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The Marx Brothers turned the contrasting roles of high art and popular art on their heads. Like Chaplin, the Marx Brothers used popular art to convey truth once confined to the rarefied precincts of high culture, especially in the realm of comedy. Unlike Chaplin, they burst the form of popular art in the course of doing so. Ever since Lenny Bruce made his dark non-joke about Jackie “hauling ass,” we have become accustomed to one comedian after another—Sam Kinison, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black—uttering the unutterable. With the exception of Bruce, whose nightclub act failed to attain the reach that the Marx Brothers did with their style of frank, brute intensity, there has never been a comedian who so uncompromisingly substituted raw, shocking truthfulness for humor. The Marx Brothers’ audiences laughed, not only because they were tickled and delighted, but because the scales fell helter-skelter from their eyes. There are slapstick routines and out-and-out jokes, to be sure, but so much of the Marx Brothers’ humor consists of simply saying or doing something in a social situation that is true to the social and psychological dynamics of the situation, but which no one would ever say or do in public.
What is hard to realize when watching the films is that the Brothers were not merely acting, but living. For all their fastidiousness about lines and timing—Groucho would notoriously throw out one perfectly good scene after another because they did not meet his anxious standards—they existed in their films the way they conducted themselves in ordinary life.
Arthur Marx, in his memoir, My Life with Groucho, recalls what it was like to be at the dinner table with his father and his three famous uncles:
They were loud, raucous, and never took anything seriously. The jokes would fly back and forth across the table so rapidly you couldn’t keep up with them. And all the brothers but my father were accomplished at the art of doing table tricks. They’d be springboarding silverware into glasses of water, making rabbits out of napkins, pulling cards from their sleeves, and perhaps shooting dice with sugar cubes.
“Groucho never knew how to talk normally,” said the actress Maureen O’Sullivan, who appeared in A Day at the Races, and whom Groucho unsuccessfully tried to seduce offscreen. “After a while,” she said about his rapid-fire patter, “your face starts to crack.” Asked whether Groucho’s screen persona was like his actual personality, Susan Marx, Harpo’s wife, replied: “You bet your life it is!”
In the mid-1930s, when the Brothers’ career was at a turning point and they left Paramount Pictures for MGM, anxious that their low-earning previous picture, a semiflop called Duck Soup, had spelled the end of their careers, they found themselves in the anteroom to Irving Thalberg’s office. Thalberg was as feared as he was famously difficult to see, and he kept the nervous brothers waiting for hours. Finally they each lit up a cigar and began to blow smoke under Thalberg’s door, shouting “Fire!” The next time they went to see him he ushered them into his office right away, but then kept them waiting for hours while he went down the hall to the office of Louis B. Mayer, the studio head. When Thalberg returned, he found the brothers sitting naked before a crackling fire in his fireplace, roasting potatoes.
In the late 1920s, Groucho moved to Great Neck, Long Island, buying a ten-room, two-story stucco house equipped with a special bluestone gravel driveway where he could park his beloved Lincoln. At the time, Great Neck was home to many illustrious entertainment figures, such as George M. Cohan, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Eddie Cantor, as well as the likes of P. G. Wodehouse and Eugene O’Neill (whom Groucho enjoyed mercilessly parodying in his films). In 1931, Groucho gave up his Great Neck home to bring his long-suffering first wife, Ruth, and their two children, twelve-year-old Arthur and his little sister, Miriam, to Hollywood in order to join Groucho’s brothers there. Before that, however, he took the family on a trip to Europe, along with his brothers, of course—they seemed never to go anywhere without each other. Arriving back in New York, Groucho became exasperated with the official process of reentering the country through customs. He filled out the declaration of purchases form without, one might say, breaking character:
Name: Julius H. Marx
Address: 21 Lincoln Rd., Great Neck, Long Island Born: Yes
Hair: Not much
Eyes: All the better to see you with Occupation: Smuggler
List of Items Purchased Out of the United States, Where Bought, and the Purchase Price: Wouldn’t you like to know?
After filling out the form, Groucho turned to his wife, Ruth, in front of the customs officials, and asked her whether she was still carrying the opium. The customs agents grabbed Groucho, Ruth, and their two small children. They took the family into a room, made them all strip naked, and examined them for hidden goods. Then they had the family wait, presumably clothed once again, for hours while the officials meticulously searched their luggage.
Such incidents are revered episodes in the biographical lore surrounding the Marxes’ lives. They are presented merrily, as yet more examples of the Brothers’ spirit of liberating freedom and anarchy. This misses their dark side. To be sure, by the time the incidents I’ve recounted took place, Groucho and his brothers had become world famous for being abusive toward respectability and authority. But they were as much the passive victims of destructive temperaments as the artistically triumphant products of same. There is nothing funny about two small children being strip-searched and forced to watch their parents undergo the same humiliating process.
Groucho’s dark, compulsive assault not just on propriety but on the basic premises of social life is what makes the Marx Brothers’ movies so strange, and so original. The humor, as I’ve noted, is often not humor. It is the spectacle of seeing something so uncivilized and natural that it has all the appearance of a freakish exception to human nature. It is like watching a wild animal that does not know it is being watched. It is the acting style of people who are not really acting.
The most unforgettable acting is the product of untethered, otherworldly, orphan personalities who are chosen by acting rather than the other way around. They fall helplessly through the social cracks and tumble into their vocation. Louis Malle expresses this superbly at the beginning of Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street. We see the actors coming in off the street, talking to one another as themselves, changing into their costumes as themselves, and then, imperceptibly, seamlessly, becoming the characters they are playing.
The same transformation takes place in Al Pacino’s film about playing Richard III, Looking for Richard. At one point, we see Pacino at the Cloisters, New York City’s museum of medieval art. Pacino is walking outside, through a colonnade. He is wearing a gorgeous overcoat, which recalls the lush overcoat Marlon Brando wore in Last Tango in Paris, another movie about the blurred lines between living and acting that interweaves Brando’s life story with that of his character in that film. One minute Pacino is talking as Pacino. Then he does a kind of pirouette and, while still talking and walking as Pacino, becomes Shakespeare’s hunchbacked king.
Though Groucho and his brothers are hardly ever regarded as actors, they possessed a great actor’s inborn vulnerability to his or her eventual calling. The similarity to Pacino in this respect is striking. Like them, he grew up virtually parentless, in a crowded tenement where he was often lost in the crowd. Pretense became an almost biological necessity. The young Pacino was always one step away from pretending to be someone else as a means to fulfilling who he really was. I once wrote a profile of him for a magazine, and he held me rapt over the phone late one night as he described the Louis Malle–like moment when the cast of The Godfather met for the first time at an Italian restaurant in East Harlem. By the end of the dinner, Pacino said, Brando
was responding to me without knowing me, as if I was that kid, who was not quite decided as to what he wanted to do, and that, somehow, as his son, I had something that Marlon wanted to cultivate, and that he was sensitive to in his youngest son.
What Pacino, who had been abandoned by his father when he was two, didn’t say was that it was he who had responded to Brando as his father.
Groucho and his brothers also had what you might call a natural richness born of deficiency. They drifted, simultaneously, into their stage personas and the completion of their development—or lack thereof—as people. Though young Julius had his heart set on becoming a doctor, his marginal position in his parents’ household and his compensatory passion for words drew him helplessly toward the world of entertainment. His ideal and the model that he based both his stage persona and his personality on was his uncle Al Shean, the famous vaudevillian. In Groucho and Me, Groucho describes Shean’s appearances at 179 East 93rd Street:
I have now told you about three uncles who were all nice fellows, but miserable failures in their respective careers. [This tally does not include his devastating portrait of his father, the failed tailor.] I might as well confess all and tell you that I also had an uncle who was a great success. He was my mother’s brother. His name was Shean, and with a partner named Gallagher, he sang a song [“Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”] that, today, is as much a part of America as baseball.
He goes on to talk about how Shean had been a pants presser in a New York City sweatshop. Shean had a beautiful voice, Groucho relates, and he organized a quartet in the shop, who sang while they worked, with the result that they got themselves fired. That impelled Shean to enter show business. Groucho continues:
Originally, I wanted to be a doctor. But my uncle Al’s success convinced my mother that the theater was a soft and lucrative racket, and that I had better forget about the Hippocratic oath. … My uncle Al was a handsome dog, and when he came to visit us things started moving. We were all rushed to different stores to buy the foods he liked. … At the end of the meal, each of the boys got a buck from Uncle Al. Since my allowance was only a nickel a week, this gift of a dollar meant luxury for many weeks. …
When my uncle came to visit us he had long hair down his neck, pre-Presley sideburns, a frock coat, a gold-headed cane and a silk hat. … By the time Uncle Al left the house, there would be quite a crowd hanging around the front stoop. On leaving, he would toss a handful of nickels in the air and watch the kids scramble for them.
Here was glamour!
And here was Julius’s vocation in the form of a familiar family routine. Think of the characters Groucho plays, and of the way they make their entrance. In Cocoanuts Hammer is immediately surrounded by a crowd of bellboys, who are dependent on him for their livelihood. A wealthy, privileged crowd of admirers jubilantly greets Groucho when, in Animal Crackers, he makes his entrance as the celebrated explorer Captain Spaulding. In Horse Feathers, Professor Wagstaff is introduced to a quiet and respectful faculty as the new president of Huxley College. In Duck Soup, Groucho, as Rufus T. Firefly, becomes leader of the country of Freedonia just minutes into the film. In A Night at the Opera, Margaret Dumont plays a wealthy patron of the arts around whom various important suitors, including the head of the Metropolitan Opera, hungrily orbit. When the film begins, she is waiting in a restaurant for Groucho’s Otis Driftwood, a sort of freelance impresario, who is horribly late. Nevertheless, he has her in his thrall. In A Day at the Races, Hugo Z. Hackenbush is the only means of salvation for the struggling Standish Sanitarium. His arrival is greeted with celebration and relief—despite the fact that, unbeknownst to the celebrants, he is actually a veterinarian.
Each of these characters makes his entrance as a larger-than-life figure, absurdly idealized or romanticized, or at least inflated, by the inhabitants of his social milieu. In every case, Groucho is reenacting Uncle Al’s sudden dramatic appearances at the Marxes’ household. Just as Uncle Al’s glamour lay in the fact that he was an actor who made his living playing fictional characters, Groucho’s fictional character is always pretending to be someone he is not. Since Julius’s persona as Groucho was really who Julius was, the circle is complete. Uncle Al the actor finds his continuation in Julius playing Groucho impersonating a grand figure who has the same stature Uncle Al once enjoyed at the Marxes’.
To make things even more confusing—and clarifying at the same time—Groucho’s characters all exist right on the cusp of making some kind of fortune. They first appear to the fictional world around them as successful, prosperous figures who are expected, at any moment, to shower those around them with coins. Here was glamour! A glamour every bit as impressive as Uncle Al himself tossing a handful of nickels in the air to the neighborhood kids.
Excerpted from Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence, by Lee Siegel. Copyright © 2016 by Lee Siegel. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Lee Siegel writes about culture and politics for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal.