Actors have long had to fight the public's tendency to confuse them with the roles they play. But for great comics, whose humor grows out of their experience, it may be next to impossible to separate their real lives from the roles they've created for themselves. That's not just true of explicitly autobiographical comics like Richard Pryor, who brought all his anger and confusion and temptations onstage with him. It's also true of the comics who carried the same persona with them through much of their career.
Watch Chaplin as the Little Tramp and you sense an overwhelming, nearly monstrous need for love. Watch W.C. Fields turn his misanthropic suspicion on every private and public virtue and you can feel the bitterness that characterized his private life. The greatest clowns are serious people with as consistent a worldview as any tragedian. Their chosen mode of expression can't help courting rage. To encourage people to laugh at you is both to crave approval and to risk resenting the audience for not taking you seriously. Like the Irish chiropodist, the audience holds your fate in its hands. A comic doesn't flop, after all -- he dies.
Is it any wonder that there are few happy stories about comics? The one that Stefan Kanfer tells in "Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx," the story of a man whose stage persona sprang from and eventually overtook his life, seems to get sadder as the book goes on. Kanfer is dealing with one of the four or five greatest comics who ever lived and yet the periods of acclaim feel unaccountably brief, the moments when Groucho Marx was able to take some satisfaction in his art even briefer.
Personal and professional insecurity is a clichi in stories about comedians. And like most clichis, it has some basis in truth. Kanfer, who does a commendable job of balancing admiration and critical perspective throughout the book, renders Marx's insecurity without falling back on "tears of a clown" triteness. For one thing, he's writing about a man who seemed to realize early on that tears would do him no good.
The middle boy of five brothers, Julius Henry Marx never bonded with his siblings the way the two sets of brothers who bookended him paired off. A loner who loved to read, he never enjoyed the same love his mother, Minnie, showered on her firstborn, Leonard (Chico). His manner and looks -- the kinky hair, prominent nose, walleyed expression -- were, Kanfer writes, "regarded [by Minnie] ... as a kind of insult."
Minnie was the driving force in the family, steamrolling her sons and her mild-mannered husband, Sam, who earned a small income as a not very competent tailor. It was Minnie who plucked Julius from school at 13 to take a job as a delivery boy, thus ending his fantasies of winning her approval by becoming a doctor, and instilling in him a lifelong desire to be accepted by people he perceived as educated. Julius' delivery job lasted until Minnie decided he could make more money as a boy singer. Sent out solo a few times on the vaudeville circuit, he returned home both times after being rooked out of his earnings. Gradually, the act grew to encompass all five of the boys -- Leonard, Adolph (Harpo), Julius, Herbert (Zeppo) and Milton (Gummo) -- and even Minnie, who also acted as their manager.
All showbiz stories have more or less the same trajectory, and I mean it as no disrespect to the absorbing job Kanfer has done when I telescope the particulars he has set down: the Marx Brothers' progression from vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood; their increasing reliance on improvisation to the delight of audiences and distraction of their writers and costars; the progression from the on-the-fly quality of their films at Paramount (their best work) to the more polished (and not as funny) work at MGM; the decline of their box-office drawing power and breakup of the act before Groucho's popular reemergence cracking wise to the often hapless contestants on "You Bet Your Life" (most famously, to a woman who said she had 22 children because she loved her husband, "I love my cigar too, but I take it out once in a while").
Kanfer can't do much about the slight tediousness of recounting the making and reception of each film. But he's a knowledgeable critic who steers clear of the inflated claims made for the Marx Brothers by the likes of Antonin Artaud and Salvador Dali. He also doesn't have much patience for the academic exegeses that have been written over the decades, or for the students who discovered the Marx Brothers in the '60s and saw in their last name the confirmation of revolutionary spirit. It's not that Kanfer doesn't regard the Marx Brothers as artists, but he refuses to falsify or inflate the terms on which he enjoys them. Only a fool would use high culture to justify a team who so gleefully skewered "Il Trovatore."
And yet, his subject is a man who, probably because of his abbreviated education, longed to be taken seriously by intellectuals. In the Kanfer-edited volume "The Essential Groucho: Writings by, for and About Groucho Marx," when T.S. Eliot wrote requesting his portrait, Groucho sent a formal picture only to have Eliot write back requesting one with a cigar and greasepaint mustache. When the men finally met, Groucho boned up on "Murder in the Cathedral" and "King Lear." He couldn't understand that Eliot only wanted to talk about the Marx Brothers. ("That's what happens when you're born in St. Louis," Groucho said.) If he never escaped a certain disdain for his talent, we can be thankful that he never pulled a Woody Allen and apologized for it.
Kanfer lays out the contradictions in Groucho's character without reducing them or dismissing them. Centrally, there is Kanfer's portrait of a man never sure of the affections of a domineering mother, a man who coped with that insecurity by living out a version of the persona in which he was most confident: the mocking, sarcastic role of "Groucho." It was often his wives who were the targets of his wit; all three retreated, in some degree, into alcoholism, as did Groucho's oldest daughter, Miriam. His other two children, Arthur, by his first wife, Ruth, and Melinda, by his second wife, Kay, found their doting father became less so as they outgrew the role of obedient child.
It was Groucho himself who took on that role in his somewhat eerie final years spent with Erin Fleming, the aspiring actress who became his assistant, caregiver, constant companion and, finally, the demon in the court cases that successfully contested her role as Groucho's legal conservator. Kanfer shows his biographer's mettle in this section. It seems an unresolvable relationship. That Fleming was mentally disturbed and grasping seems certain.
At one point Fleming tried to get Groucho to adopt her (she had already exacerbated the breach between Groucho and his children), and several witnesses at the trial testified to having seen her verbally and physically abuse him. But Groucho, who thrived in the company of younger women, might well have been quicker to surrender to the infirmities of old age had he not met her. Certainly, few stars of Groucho's era had as contemporary a presence in the early to mid-'70s (with talk and variety show appearances and so on), and this appears to be largely a result of Fleming's determination to keep him in the public eye. After fading out of the story, Fleming makes a brief final appearance in 1995 as a bag lady on Santa Monica Boulevard. Kanfer remains sober and straightforward even when events are most sordid.
And still there's a nagging voice that says, "That can't be the whole story." And of course, it isn't. An artist's life is both crucial to his art and, on some basic level, beside the point -- what his art transcends. Groucho was a man who withered friends and family with his acid tongue, who, as Harpo's wife, Susan, once said, "destroys people's ego. If you're vulnerable, you have absolutely no protection from Groucho. He can only be controlled if he has respect for you. If he loses respect, you're dead." Isn't that the logical extension of perhaps the most disrespectful comic presence ever in American movies? It's just that disrespect that can make Groucho feel so revelatory if you first encounter him as a teenager.
But Groucho's comedy is more than just adolescent japes. No matter what personal insecurities fueled the character who utterly disdained authority and order, the sheer giddy joy of watching Groucho Marx is undeniable. American comedy is a great leveler, a literal or figurative kick in the pants to anyone or anything that looks to be getting too big for its britches. Like almost all American art, the sophistication in our comedy isn't continental or genteel. It has a reassuring touch of the casual and the common. (The pleasure of a show like "Sex and the City" -- a show Groucho, who disliked nudity and profanity, would surely have frowned upon -- is the juxtaposition of high comic acting and low comic raunch.)
So Groucho's puns and non sequiturs and allusions and constant twists of meaning ("Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You'd better beat it. I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't leave in a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff"), tossed off two or three to a sentence, are among the most dexterous verbal humor ever performed. And they came out of the mouth of a figure straight from low comedy: a flea-bitten Lothario whose lust or greed wasn't enough to keep him from taking swipes at the objects of his pursuits. ("I could dance with you till the cows came home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows till you came home.")
The Marx Brothers' disrespect was squarely in an American tradition. They did to niceties and protocol and manners what Harpo does to Edgar Kennedy's lemonade in "Duck Soup," kicking it gleefully with their dirty feet. If disorder was their rallying cry, then in this, Harpo -- as much as I love Groucho -- seemed at times to surpass his brother. Groucho's behavior and speech were an unfettered attack on the very notion of order and sanity; Harpo acted as if he had never even encountered those concepts.
To watch Harpo is to glimpse a world where ether has replaced oxygen. He is not powered by rage but by bliss. He has no use of words or sound because he has moved beyond them. What laughter could possibly equal his open-mouthed expression of hilarity as he watches a Punch and Judy show in "Monkey Business"? A poetic clown, he never falls into the self-conscious "artistry" of Chaplin (whom W.C. Fields, unfairly and absolutely accurately, once called "the funniest goddamn ballet dancer who ever lived"). He combines the innocent and the lascivious, like a dirty-minded kid who has somehow missed out on the facts of life. Groucho sometimes gets the better of Chico -- against Harpo's blitheness he is helpless.
Maybe that's because, according to Kanfer, Harpo's personal life was as happy and settled as Groucho's was troubled. Harpo inhabits Groucho's biography as something like the road not taken, holding out a possibility of sane craziness, without the bitterness that fed on his younger brother. Kanfer has written a showbiz bio far removed from the malicious and gossiping character of our age. It's the work of a scrupulous man. He closes the book with a lovely appreciation of Groucho and his legacy. It's a statement of priorities as much as a chance to get away from the sad story he has told. "Groucho" brings you down to earth. Groucho, and his brothers, still wing you up to cloud-cuckoo-land.