Film: Film Studies - If Groucho's the noun, what would the verb be?

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The Independent Culture
Simon Louvish set me thinking. His new book lacks the carbuncular splendour of his earlier work on WC Fields, but it's a tasty group biography, and the most reliable Marxist history we're ever going to get.

Still, Mr Louvish knows that accuracy does not wrap up family matters, especially when Groucho - the Hamlet, the Falstaff and the Shylocked one of the family - would rather crack wise than utter painful truths. And it's not so vital to know which film it was where Grouch said, "Love goes out the door when sex comes innuendo." Rather, Grouchery is a suppressed energy and verbal defiance, a surreal glaze that reaches out into the world, embodying all his films, yet evoking pictures never made or dreamt of, to the damp brink of one's own miserable life. By which I mean to say that I am a Grouchus myself, just able to tolerate the whim that gave him sidekicks known as "brothers". As if any amount of fraternity or imprisoning company could impair his heartfelt loneliness!

I don't want to be harsh to Chico and Harpo (they are helpless, addled kin to a genius). But in my scheme they would have played piano and harp in silent pictures - profuse cadenzas set to the peaceful inanity of silence. I'd grant Chico sound only for putting the skids of ice-cream logic under poor old Grasping. Harpo can have it for those instants of klaxon farting.

Chico and Harpo weren't so much his brothers as the Other. Their primary purpose was in being the idiots who somehow got the better of Grass (as in snake in the), and who generally humiliated him by being his abiding company. For Groucho - or Julius Henry Marx, to use his real name - is the trickster tricked by his own trickery. He is the rascal, fraud and womaniser betrayed and undone by his forlorn addiction to words and intelligence.

If he had been a touch more cold-blooded, he could have taken off his moustache and used it as a razor to cut the throats of cuties he had ravished and robbed. But there's something fatally inward about him - not just shy, but Kafkaesque, intellectual - so the pursuit of self-interest is forever tricked into an interest in self-pursuit. Which is exactly the kind of fusspot wordplay he loved.

He was a snob among cretins. "Pardon me while I have a strange interlude," he says in Animal Crackers, alluding to the long, arty and boring O'Neill play of the time. Imagine the satisfaction, late in life, when he fell into a correspondence with TS Eliot - imagine Julius Henry as the hero in The Waste Land.

It may seem like heresy to Marxists to elevate Grouchus so. But I wonder whether anyone watches whole Marx Brothers movies any more. Whereas Grinch looms larger as a tragicomic creation beset by his having to endure those intermittent films. What he really needed was Bunuel.

That's why, as I read Louvish's book, I was struck by the profound misery of Grouching's last years. Not that I'm offering it as a movie. What it really needs is opera. Here's the outline.

Grouchy was the only one of the brothers who really lived beyond the Brothers. After the movies, he had a career as a wicked, lecherous master of ceremonies on a quiz show called You Bet Your Life. He also outlived the others: Chico died in 196l, Harpo in 1964. Groucho lived on until 1977, hounded and victimised by the younger and younger women he insisted on keeping around. He married showgirls or would-bes - his cigar aimed like a battleship gun at their bounteous breasts. Ruth gave him two children. Number two was Kay (who had been married to Leo Gorcey, the head Bowery Boy - they made short-subject comedies in the 1940s) - they had another child. Then in 1954 he wed number three - Eden Hartford (sister to Dee Hartford, the third wife of Howard Hawks), a stunning looker who divorced him after 15 years for his "uncontrollable temper" and "hostile and abusive moods". For it seems that Gravid could not help himself from pouring verbal abuse on these lush airheads - and then explaining the jokes so they could appreciate the literacy in the attacks. This is worthy of Strindberg.

As Eden departed, she was replaced by Erin Fleming, another pretty woman maybe 50 years his junior. In the past, Gropy had been candid about wanting sexual partners, but now his libido was crushed by strokes. Erin was smart enough to be his business manager, and to engage him in cross-talk. She had a fearsome tongue of her own, and scant patience with the old man. The Grinder who had treated weary wives like Margaret Dumont now had a savage stand-up comedienne as combatant. She lashed at him; she may have beaten him. Who knows what lovers do when they are alone together and have found raw hatred?

Erin alienated his children. His health deteriorated. At last, family and friends sought legal protection for him. Scandal and court appearances clouded the last years of this genius of self-destruction. You can call this a grisly comeuppance. But something in me wants to be a fly on the wall, recording the terrible routines.

It was a scene Groucho was always aiming for - Prospero in a wheelchair, yet still capable of a killer joke, with a wife ready to crack him on the head with his own magical staff. Happy days - but that's Beckett, isn't it, not Strindberg?

`Monkey Business' by Simon Louvish is out now (Faber 12.99)