If you find the Marx Brothers unfailingly funny, Lee Siegel is not your man. In fact, Siegel argues in what he calls his “biocommentary” on Groucho that the brothers often seemed to aim at something other than laughs, serving up not wit or slapstick but repudiations of authority, convention and common sense. “The Marx Brothers exist in a prolonged spasm of destruction,” he writes, “something on the order of rapture, frenzy, or divine madness.” (Although Siegel doesn’t mention this, the brothers’ anarchy may have inspired the revival of their popularity in the rebellious 1960s.)
In the dizzying world according to Marx, commonplace formulas get upended or canceled out, as when Groucho says to Mrs. Rittenhouse in “Animal Crackers,” “You’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. And that’s not saying much for you.” Or innocent characters get teased and physically abused, like the lemonade vendor in “Duck Soup.” Siegel sums up this offensiveness as embodied in the brothers’ ringleader and spokesman:
“Groucho’s dark, compulsive assault not just on propriety but on the basic premises of social life is what makes the Marx Brothers’ movies so strange, and so original. The humor . . . is often not humor. It is the spectacle of seeing something so uncivilized and natural that it has all the appearance of a freakish exception to human nature.” Later, he makes a surprising and shrewd connection between Groucho’s trashing of social customs and the refusals of Bartleby the Scrivener in Melville’s great story. Compare Bartleby’s refrain “I would prefer not to” to Groucho’s “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”
Siegel is also good at linking Groucho’s performing style with his upbringing. Along with Harpo (real name, Adolph), Chico (Leonard) and two other brothers little remembered today, Groucho (Julius) grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan before it became posh. At the time — he was born in 1890 — it contained a lower-class neighborhood of new Americans speaking amalgams of English and their mother tongues, an environment in which language-play came naturally. Julius was the third and least-favored son: less “Aryan”-looking than his brothers at a time when that mattered and, as Siegel puts it, born with a “walleye.” He fell into the habit of saying whatever came to mind, wild nonsense included, as a way of getting attention. Hence the verbal fireworks he was to set off in the guise of Rufus T. Firefly or Otis B. Driftwood.
Another strain of Groucho’s comedy derived from the family’s Judaism. (Siegel’s book is the latest entry in Yale University Press’s admirable “Jewish Lives” series.) As the author explains, Jewish immigrant dads left rampant anti-Semitism behind in the old country only to contend with linguistic and educational barriers to employment in the new one. (The Marx Brothers’ father had the additional disadvantage of being a lousy tailor.) Siegel generalizes: “I propose that one of the sources and essential traits of Jewish humor is a disdain for authority that is rooted in an experience of weakened, ineffectual fathers.” Groucho’s edition of that humor had a corollary: misogyny (e.g., the innumerable insults heaped on the Margaret Dumont character in the films), which grew from his resentment of his redoubtable mother, Minnie, who ruled the family and doubled as manager of the boys’ vaudeville career.
Siegel takes issue, however, with the received wisdom — purveyed by Woody Allen, among others — that Groucho’s most famous line demonstrates Jewish self-hatred: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” This comes not from a movie but from the occasion when Groucho joined the Hollywood chapter of the Friars Club, expecting to take part in bull sessions on Chaucer, Voltaire and the Barrymores. Instead, as Groucho explained in his autobiography, he “found 32 fellows playing gin rummy with marked cards . . . and four members in separate phone booths calling women who were other members’ wives.” The point of the lament was to underscore the frustration of working hard to transform yourself into a cultured man (though poorly educated, Groucho read widely and held his own in a lengthy correspondence with T. S. Eliot), only to be surrounded by the Babbitry you thought you’d transcended.
For all the richness of Siegel’s insights, at times he tries too hard. A page before his bravura citation of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” he spots a precursor of Groucho’s persona in Colonel Sherburn of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — and not even in the colonel himself, but in a circus clown who displays the colonel’s mannerisms after Sherburn faces down an angry mob. To me, at least, the reference is obscure and strained. Also, Siegel makes too little of the brothers’ habit of trying out their movie scripts in front of live audiences before enacting them for the camera, in order to see what worked and what didn’t. They weren’t expounding a philosophy of chaos; they were going after laughs.
But for the most part, Siegel’s “Groucho Marx” is trenchant and provocative. I would join any club that has this book in its library.
Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World. He lives in Asheville, N.C.
By Lee Siegel
Yale Univ. Press. 162 pp. $25