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Groucho Marx and the Spirit of American Humour

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grouch featured

Nathan Abrams learns a great deal from a new biography of Groucho Marx.

I’m by no means a Marxist. By that I mean I am no Marx Brothers maven. In that context, I learned a great deal from ‘this biography of sorts’ of Groucho Marx by Lee Siegel.

Born in 1890, Julius Henry Marx was the third child of five surviving sons. His parents were immigrants. Because he hated his birthname so much, he couldn’t wait to change it. So, Julius took the name Groucho because of his sour and bitter nature and that as the quartet’s treasurer he controlled their wages in what Vaudeville acts called a ‘grouch bag’. Arthur who played the harp naturally became Harpo. Leonard the pathological womanizer was dubbed Chico
(pronounced Chick-o) and Milton the hypochondriac was Gummo because he put on waterproof shoes known as gumshoes at the first sign. These nicknames also became their real names in private life fusing their entertainment identities with their real ones. Siegel says, ‘Groucho may have liked Julius, but he adored Groucho.’

A rare photo of the entire Marx family circa 1915. Left to right: Groucho, Gummo, Minnie, Zeppo, Sam (Frenchie), Chico, Harpo. (from The Marx Brothers Scrapbook). Photo: Wikipedia

Feelings of exclusion marked Groucho’s entire life. He had a sharp sense of himself as an outsider. This was because Groucho was an outsider from other Jews as well as the mainstream culture. Unlike the majority of New York Jews, the
Marx brothers did not grow up in the Lower East Side nor the Bronx but in the parallel universe of Yorkville, a neighbourhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Not only was Yorkville not a Jewish enclave but it was also most heavily populated by Germans and the small minority of Jews remained a minority.

Groucho Marx and Andy Russell in Copacabana (1947). Photo: Wikipedia

Groucho and TS Eliot were admirers of each other. TS Eliot wrote a fan letter to the actor requesting a photograph of him. Groucho enthusiastically complied sending a photograph of himself out of character without the characteristic and trademark bushy black eyebrows, large nose and a bushy moustache. The two corresponded for some time and even met for dinner.

Groucho Marx in A Day at the Races. Photo: Wikipedia

One of the reasons that Groucho admired Eliot was because he was a highly cultivated man and his greatest regret in life was that he became an entertainer rather than a man of letters. Lee Siegel explains how Groucho was driven by embarrassment over his origins and lack of formal education. Underneath the unabashedly Jewish exterior ran tremendous insecurity which most often expressed itself through acerbic joking about sex and sexuality.

Aside from the mention of the word schnorrer in Animal Crackers, Groucho and his brothers made very little much of their Jewishness. The words Jew and Jewish are not mentioned once in the films which was partly a result of the brothers wish to reach as broad an audience as possible and partly the result of the antisemitism that was rampant at the time and easily accommodated by the Jewish moguls who ran Hollywood and were busy creating ideal images of WASP America.

In a photo from 1948, from left to right: standing: Chico, Harpo. sitting: Groucho. Photo: Wikipedia

Nonetheless, Groucho and his brothers are virtually synonymous with Jewish humour. Yet, most people would be at a loss to explain just what it is about it that makes them Jewish. There is, of course, the ingenious wordplay, punning and double entendre. Siegel, though, proposes something more: that one of the sources and one of the central traits of Jewish humour is that is rooted in an experience of weak and ineffectual fathers that goes back to Jewish scripture itself.

‘Judaism is, after all, the first and only religion to believe in an all-powerful male deity whose primordial qualities are rage and revenge. No mortal father can compete with such an omnipotent force. The Jewish patriarch, the ur-Jewish father, Abraham, is so cowed by Yahweh that upon Yahweh’s command he is ready to kill Isaac, his only son.’Inspired, or frightened by Genesis 22, generations of male Jewish writers have portrayed weak fathers in their fiction.

It is intriguing to ponder, therefore, how much of the bedrock of American popular culture that was created between the 1930s and the 1950s was the product of sons who had weak or absent fathers. Jewish immigrant fathers often took a backseat to their wives whose proactive energies were galvanized by the challenges and the opportunities presented by the new environment. The women often took their children’s destinies in hand.

Groucho Marx and Alice Cooper at Rancho Mission Viejo, 1974. Photo: Wikipedia

Another unfortunate consequence of this, as Siegel points out, is that, like so many male Jewish stand-up comics of their generation, Groucho and his brothers were guilty of misogyny. They made the humiliation of women a key element of their schtick, making no pretence about their hostility towards women.

Groucho Marx abandons the conventional chronological approach of a typical biography for something more thematic as its author delves into the psychology of its subject. But more than that, it is an inquiry into the spirit of American Jewish humour from the 1930s to the 1950s, some of which isn’t always pretty but needs to be addressed rather than simply eulogized.

Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel is published by Yale University Press priced £10.99.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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