The history of popular culture 3 Groucho Marx
Tuesday 09 April 1996
I've never actually seen the exchange but I am sure it was accompanied by the knowing look to camera invented by Groucho, and subsequently adopted - consciously or unconsciously by any number of TV hosts. Barrymore, Chris Evans, Jonathan Ross, David Letterman. Pick who you like. They're all doing Groucho. Bill Cosby, the highest-paid entertainer in America, re- runs Groucho's act down to the last mock-weary shrug in a quiz show that daytime Channel 4 viewers may have recently enjoyed called ... Er
So why is this hero of subversion - "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, which doesn't say much for you" - rarely given the credit he deserves? Why is he subject to the swings of fashion as though he were some black and white figure from movie history like Chaplin or Keaton?
The clue may lie in the films Groucho (Julius) made with his brothers Chico (Leonard), Harpo (Adolph) and Zeppo (Herbert). The four Marx Brothers - five briefly when another brother Gummo (Milton) joined the act for a short time - were a hardworking and highly successful vaudeville act in America in the Twenties. By the time they broke into movies, in their forties, audiences expected and were given a film version of the boys' well-established stage revues.
If the Marx Brothers had done only that, their very best routines - the mirror sequence from Duck Soup, the ship's cabin in A Night at the Opera - would have placed them not far behind Laurel and Hardy, say, or the best of Fatty Arbuckle.
What lifted the Marx Brothers' movies on to another plane was Groucho's language of nudges, winks, and wisecracks - "Gentlemen, we're fighting for this woman's honour. Which is more than she ever did" - seized on by later generations of movie comics including Bob Hope, the Carry On team in Britain, and Woody Allen, who was gracious enough to acknowledge the influence.
It was Groucho who stopped the Marx Brothers' movies from being more awful than they were. His lines - "One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas I don't know" or "Excuse me while I brush the crumbs out of my bed. I'm expecting company" - almost make up for Chico's tiresome mugging, the laughable love interest, and even the harp solos.
But if the Marx Brothers' movies were patchy at best - and that is being kind - Groucho's life established a template for others of his profession. As well as his quiz show work, he was a reliable and occasionally hilarious chat show guest in the Peter Cook mould, and he minted aphorisms still being quoted to this day - "I've been around so long I remember Doris Day before she was a virgin," and "From the moment I picked the book up to the moment I put it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."
Groucho died in 1977 - a three-times married curmudgeon who was generous with his talents, if little else - too soon to see himself established as not just the father of modern movie comedy but of post-modern TV comedy as well.
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