Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 24 - Groucho Marx, Comedian

WHEN GROUCHO was in his seventies, he commented on the Indian summer he was enjoying professionally. "I'm going to Iowa for an award," he said. "Then I'm appearing at Carnegie Hall. It's sold out. Then I'm sailing to France to be honoured by the French government," and, pausing so the audience might show an elderly gentleman due reverence, he added, "I'd give it all up for one erection."

Typical Groucho, for whom subversion was an act of faith. In the Fifties, when he was host of the TV quiz show You Bet Your Life, a contestant proudly announced she was the mother of 10 children. As the applause faded, a clearly unimpressed Groucho asked if that weren't rather excessive. "Well, I love my children and I love my husband," beamed the contestant. "Sure," replied Groucho, "I love my cigar, but I take it out occasionally."

The exchange is quoted in several biographies, but the details vary suspiciously, so it may never have taken place. It is significant, though, that the joke should be ascribed to Groucho. If anyone were to toss a firecracker into the cloying conservative world of Fifties American TV, it could only be Groucho.

He tried to do something similar in the movies, but the machine was too big and he was saddled with two, sometimes three, not terribly funny brothers so, apart from Duck Soup - "Gentlemen, we're fighting for this woman's honour. Which is more than she ever did" - the Marx Brothers films failed to be half as sharp and funny as Groucho off-screen.

The problem was that by the time the brothers made their first movie, they were already known as a highly successful vaudeville act. What audiences wanted and were largely given were film versions of the boys' well-established stage revues.

It is fascinating to speculate on what might have been had Groucho's language of nudges, winks and wisecracks - since adopted by everyone from Morecambe and Wise to David Letterman - been given more room to breathe. As it was, he was stuck with Chico's relentless mugging and Harpo's ineffable harp solos from the stage act, and some ludicrous romantic plots that Hollywood required.

It is true there are some sublime moments - "Excuse me while I brush the crumbs out of my bed. I'm expecting company", or "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Which doesn't say much for you" - but when Groucho is off-screen these turn into some rather tedious half-hours.

Not that it was generosity that prompted Groucho to share the screen with his brothers. The ready supply of money and available women that Hollywood promised was probably a stronger motivating factor. It is no coincidence that Groucho usually played lecherous money-grabbers.

However great his desire for the gifts the entertainment industry could bestow on him, though, Groucho heroically refused to kow-tow. He never forgot his God-given duty to lace every spoonful of sugar with a drop of acid. "I've been around so long I remember Doris Day before she was a virgin," he said; and of the film Samson and Delilah, starring Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature: "The first picture I've seen where the male lead has bigger tits than the female."

All those stand-up comics and chat-show hosts who make a good living nowadays flinging cutting one-liners at public figures owe a debt of gratitude to Groucho, who blazed something of a trail. Sure, the cynical barbs came easily to such a noted curmudgeon, but he still took something of a risk by refusing to play the Hollywood game. Perhaps, as he said himself, he just didn't want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member.

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