Borges once suggested that writers create their own predecessors, and T.S. Eliot, a long-time admirer of Groucho Marx, had earlier said much the same thing. The suggestion certainly holds for comedians too. Tristram Shandy may now seem rather heavily influenced by Duck Soup, and there are interchanges in Dickens which plainly owe a good deal to A Day at the Races. Consider the unlettered Mr. Boffin’s attempt, in Our Mutual Friend, to contract the one-legged Silas Wegg as a reader. Mr. Boffin’s price is half a crown a week, and Wegg puts on a grand show of magnanimity. “Mr. Boffin,” he says, “I never bargain.” Boffin, impressed, says, “So I should have thought of you,” and Wegg continues:
“No, sir. I never did ‘aggle and I never will ‘aggle. Consequently I meet you at once, free and fair, with—done, for double the money!”
It is, I think, the combination of swindle and non sequitur that brings the Marx Brothers to mind here. In A Night at the Opera, for instance, Chico and Groucho arrange to bring an Italian tenor to New York (“Do you know that America is waiting to hear him sing?” Groucho says. “Well, he can sing loud,” Chico says, “but he can’t sing that loud”). His salary will be $1,000 a night, but Groucho feels he is entitled to a small profit himself, so the singer will actually receive $10. Groucho takes 10 percent of that for negotiating the deal, and Chico gets 10 percent for being the singer’s manager. The singer sends $5 home to his mother. And then of course, Groucho says, there are taxes: income, federal, state, city, street, and sewer. Chico says, “How much does this come to?” and Groucho produces his immortal assessment: “I figure if he doesn’t sing too often he can break even.”
The Marx Brothers also represented anarchy and mischief, and the ordinary world crumbled before them. They would not take no (or yes or even maybe) for an answer, and when their timing was right they seemed absolutely unstoppable. Harpo would just go on forever goosing girls, tooting his hooter, and literalizing every metaphor; Chico would never cease making improbable deals and terrible jokes (“Sure I know what an auction is. I come from Italy across the Atlantic auction”); and Groucho would continue to silence the spluttering representatives of reason:
Groucho: And now, gentlemen, we’ve got to start looking for a new Treasurer.
Minister: But you appointed one last week.
Groucho: That’s the one I’m looking for.
They were aging youngsters who would not grow up, and it is fitting that Groucho should have been, all his life, a fan of Lewis Carroll’s. It is fitting in another way that in their boyhood, as Hector Arce reports in Groucho, the brothers should have made a practice of occupying benches in Central Park and then charging courting couples 10 cents for the use of them: done, for half the money! They were also, on the screen, a set of immigrants who refused to accept the customs of the new country, delegates of everyone’s resistance to the culture that was swallowing them up. I don’t think this was a concerted plan, and the pieces of the act seem to have come together in a fairly haphazard way. According to Mr. Arce, Chico got his Italian accent from a barber, and Harpo got his lunatic, cross-eyed look from a cigar store owner on Lexington Avenue. Groucho affected a German accent which he dropped when the Lusitania was sunk, took up the cigar because it made him look older, and borrowed his stoop from an elderly man but speeded up the walk, and so on. But the final result is striking. One brother has an accent and massacres the language with his puns. Another doesn’t talk at all. The other talks in such a way that no one else can get a word in, and adopts a mustache and a gait that are an affront to reality.
There is not much satire in the Marx Brothers, they don’t have real targets. They are the foes not so much of stuffiness and regimentation as of normality itself, the America dreams are made of, that alien realm where other people have the gall to feel at home. It is for this reason, I think, that Chico’s accent is often more than a bit of simple vaudeville business. When he confuses mutinies with matinees that seems an amiable and silly enough joke. But he and Groucho are talking about Columbus—who must have had some sort of Italian accent, if only in Italian—and Groucho pretends to be disgusted, throws down his hat, and says, “There’s my argument. Restrict immigration.” It is for the same reason that the passport scene in Monkey Business is so funny. The brothers are trying to get into America on Maurice Chevalier’s passport, and they all sing “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” in order to prove their identity. The silent Harpo comes closest to making it because he is miming to a Chevalier record (another un-American accent), but the scene ends in chaos, papers fluttering everywhere, with Harpo frenziedly rubber-stamping everything in sight. There is a particular delight in all this which for most of us, I suppose, comes from the overthrow of officialdom. But the energy of the scene comes, I suspect, from the fact that the rules of the country are being mangled at the port of entry.
Literally, the Marx Brothers were the children of immigrants from northeastern Germany and Alsace. Chico, Harpo, and Groucho were born Leonard, Adolf (later Arthur), and Julius in 1887, 1888, and 1890, and grew up in Yorkville, a German section of New York. There were two younger brothers: Gummo (Milton) and Zeppo (Herbert). Of the older children, only Chico finished grade school, and all of them had various odd jobs before they were reunited in show business, under their mother’s quirky management. They moved to Chicago, and back to New York. Gummo left the act; Zeppo joined it, and stayed with it through the early films. They sang and they did comedy numbers, and they climbed toward fame: time on the road; top billing in vaudeville; Broadway; two movies made in New York; Hollywood. Along with W.C. Fields and Mae West, they were the first great comics of the sound cinema.
The memorable films are undoubtedly Monkey Business, Horsefeathers, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and A Day at the Races, although there are wonderful things in the earlier Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. The later films, At the Circus, Go West, A Night in Casablanca, and The Big Store, also have their moments, but show a clear slackening of pace. Groucho, of course, had a second public life as host of the successful radio and television quiz show “You Bet Your Life,” selected bits of which can still be seen as “The Best of Groucho.” He grew a real mustache to replace the greasepaint job of earlier years, and smoothed the edges of his rather fierce screen character.
Still, he could be withering when he wanted to, and the show’s contestants, in a minor way, took over from Chico and Harpo as agents of the world’s madness. The contestants played it straighter, certainly, but they also fed Groucho his cues for his often bitter wisecracks. Hector Arce quotes John Crosby quoting one particular show where Rear Admiral R.W. Barry, director of civil defense for Los Angeles, insisted on the importance of making everyone in Los Angeles conscious of civil defense. “That’s a very big job,” Groucho said. “It’s tough enough just to see to it that everyone in Los Angeles is conscious.”
It should be said, perhaps, that this line, like most of his lines, was probably made up for Groucho by an invisible, hard-working writer. A number of very funny men, including S.J. Perelman, worked for the Marx Brothers, and a large part of Groucho’s fast-talking character was created by George S. Kaufman, who spoke like Groucho even before he met him. “I’d rather write for the Barbary apes,” he is supposed to have said when collaboration with the Marx Brothers was proposed to him. The brothers reportedly improvised a lot on the set of their films, but they also tested their jokes in stage performances where they could, and kept the ones that got the biggest laughs. The notion of the ever-inventing Marx Brothers seems to belong at least as much to myth as to reality. Groucho as quizmaster was always being favorably compared to people like Bob Hope, who merely delivered the gags that others had made—that thoughtless merely burying a whole career and a great array of skills. But in fact Groucho’s show was as carefully scripted as any of Hope’s routines, and it was the thought of Groucho’s freedom and wit that mattered.
Still, the case is complicated. Groucho didn’t tell jokes, he burned them up in a stream of nonsense and comic aggression. He was himself quite capable of making his own remarks, and his public character, once he had established it, attracted and focused its own sort of wit. In this rather convoluted sense Groucho was always the author of what he was saying, even when someone else had written it.
Failure is an important aspect of this character, and the sequence concerning the Italian tenor is unusual in this respect, since Groucho seems to do fairly well out of the deal. The more frequent pattern in Marx Brothers films is for Chico (or Chico and Harpo together) to fleece Groucho thoroughly while the victim rolls his eyes and patiently suffers his ill-earned wealth to be taken away. And when the other two are not fleecing him, they are spying on him or wrecking his already shaky romances. They are on his side, but they are in his way. No sooner has Groucho settled down with a slinky blond than Chico and Harpo are knocking at the door or bounding about the room, and a certain wistfulness creeps into the jokes as Groucho realizes he’s never going to get what he wants, that brash, failed lechery is his vocation. In A Day at the Races, Harpo caps a series of unlikely interruptions of this kind by appearing in full Sherlock Holmes rig, deerstalker, greatcoat, pipe, and magnifying glass, and preceded by two sniffling bulldogs. As he approaches the girl, Groucho says, “If you’re looking for fingerprints, you’re a little early.” In A Night at the Opera, Harpo, asleep, folds his arms around a maid who has come to make up Groucho’s room. Groucho, curious and admiring, says, “You know, he does better asleep than I do awake.”
Certainly Groucho’s suspicious intelligence peeps through every line and gesture, and he is no ordinary patsy. His terrible manners are a work of art, the envy of everyone who has ever felt fed up with being polite or politic. “You know, I could dance with you till the cows come home. Come to think of it, I could dance with the cows till you come home.” But his successes are only verbal. He gets the gags but loses the girl or the cash. Or sits at the receiving end of a practical joke. In Duck Soup, having twice been tricked by Harpo, who has roared away on a motorcycle, leaving Groucho stranded in a seemingly attached sidecar, he fights back, makes Harpo move over, and gets on the bike himself. He leans over the handlebars, ready finally to get somewhere, and a grinning Harpo drives the sidecar away. Groucho, astride the unmoving bike, watches his brother disappear down the road, and mildly says, “This is the only way to travel.”
Now of course a man who makes jokes like this, who so quickly converts his discomfitures into cracks at other people’s clichés, is hardly a loser. But that is the point. The wily leer and the worldly cigar belong to a man who likes to seem a sucker; the long lope and the lecherous banter are those of an eternally rejected suitor. It doesn’t matter. Groucho has insulted everyone in advance, and staked out a claim to his own safe territory of words.
Hector Arce’s authorized biography of Groucho, from which I have taken most of the facts I mention in this piece, is balanced and thoroughly researched, and not nearly as sycophantic as it threatens to be at the outset. Arce was Groucho’s collaborator on a couple of books and found him, in his eighties, an “endearing old man.” But Arce does not for this reason soften his indictment of Groucho’s cruelties and acts of neglect. Or only occasionally:
His refusal to become involved left the general impression of insensitivity when it was actually due to his aversion to personal discomfort and inconvenience.
Funny, that’s what we used to call insensitivity.
One learns from the book that a good deal of the brothers’ actual lives went into their screen and stage images—these were crazy mirrors but mirrors all the same. Chico was a compulsive gambler, and Groucho was notoriously tightfisted. Harpo loved to play tricks on people, and I particularly like the thought of him haring around after a stripper hired for the occasion while L.B. Mayer, in the same room, tries to convince the censor of MGM’s moral sturdiness. Apparently the brothers treated Margaret Dumont much the same offscreen as they did onscreen, and admired her for hanging on to her dignity while resolutely failing to see the humor of what was happening to her.
However, I’m still shuddering at Arce’s description of Harpo’s trying out a large teak penis on an unwitting chorus girl—the girl fainted when she saw the instrument he had used—and the book as a whole makes gloomy reading. In the films women are constantly badgered and insulted, and perhaps we should have wondered why it was that Groucho could take on the majestic Miss Dumont and a series of languid vamps without the faintest change of style. But these scenes belong with all the amorous fiascos in Woody Allen’s films, and in Stendhal’s writings, for that matter. Frightened men are transparently trying to exorcise their (and our) fears. In the lives of the Marx Brothers, no exorcism appears to have taken place. There is only rage against women, revenge against the mother, and a lot of extraordinarily joyless screwing.
Arce wants to excuse Chico and Harpo, and says they were lovable whatever they did. But there is no getting Groucho off the hook. In advanced age Groucho suggested that his third wife’s interest in him waned as his sexual powers dwindled, but he seems to have been bragging in retrospect. His sexual powers, apparently, were always scant and soon spent, and in another mood he admitted that during his courtship of that same wife he would give her money every time they went to bed. “Since I’m a very bad lay,” he said, “she was entitled to this.”
We might see these poor performances as a misfortune if they were not in their way just what Groucho wanted, part of a lifelong campaign to lock women away firmly in the category of the enemy, and it is to Arce’s credit that he doesn’t flinch from recording Groucho’s nasty snarls at his successive spouses. Having married them for their looks and their submissiveness, he berates them for being just as stupid as he wants them to be. Susan Marx, Harpo’s wife, unknowingly but tellingly spoke Groucho’s language when she said he had driven three wives to drink, including his children. And one of the worst epitaphs a man might have is contained in the helpless, lucid diagnosis Groucho’s daughter Miriam made of her own troubled condition:
I do everything I can to fulfill my father’s feelings about women. He hates them, and I prove him right.
Groucho’s life ended, in 1977, in a barrage of accusations and counter-accusations, his son and his (platonic) mistress squabbling over the mind and the money of the old invalid. He was rich enough to make the squabble worthwhile, but there is a peculiar horror in his being fought over like a piece of ruined real estate. One would like to think that this was simply the tag-end of the unhappiness that is proverbially supposed to go with being a great clown. But Groucho, it seems, was usually too busy being mean to be unhappy, and his greatness anyway is inextricably linked with that of his brothers—only together are they comedians of real stature. Groucho was obviously capable of kindness and tenderness, and he had good friends. We can see this Groucho in the films, there is a softness beneath those snapping gags.
But he was also a mournful man driven by a sense of his own inadequacies—not unlike his pen-friend T.S. Eliot—and for much of his life he seems to have felt compelled to imitate his own screen personality. His character, once the source of an exaggerated image, now raced after the image, trying harshly to catch up. The chase produced wonderful rudenesses and wisecracks—one of the best being Groucho’s comment on Bette Davis’s Now Voyager, a famous weepy movie of the Forties. The film opens with a shot of raindrops on a windowpane, and Groucho, sitting in the audience, called out loudly, “My God, she’s crying already.” And he could always find the right response to overemphasis:
One critic asserted that I was the symbolic embodiment of all persecuted Jews for 2,000 years. What sort of goddamned review is that?
But there was also the strain of being a comic in private life, and Groucho seems to have felt this even more than most comedians. His second wife, quoted in Arce’s book, offers a terrible picture of great men on their day off. They have lunch at their club:
“Jack Benny tells a joke. Then Groucho tops him. Harpo tells a joke. Groucho tells one funnier. George Jessel tells a joke. Groucho tops him too. At the end of the day, do you know how I get him? He’s gasping for breath.”
It’s tough at the top, but being funny at the top is murder, and not even the territory of words is safe.
March 8, 1979