Posted September 11, 2017 by D. K. Holm
Two weeks into my project and I’m already behind. This week, I’ll post two column reviews.
For September 5, 1977, Sarris issued one of his patented reflective obituaries. A lot of prominent people died in 1977, including Joan Crawford, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, and Henri-Georges Clouzot, and it seemed as if every month in those years Sarris was called upon to honor the recently deceased. Groucho Marx, however, had recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest, particularly in young people and, with the help of Dick Cavett, TV viewers. Sarris’s range of reference is typically expansive, and he dares to raise some qualms about Marx’s wit and its universal applicability. That’s unusual in an obit, where the usually the gloves are supposed to be on.
So here’s how you write a Groucho obit. You take on first the Marx Brothers in general, who “belonged to so many people for so long that they finally floated out of there films into popular mythology.” The focus returns to Groucho, and Sarris ventures an equivocation at his transition from prankster to softened iconoclast. As the “verbal demon” of the group, Sarris found that for Marx “[to] torment upper-class paragons of propriety like Margaret Dumont and Louis Calhern was to pick on people one’s own size. To tease middle-class housewives and bank clerks was to fritter away one’s talent for invective on trivialities,” as Groucho did on his quiz show, You Bet Your Life. He asks if there is anyone left who still needs to see more of the Marx Brothers films. They weren’t exactly wanting for revival. But he also cites the fact that Groucho’s later years were hard, ending in what we now know was a terrible estate disposition battle between his late-in-life consort Erin Fleming, and his son Arthur Marx, a writer of showbiz biographies, who eventually prevailed some six years later, and himself died in June of 2017.
Sarris also wonders aloud if Wilfred Sheed is onto something with his contemporaneous essay about the writers in Groucho’s life, S. J. Perelman and others who influenced him and provided him with lines. He even calls into question the idea that “humor is an infallible sign of moral health in the body politick,” and notes that the Marx Brothers never attacked religion, and that much of their humor targeted the immigrant experience. Sarris analyzes the popularity of the Marx Brothers among the “kids” of the day … “The very bad manners of the Marx Brothers are, of course , more in tune with the times.” He compares the shifting fortunes of intellectual fandom, noting that Harpo was the darling of intellectuals more than Groucho at one time, but asserts that Groucho “made us laugh more loudly and more frequently than Harpo and Chico put together” – mostly due to the way he “pounces on apparently innocent words, and plays with them like a demented diner with a plate of spaghetti.” Then in a great quote, Sarris notes: “If Jolson’s wail initiated the talkies, Groucho’s wit redeemed them for the muse of comedy.” The obituary ends with a touching salute to Margaret Dumont, as “one of the most electrifying character comediennes in the history of the screen.”
What Sarris wasn’t inclined to get into, or had not the space for, was a discussion of the role of sexuality among the Brothers. All three were letches, but in different flavors. A late comedy from their declining years gives a good example, picked partially because it was one I’d hadn’t seen. Love Happy (1949) is a typical “let’s put on a show even if we don’t have any money” story with an excuse for songs and musical performances, with some Romanoff diamond thieves thrown in for suspense and plot complications. Harpo who used to chase girls with his squawking horn is here a dreamy romantic with a crush on the beautiful Vera-Ellen. Cue the harp sequence. Chico, whose name stands for “guy who chases chicks” and is pronounced accordingly, is unusually mute on the subject of women, but was always been somewhat desexualized under his guise as the conniving Italian hustler.
What comes to the fore with Groucho’s persona, in this film anyway, is how he is something of a Mae West figure. Despite the big black mustaches, his eye-rolling and hip-swaying make him the embodiment of a feminine side to the Marxists, a caricature of the “feminine” modeled after West. His fluid sexuality, if one can go that far, is underscored by the presence of Eric Blore as his partner in investigation, he being one of the famous official “sissies” in comedies and musicals of the 1930s. When Marilyn Monroe enters for her short cameo Groucho even leaves the room for a second and shuts the door, as if overwhelmed by her exaggerated sexuality. Both Groucho and Blore ogle her rear, but in the end leave together to wrap up the mystery.
Groucho is kept separate from the other brothers for some reason. He is mostly shown in his detective office, and narrates the story of “putting on a show.” Thus he is assigned a form of god-like observance of the human beings with their plots and intrigues and lusts. His near-last film performance was in Otto Preminger’s crazy LSD-infused comedy Skidoo, in which Groucho plays God. A perhaps fitting end.
Here’s how you can find the Groucho obit. Find if you can this page in the Google newspaper archive.Type in page 27 in the page search box and slide to the right hand side of the double page spread.
Next time, a program of six precode Columbia films.