Last month’s tribute to Woody Allen got me thinking: about one of my own comedy heroes. What would you get if you took Woody Allen and toughened him up with a little acid wit and the smoke of several Cuban cigars? My friends, I present the late, great Groucho Marx.
Best known and arguably linchpin of the ex-vaudevillian musical comedy troup The Marx Brothers, who rose to worldwide fame in the golden era of 1930s Hollywood cinema in films such as A Day at The Races and A Night at The Opera, Groucho was instantly recognisable by his trademark glasses, grease-paint eyebrows and moustache, comic walk and rapier wit.
Given name Julius Henry, Groucho was the third-born son of Miene (“Minnie”) and Simon (“Sam”) Marx, and grew up with his brothers on East 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue, New York City.
In character, Groucho was often the lying, scheming, self-serving and sometimes cowardly ringleader of the zany Marx Brothers gang, blustering his way through some of the most outrageous and funny scenarios in comedy history. His rapid comic delivery, sense of irreverance and the absurd, and talent for pricking pompousity made him a perennial favourite; embodied in his long-standing on-screen relationship with comic foil Margaret Dumont.
In life it seems, his slightly more celebral comic character hinted at an intelligent, thoughtful, incisive man; plagued by insomnia, who both read and wrote extensively – not just comedy – but also essays, columns and letters in abundance. All stamped of course, with his gently cynical, self-deprecating, trademark wit.
He counted English poet T.S. Eliot among his numerous correspondents, and was a forthright and unapologetic supporter of lawyer Joseph Welch when he attacked US Senator Joseph McCarthy during one of his many communist witch hunts*.
Groucho’s long career continued on US radio and television well into the 1950s and early 1960s, as the host of popular quiz show You Bet Your Life.
The quotes, one-liners and dialogue attributed to Groucho Marx are numerous and funny; and through all the absurdity, acid, bluster and zaniness, crucially contain that essential ring of truth. Here are a few of my favourites:
“I never forget a face; but in your case I’ll make an exception.”
“You have the mind of a six year old child. And I bet he was glad to get rid of it!”
“Marry me and I’ll never look at another horse again.”
“A woman is an occasional pleasure, but a cigar is always a smoke.”
“Outside of a dog, a book’s a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”
“Well, Art is Art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.”
“These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
“I intend to live forever; or die trying.”
“I’ve had a truly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”
If you get the chance to catch a Marx Brothers movie over the festive season you won’t be disappointed; least of all while Groucho is on the screen.
* From The Groucho Letters in The Essential Groucho edited by Stefan Kanfer, 2000.