August 20, 2004

O Captain, My Captain Spaulding...

I don't remember when I first saw him - whether it was watching reruns of You Bet Your Life on a faded UHF station, or a New Year's Eve showing of Duck Soup, but somehow, as a child, Groucho Marx insinuated himself in my psyche.

It's been 27 years since Groucho passed, but I remember it almost like it was yesterday. After seeing Animal Crackers for the first time, staying up late at night to catch it (in those pre-VCR, pre-Tivo days), I was shocked...and thought it highly unfair that Elvis Presley received more coverage. After all, Presley was just a rock-and-roll singer...Groucho was, well, Groucho. He was an icon, and how can you ignore an icon?

What effect have the Marx Brothers' had on me? The question is, more like, what haven't they done for me? Part of my wit comes straight from Groucho's mouth, and I was lucky to learn from a master. For example: in fifth grade, while waiting in line to use the bathroom, I was goofing around with a pal. My teacher announced loudly, "Gordon, you're a space cadet," to which I responded, "At least I qualify."
In camp, I earned the nickname "Groucho" for an entire day in response to a charge in Kangaroo Court. They got into my blood, into my very DNA...and it's been hard to shake since that time.

They appealed on many levels - a child can appreciate the anarchic humor, the spirit, the overall playfulness of the Marx Brothers. (Especially Harpo - one of the few scenes that will have me rolling with laughter is the "lemonade" scene in Duck Soup). As an adult, the verbal wit, the very anti-establishment sense still rings true, and strikes a critical chord. I must also admit that, once they switched to MGM (and Zeppo left the group), they lost a certain whimsy and spirit. I'll grant you A Night At the Opera and A Day At The Races (both films cool enough to become titles of Queen Album), but as they made their way through the MGM filmmaking machine, they became more scripted, less spirited, less alive than their Paramount films.

But that isn't the point of this entry - it's to mourn the passing of a man who, in these times, we so desperately need. In an age of political correctness, and where humor has become less and less clever, we need a man who will fight for our honor, which is more than we will ever do. (We also need Chico's ability to deal with the less-than-savory, and Harpo's willingness to have other's hold his leg).

There are some who claim that the Marxes are out-of-date, but I disagree: wherever there is a high schooler who gives his teachers a hard time; wherever someone dares to bring the high-and-mighty down to earth; wherever someone tries to make someone else laugh, the Marxes live on.

Rent one of their movies, and let them work their magic.

Groucho, you're missed. Terribly.


Brent said...

Groucho Marx was, simply put, ahead of his time. Duck Soup, to this day, REMAINS one of the best political satires ever put on film.

The only reason why their last three MGM films weren't that great is because at about the time they arrived to make A Night at the Opera, Irving Thalberg - the real genius behind Louis B. Mayer - died unexpectedly. Once Mayer had full say over the studio, he set out to make pictures that reflected HIS view of America - one that was pretty far from reality as one can get (in my opinion). His power at MGM was equaled only by that of Harry Cohn at Columbia - but not by much.

Maybe I'm stretching here, but I think Michael Moore, in many ways, is a modern-day Groucho. His willingness to take on the establishment and ask the questions (and question the answers) is something Groucho would do today.

Yes, Groucho's been gone for 27 years now, but we're fortunate to have his (and his brothers') work still available on video and TV. I hope this generation will somehow appreciate Marxian humor and biting wit as much as we have.

Why a Duck? Why the heck not!!

Anonymous said...

"Come in here, I want to scare the cabinet" One of the memorable lines of Duck Soup, still holds true to show the ignorance of the common citizen (of any country) who just couldn't be bothered with intellectual thought. A real tongue-in-cheek statement.

"You're wasting your breath and that's no great loss either". Yep Groucho is still missed. Pity that today's youth can't see beyond the slapstick humour.