Tuesday, April 07, 2009

For the Love of Groucho

Growing up, it never dawned on me what a fan of Groucho Marx I was. I thought whoever drew Bugs Bunny invented that wandering wiseguy shtick; I even gave Hawkeye Pierce full credit for perfecting the leering retort. Little did I know they - and countless others - merely co-opted that persona from the middle child of a rambling vaudeville brood. Julius Henry Marx was that and so much more. Acerbic, goofy, aloof: some of my favorite adjectives describe the man most Earthlings knew as 'Groucho'. I know this because I just finished Stephan Kanfer's exhaustive biography of the man. 437 pages, to be exact. Sure, it seems excessive, but when you consider all that Marx accomplished in his 87 years in show business, it averages out just right...

Groucho of course came to prominence in the dying days of vaudeville. Led by one mother of a stage-mother, he and his brothers formed a kind of comedy heretofore unseen in the seedy dives that passed for live theater back then. All the Marxes were funny, but the middle kid Julius possessed a rare mix of verbal lethality and loose-limbed goofiness. Those qualities and a truckload of bad puns helped propel the Marx Brothers to superstardom, a novel enough concept back then. Just as their gowing fame outstripped their diminishing venues, along came radio, followed by cinema. Soon, audiences the world over were imitating Groucho's slouching lope, rapid fire delivery and elastic eyebrows. Yes, long before Howard Stern built an empire on his own shortcomings, Chico, Zeppo, Harpo and Groucho were the Kings of all Media.

But it didn't stop there. When the Marx brothers disbanded to chase their individual demons, Groucho wiped the greasepaint off his upper lip and conquered the burgeoning world of TV quiz shows. For 17 years he hosted 'You Bet Your Life', leaving all who passed before him humbled by his lightning quick one-liners. If that weren't enough the middle Marx brother harbored literary ambitions as well. While he never wrote the book he felt he had in him, his comebacks and prose are studied to this very day. And yet still, Groucho wasn't through. Thanks to the piss and vinegar that flowed so freely through his veins, the man with the ever present stogie outlived his siblings and his critics. Perhaps his only miscue was dying the same week as Elvis Presley, a rare bit of bad timing that robbed him of the post-mortem acolytes he so deserved.

Thirty-five years later, his legacy endures. Perhaps the original one-name celebrity, he is instantly recognizable even in silhouette. To don a pair of Groucho glasses is to instantly adopt a wise-ass attitude - even if you're so young, you don't know why. A cursory search of YouTube unearths more material than one can watch in one setting. That said, Groucho was not an easy man to know. Indifferent if not cruel to the many women in his life, the most famous Marx (Karl notwithstanding) carried with him more than a little misogyny. Vindictive, cheap, and insensitive, the master of snappy comebacks was, as his latest biographer so aptly puts it, 'a depressive clown' who grew into the most influential comic of the 20th century. Not bad for a mouthy Jewish kid with a painted-on moustache...

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