on Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel (Yale University Press)
Groucho Marx told the following anecdote during an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1969: “A priest stopped me in Montreal some years ago. He asked, ‘Aren’t you Groucho Marx? May I shake your hand?’ I said sure. Then he said, ‘I just want to thank you for all the joy you’ve put into the world.’ And I said, ‘I just want to thank you for all the joy you’ve taken out of it.’”
This unfunny wisecrack cracked up Cavett’s studio audience. Groucho’s latest biographer, Lee Siegel, approaches his subject wanting to know exactly how that humor works, where it comes from, and what makes it so distinctive and influential. Crisply analytical, Siegel calls Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence a “bio-commentary.” His interest lies in exposing the performative aspects of Groucho’s psyche – especially its embodiment of “the spirit of nihilism” – and in puncturing earlier biographical profiles that “try to impart some positive or affirmative quality to him.”
Focusing on the Marx Brothers’ seven iconic films produced between 1929 and 1937, Siegel finds in Groucho’s characters – and the man himself – a compulsion to “flirt with the danger of unmediated candor, as opposed to candor performed from behind a mask.” Woody Allen’s early antic movies and romantic comedies suggest that verbal dexterity and truth-telling are usually enough to prevail. But in Groucho’s movie roles, glibness and blunt candor lead to humiliation and defeat. So why did he stick with such a shtick?
Siegel says, “He uses his life to eclipse a social situation … he negates the world around him to carve out a private freedom … that is to say, by way of a psychological inwardness whose acuity and depth confer a rare distinction on the humbly born and the marginally situated.” Namely Jewish humor, scorn and mirth intertwined.
Julius Marx was born in 1890, an unfavored son among four others. His dominating mother, Minnie Marx, set up her household at 179 East 93rd Street in Manhattan. Her parents had been in show business, her brother Al Shean was a successful vaudevillian, and she would go on to manage the Marx Brothers stage act in the early days. Julius’ father was a weak and philandering figure. During the Cavett show, Groucho sings a song about such a father. Siegel stirs up a rich Freudian stew from the aspects of Julius’ youth, portraying Groucho as self-pitying, attention-starved, and out for revenge especially on women. “Beneath his scorched and scorching ego,” writes Siegel, “lay an outraged innocence that Groucho contracted as a child.”
Siegel’s conclusions acquire depth through his selection of illustrative scenes and lines from the movies, as well as commentary on the classical habit of “frank speaking” (the Greeks’ parrhesia) and the traits of Jewish humor. The incisiveness of his prose is the book’s core entertainment. With a few strokes, he captures the essence of his subject: “The glasses bespoke a cerebral figure; the mobile eyebrows insinuated that behind the glasses was a man who took nothing seriously; the greasepaint mustache proved that all appearances, social and personal, are either suspect or arbitrary or both.” His grasp of Marxian mentality is so acute that one suspects he may share some of that urge to win by subversion. “The almost pathological force of the Marx Brothers’ humor,” he says, “is that the subverter is brought down along with the subverted, which has the fact of putting the subverter on top.”
Previous Groucho trackers, such as Stefan Kanfer, take the brunt of his disdain for not having sniffed out Marxian nihilism. But Kanfer’s sturdy biography, Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx (2000), is still the go-to book for a thorough look at the life and career. Also, Kanfer does not neglect the dark side; he quotes Brooks Atkinson’s New York Times review of Animal Crackers: “These are nihilists – these Marx boys. And the virtue of their mountebankery is its bewildering, stinging thrusts at everyone in general, including themselves.” These were comics who attacked comedy itself.
David Thomson pinpoints the darkness in the first paragraph of his Marxian entry in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “These deliberately ill-fitting brothers are the first demonstration in movies of private, protesting anarchy within the rational state” – precisely the point Siegel belabors regarding Groucho’s precedent-making behavior. Thomson continues, “There have been attempts to argue that the brothers stand up for the little man, for eccentricity, and against pomp, formality, and respectability. On the contrary, I think they relentlessly estrange themselves from audiences.”
Siegel tells us that his book is intended “to show the man plain, in his full human aspect,” and perhaps no other Groucho biographer has been as determined to do so. Even so, most of the figure he exposes is Groucho-when-on – in film, in his letters, and on television. This is the Groucho on the Cavett show, dominating the dialogue, a manic surge of jokey language suggesting hypersensitivity – yet establishing who’s in charge. What he was like, having dinner at home with his wife, is another thing.
Groucho’s “conversions of self-pity into a humor that simultaneously excoriates himself and alienates his interlocutor are like transparent anatomies of the creative process,” says Siegel whose book illuminates not only Groucho but also his progeny – think of Larry David and Amy Schumer. But are they “nihilists”? Is Siegel’s triple-underscoring of the term too much of an attempt to claim “hey I saw it first!”? I hear the nihilism in the jokes -- but it seems to be a nihilism with a purpose.
Marxian expression isn’t always so devastating. You can hear its basic structure in a letter Groucho wrote to the little daughter of a friend (from The Groucho Letters ):
I finally finished the gingerbread man. I didn’t mean to eat him, but it was either him or me. The last thing I ate was his foot and this I didn’t expect. Sylvia, you won’t believe this, but on the way down my gullet he kicked me. This is a fine world we are living in when you can’t even trust a gingerbread man.
I hope you have a very happy 1949 and that you are laying in a good supply of ginger for next Christmas.
On second thought, one sees Groucho was compelled to tell even this kid to watch out for the inevitable kick in the gut.
[Published January 12, 2016. 162 pages, $25.00 hardcover]