Full Marx, Groucho

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on October 02, 2020

Nose job: Groucho Marx, seen here in the film Monkey Business, left a mark with his signature facial disguise   -  PARAMOUNT PICTURES/ THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Rolling in the aisle with the American comedian Groucho Marx on his 130th birth anniversary

Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, widely viewed as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, was known for its callbacks to vintage film and television, allusions often deployed to comic effect. For the last episode Felina (2013), Gilligan brought out the big gun. When international narcotics smuggler Lydia Rodarte-Quayle called one of her partners-in-crime to confirm if Walter White, the show’s anti-hero, was indeed dead, we saw that she had a personalised ringtone — Julius “Groucho” Marx singing Lydia The Tattooed Lady.

This was one of the many vaudeville-inspired numbers sung by the American comedian, Broadway and Hollywood star, and one of the most influential performers of the 20th century. References to this unusual little song pop up in the strangest places, as in the superhero show Heroes of the late 2000s. It had a circus character called Lydia, whose tattoos told her what the person in front of her was feeling.

But that’s just the long shadow that Groucho — born 130 years ago on October 2 — casts even now, four decades after his death. Was it the signature facial disguise, with the exaggerated fake moustache (although he grew a real one in his later years), the eyebrows and the nose? Perhaps it was his hilarious interpretation of the chicken-walk (squat, dart, repeat), developed after seeing the World War I-era films of French actor Max Linder? Whatever it was, Groucho not only became the pre-eminent comedian of the first half of the 20th century, he also expanded the repertoire of what performers could do to leave audiences rolling in the aisles.

Out of the 26 feature-length films he made, 13 were with his brothers Harpo and Chico (post World War I, the group began to be called The Marx Brothers). Some of his first successful films were drawn from the Marx Brothers’ earlier Broadway musicals, such as Animal Crackers (1930) and The Cocoanuts (1929). From the ’30s, he made the movies that arguably cemented his legacy — the hilarious 1933 film Duck Soup (possibly the pick of his oeuvre) as well as other luminous outings such as A Night at the Opera (1935), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and At the Circus (the 1939 film where Groucho first sang Lydia the Tattooed Lady).

Groucho’s chief weapon throughout these classic films was his gift for writing and performing unforgettable putdowns. He was, quite simply, a master of insult comedy. Whatever the genre might have become today (the modern-day ‘roast’ isn’t to everybody’s tastes, to put it mildly), insult comedy reached Americans through Groucho and stand-up comedian Don Rickles. In an era when performers couldn’t swear onscreen or even mime in a way that could be considered ‘obscene’, Groucho depended only on his words.

“Fat lot of good a change of heart’s gonna do him, he still has the same face!”

“From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.”

“I have nothing but respect for you — and not much of that.”

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”

Some of the best Groucho jokes are like this — saccharine politeness followed by a swift, almost abrupt coup de grace. Others trade on his gift for dissecting the oddities of language. As one of his more famous jokes goes: “Outside of a dog, a book is probably man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

It’s not surprising that Groucho thought deeply about linguistic dead ends. Some of his most famous friendships were with writers such as Carl Sandburg and Booth Tarkington (not exactly a household name today but in the ’20s, he was America’s single-most famous novelist and a two-time Pulitzer winner).

He also maintained a friendly correspondence with the poet TS Eliot in the ’60s, although the exchanges became more and more barbed across time, especially after Eliot became quite vocal with his anti-Semitic views (Groucho was unabashedly Jewish). In one letter, Groucho even calls Eliot’s wife “Mrs Tom” in order to remind the poet that “TS” was a pretentious affectation worthy of Eliot’s simpering Anglophilia.

What would Groucho wisecrack about today?

It is tempting to speculate about his views on the rising authoritarianism in the US, but I must confess: I am not in the least interested in talking to Groucho about politics. Not because he was naive or uninformed in that context (quite the contrary) but because he was at his best when talking about comedy and films — the arts. What would he have thought of 21st-century TV, the dominant artistic form of this era, both critically and commercially?

After all, this was the man who once said: “I find TV very educational. Every time someone switches it on I go to another room and read a good book.”

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelancer

Published on October 02, 2020

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