A new Marx biography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jun 6 12:31:01 MDT 2000

NY Times, June 6, 2000


He Came to Say He Must Be Going


Groucho Marx once said that the best line he ever heard about show business
was spoken by an audience member in a small Midwestern town. Before he
bought a ticket, the man said he wanted to know one thing: Was the show
"sad or high-kickin'?"

As recounted in Stefan Kanfer's new biography, Groucho's own life was, in
almost equal measure, sad and high-kickin', his precarious, attenuated
childhood leaving him with a lifelong emotional legacy of insecurity and
resentment, while fueling the derogatory wisecracks and anarchic antics
that would make him famous. Not only would Groucho and his brothers patent
a high-kickin' brand of cacophonous comedy -- part vaudeville, part theater
of the absurd, part surrealistic satire -- but Groucho himself, with his
raffish claw-hammer coat, his waggling, lascivious eyebrows and omnipresent
cigar, would become an iconic figure, the very avatar of iconoclasm and
irreverence and plain old-fashioned mayhem.

In "Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx," Mr. Kanfer does a
nimble job of tracing the outlines of Groucho's life and the evolution of
his antic art. The book would have been considerably stronger had the
author devoted more space to such comic masterpieces as "Duck Soup" and
less space to the later, formulaic comedies; more space to the formative
days in vaudeville and less space to the comic's declining years. Still,
Mr. Kanfer conveys both a keenly felt appreciation of the brothers'
inimitable talent and an understanding of its sources in vaudeville,
commedia dell'arte and the boys' own refusal (or inability) to grow up.

It is Mr. Kanfer's opinion that Groucho never really recovered from being
"pushed out of the nest before he was ready" and that as a result he would
internalize his lost childhood, remaining forever "immature in matters of
women, money and power."

Although the young Julius harbored dreams of becoming a doctor, he was
pulled out of school by his domineering mother, Minnie, who made no secret
of her impatience with her bookish middle son. By age 15 he was part of a
touring vaudeville act and left whatever remaining innocence he had on the
road. He had his meager savings stolen twice by unscrupulous colleagues and
lost his virginity to a prostitute who left him with a case of gonorrhea,
incidents that would leave the teenager with a deep suspicion of people and
an even deeper pessimism. daily

As Groucho's trademark persona evolved, Mr. Kanfer writes, the comic had
increasing "difficulty separating the performer and the man beneath the
makeup." Though he left womanizing to his older brother Chico -- Groucho
was too insecure, too guarded to act the part of the leering ladies man he
affected onstage -- he relentlessly bullied his wives, taking advantage of
their vulnerabilities the same way his mother had once taken advantage of
his. The "hard clown mask he had created" rarely slipped, even when he was
dealing with his beloved but misunderstood children. He was "incapable of
expressing emotion, no matter how deep," Mr. Kanfer writes, "unless he came
at it from an angle."

As Mr. Kanfer tells it, one of the formative experiences in Groucho's life
came with the onset of the Depression. While the stock market crash of
1929, which wiped out the comic's carefully hoarded savings, confirmed his
apprehensive outlook on the world, it also galvanized a skeptical,
anti-establishment attitude on the part of the American public. Henceforth
"such sweet, soft-edged comedians as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton would
have a harder time in this era; aggressive, impertinent personalities like
W. C. Fields, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers -- Groucho in particular --
would flourish by assaulting the powerful."

Early Paramount movies like "Animal Crackers" (1930), "Monkey Business"
(1931) and "Horse Feathers" (1932) served notice that the brothers' sublime
blend of nonsense and chaos theory worked as well on screen as it had on
the stage. Their 1933 classic, the glorious "Duck Soup," fared poorly at
the box office, however, and when the brothers moved to MGM, the studio's
chief, Irving Thalberg, set down a new set of rules. The horseplay in the
earlier pictures had been too unfettered, the ad libs too ad hoc, Thalberg
declared; to broaden the brothers' appeal, more story line and more
sentiment would be injected. While the result was undeniably a hit, "A
Night at the Opera" -- and the increasingly mediocre movies that followed
in its wake -- presented a newly domesticated version of the brothers.

"Instead of making sport of romance, they now facilitated it," Mr. Kanfer
writes. "Instead of whacking away at the powerful institutions of
government or the military or education, they battled the toothless enemy
of grand opera. At Thalberg's insistence the crew of maniacs had become
hilarious but harmless uncles, like the later Laurel and Hardy. They were
not outrageous anymore, they were only frivolous."

Because Mr. Kanfer spends so much time anatomizing the decline of the Marx
Brothers' films and even more time recounting Groucho's marital woes, the
second half of this book -- with a brief timeout to chronicle the comic's
second career as the cult quiz master of "You Bet Your Life" -- often
devolves into a sad litany of disappointments and frustrations. What
enlivens these depressing and unnecessarily long chapters are the copious
quotations from Groucho's own work.

These remarks (which can be found at greater length in "The Essential
Groucho," edited by Mr. Kanfer and available from Vintage Books) may show
Groucho -- a k a Rufus T. Firefly, a k a Waldorf P. Flywheel, a k a Captain
Spaulding -- with his clown's mask firmly in place, cigar in hand and
eyebrows cocked. But like the early Paramount films, they remind us, in Ben
Hecht's words, of the "perpetual Halloween called the Marx Brothers" and
the genius of the would-be doctor born 11 decades ago Julius Henry Marx.

Louis Proyect

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