concoct were invariably derided or their premises scoffed at. The impression he conveyed was that someone was trying to put something over on him and I was clearly in league with the conspirators. Logic and continuity went out the window and clearly, nothing was going to be salvaged from the taping. Throughout, his companion-nurse-amanuensis hovered smilingly, ostensibly pleased by the fact that her employer was being entertained masticating a member of the media. After about forty-five minutes of meandering non sequiturs peppered with indignation, sulks, and undisguised hostility, I was informed the interview had to be brought to a close as Groucho needed to go for his daily "constitutional" around the grounds. As I was leaving, the comedian, unbidden, whipped out an early glossy of himself, scrawled his name across it and gave it to me with the magnanimity of a superstar patronizing a fawning groupie.

It occurred to me afterward that his behavior, easily misattributed to advancing years, was in fact entirely characteristic of the Groucho we had all grown up with since the twenties. Groucho's stock-in-trade had always been effrontery and as Gloria Stuart, the Oscar-award actress of Titanic (who had been married to one of his writers) pointed out: "He taught us all how to be irreverent." I had simply been turned into Louis Calhern in Duck Soup or Margaret Dumont in Animal Crackers and it served me right for thinking I could assert orderly procedure into a maniacal universe.

Some of the most astute criticism of the Marx Brothers came from Antonin Artaud in the early thirties. For Artaud, the Brothers were the incarnate spirit of surrealism. In Animal Crackers, wrote Artaud,

a woman may suddenly fall, legs in the air, on a divan and expose for an instant all we could wish to see -- a man may throw himself abruptly upon a woman in a salon, dance a few steps with her and then whack her on the behind in time to the music -- these events comprise a kind of exercise of intellectual freedom in which the unconscious of each of the characters, repressed by conventions and habits, avenges itself and us at the same time.... When the poetic is exercised, it always leads towards a kind of boiling anarchy, an essential disintegration of the real by poetry.

Before we attribute too much of the Marx Brothers' hilarity to André Breton and Robert Desnos, it should be pointed out that the kind of anarchy they exemplified was also a characteristic of American vaudeville -- and indeed, an indigenous tendency in American life to be found in gymnasia and frat houses throughout the land. The Silent Screen comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, and the Keystone Cops is pervaded by the very same surreal delirium.

Where Groucho was always different from the rest of his brothers was in his literary tendency. He made up for an abysmal lack of formal education by reading voraciously and, from the 1930s onward, turning out books and articles, not to mention idiosyncratic correspondence with pen pals such as T. S. Eliot, E. B. White, Russell Baker, S. J. Perelman, and Joe McCarthy's nemesis, Joseph N. Welch. Although there is a certain Marxian insouciance in all of these works, he was never really a litterateur. He was an existentialist comic and the suggestive leer, simian walk, and rolling eyes had to be seen to be disbelieved. But given his literary bent, he did exercise a salutary influence on his collaborators, which, at various points in his career, included George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Arthur Sheekman, Goodman Ace, and the aforementioned S. J. Perelman. Like any comedian steeped in the rollicking lore of vaudeville, playing and being exposed to three-a-day performances in flea-bitten theatres throughout the Keith-Albee and Klaw-Erlanger circuits, Groucho's mind became a storehouse for every pun, wisecrack, and shaggy dog story ever concocted -- all of which could be adapted into zinging one-liners at cocktail parties or on his long-running quiz show, "You Bet Your Life." The comic lore, which was his natural inheritance, was enhanced by his own searing wit, but the backlog was the vaudeville fundament from which much of it sprang.

Groucho's genius is not that he was an illiterate who developed a literary style roughly fashioned on the fabrications of his gag writers, but that he was the personification of insolence; a man whose natural instincts were at war with bogus respectability. When he said "I don't want to join any club that would have me as a member" he was proclaiming the outsiderness that made him sacred to all the rest of us who were desperately clamoring to be accepted into that club. When he refused to appear at the premiere of a biblical epic starring a beefy, barrel-chested Victor Mature with the excuse, "I never attend films where the leading man's tits are bigger than the leading lady's," he was disparaging Hollywood shlock more venomously than any film critic ever could.

The Brothers exemplified, as Artaud rightly realized, the spirit of social rebellion in an age when conformity was both the prevailing virtue and the asphyxiating evil. Their genius was in their style and stance and their refusal to integrate into a society from which they had uproariously escaped. Their film antics influenced Spike Milligan and The Goons, The Crazy Gang, Monty Python, Don Rickles, Woody Allen, and Steven Wright and are still to be found whenever propriety is kicked in the ass and someone reveals the embarrassing subtext of a truth that, for the sake of social nicety, is better left suppressed.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/cmarow95.html
Published January 14, 2008