Grou­cho’s se­cret am­bi­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Spec­ta­tor

Grou­cho Marx was de­lighted when he heard the script for one of his old vaude­ville rou­tines was be­ing reprinted in HL Mencken’s The Amer­i­can Lan­guage. “Noth­ing I ever did as an ac­tor thrilled me more,’’ he said. In­deed, ar­gues Lee Siegel in his brief bi­o­graph­i­cal study of the most ver­bal Marx Brother, Grou­cho’s “great­est re­gret in life … was that he had be­come an en­ter­tainer rather than a lit­er­ary man”. How else to ex­plain that ex­cru­ci­at­ing evening in June 1964 when Grou­cho and his wife dined at the home of TS Eliot and he thought to lecture Eliot on King Lear?

To be fair, it was Eliot who, three years ear­lier, had writ­ten to the then 71-year-old Grou­cho re­quest­ing a pho­to­graph of his favourite fun­ny­man. A pic­ture ar­rived — though not, alas, the kind that Eliot had in mind. He wanted a por­trait of Grou­cho as Grou­cho — wire-rimmed specs, six-inch sto­gie, paint-on mous­tache. Might he have an­other? Two years later, a se­cond pic­ture landed on the Eliot door­mat. Siegel makes much of that de­lay. “Per­haps,” he muses, “the se­cretly as­pir­ing lit­er­ary man re­sented be­ing asked for a pic­ture of him­self in the char­ac­ter of the comic he had be­come.’’ As he says, per­haps. Then again, per­haps Grou­cho’s sec­re­tary was busy with re­quests from other fans. Or maybe she’d run out of pic­tures of him in full make-up.

Mak­ing moun­tains out of mole­hills is pretty much the whole of Siegel’s crit­i­cal method. Given Grou­cho’s Jewish­ness, he could hardly avoid men­tion­ing Eliot’s anti-Semitism. But he fills pages with fan­ci­ful ru­mi­na­tions (“it’s pos­si­ble”, “could not have been un­aware”, “seemed to pro­voke”) that tell you noth­ing con­crete — or any­thing even vaguely plau­si­ble — about re­la­tions be­tween the two men.

Soon enough Siegel has aban­doned sus­pi­cions for cer­tainty. He knows what peo­ple re­ally mean even when they’re try­ing to hide it. Take the let­ter Eliot sent Grou­cho telling him he and his wife had re­cently en­joyed one of his old movies. To you and me it reads ut­terly in­nocu­ously. But the all-see­ing Siegel is on hand to write be­tween the lines: Not long ago we went to see a re­vival of The Marx Brothers Go West [one of your worst films], which I had never seen be­fore [even though it came out 22 years ago]. It was cer­tainly worth it. [It was cer­tainly not worth it, or I wouldn’t de­clare that it was.]

When not do­ing the poet in dif­fer­ent voices, Siegel gives us a bare out­line of the Grou­cho story. We get sketches of the hard child­hood in turn-of-the-cen­tury New York, the Marx Brothers’ ap­pren­tice­ship on Broad­way, the an­ar­chic ge­nius of their first movies with Paramount, the de­cline into for­mu­laic light opera that fol­lowed their move to MGM, and Grou­cho’s reinvention as a quiz-show host in the 1940s and 50s. But sketches are all they are.

Siegel fol­lows Stefan Kan­fer (the au­thor of the most re­cent, and best, Grou­cho bi­og­ra­phy) in be­liev­ing Grou­cho’s po­si­tion as middle child in a fam­ily of five boys meant his mo­tor­mouthed comic tech­nique grew out of his hav­ing been “un­seen and un­heard”. He also be­lieves the in­sis­tence of Grou­cho’s mar­tinet mother Min­nie that he for­get his dream of study­ing medicine and go into show­biz in­stead (he had a pass­able singing voice) re­sulted in the book­ish­ness of his later years and the ram­pant misog­yny of so much of his com­edy.

But though Kan­fer’s book pretty much proves how woman-hat­ing Grou­cho was, how misog­y­nist was his hu­mour? Char­ac­ters like Otis B. Drift­wood and Wolf J. Flywheel en­joy in­sult­ing girls, to be sure. But it is the men played by Chico and (es­pe­cially) Harpo Marx who con­ceive of women as lit­tle more than hu­man spit­toons. Siegel half ac­knowl­edges the point when he quotes the great speech from Duck Soup in which Grou­cho’s Ru­fus T. Fire­fly tears a strip off Mrs Teas­dale (Mar­garet Du­mont) for sug­gest­ing he is the “most able states­man in all Free­do­nia”. “Well,” says Fire­fly, “that cov­ers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground your­self. You bet­ter beat it. I hear they’re go­ing to tear you down and put up an of­fice build­ing.” As Siegel says: “Any­one who thinks Fire­fly would make a good leader of any­thing, let alone a coun­try, de­serves all the insults that could be hurled at her or him.”

Awk­ward phras­ing aside, that’s a rare, light mo­ment amid Siegel’s cease­less se­ri­ous­ness. So cease­less is it that Grou­cho Marx: The Com­edy of Ex­is­tence can have you doubt­ing the ex­is­tence of com­edy. A Marx Brothers movie, Siegel tells us, “presents a be­wil­der­ment … a ni­hilism con­structed out of count­less frag­ments of mu­tu­ally con­tra­dict­ing truths that amount to no sta­ble mean­ing’’.

On the other hand, at least it’s clear why, a cou­ple of years ago, Siegel was to be found ar­gu­ing in a New Yorker blog that it was time to bury the hatchet-job re­view. “From the mo­ment I picked your book up un­til the mo­ment I put it down I was con­vulsed with laugh­ter. Some day I in­tend to read it.’’ That was Grou­cho Marx on SJ Perel­man’s first ef­fort. Pre­sented with Lee Siegel’s book, he’d be rather less kind.

has writ­ten bi­ogra­phies of Sean Con­nery and Michael Caine.

Grou­cho Marx with Harpo, left, and Chico in The Big Store (1941)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.