On Groucho's 100th birthday, you can bet your life he's still loved

October 02, 1990|By Gerald Nachman | Gerald Nachman,San Francisco Chronicle

He was everybody's favorite dirty old uncle, whose eye-rolling leer, wig-wag eyebrows, frizzy hair and twiddling cigar have become both the very definition of lechery and a parody of it.

The famous face, likewise, has become a prop, a part of comic Americana, a classic novelty shop mask with the beaky nose, greasy mustache and empty eyeglasses merged over time into a single feature of that generic lunatic lothario now known the world over as simply "Groucho."

The man, born 100 years ago today as Julius Henry Marx, was sui generis, a phrase he likely would have hurled back with a sarcastic wisecrack that married an insult to a pun. Aided by S. J. Perelman, Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman, his usual scriptwriters, he elevated the pun to the highest form of humor:

Young girl: "I would say it's what's upstairs that counts."

Groucho: "Well, I have something upstairs -- my upstairs maid. And that's not easy because I only have a one-story house. And the one story you're not going to hear is about my upstairs maid."

In his movies, his stage appearances and later in his life, Groucho's main form of communication was the zinger, which somehow never stung because he flung his acid-soaked darts so indiscriminately -- at dowagers and ingenues, at total strangers and his own brothers, and on his 1950s quiz show "You Bet Your Life," at anyone who had the temerity to appear before him in quest of cash or the Secret Word, itself a part of show-biz history, along with the mustachioed duck. The show ran 11 years.

It later came out that Groucho wasn't quite as fast on the TV draw as it appeared. In fact, the pithy rejoinders were the result TC of longer interviews edited to look as if Groucho was getting off as many gags per minute as he did in "Animal Crackers," "Monkey Business," "Duck Soup," "A Night at the Opera" or "A Day at the Races." He made 14 films in all, including six unsuccessful comedies sans brothers.

Nobody has ever walked like Groucho or ever could -- except, perhaps, John Cleese's Minister of Silly Walks. It is a walk that's on the run, half-man half-ostrich, a walk that personifies his great song, "Hello, I Must Be Going," the mad--- walk of a man who upon entering a room begins immediately searching for an escape, a walk that's part entrance and part exit, the slithery slide of a man who knows he's in trouble, the walk of a man on the lam.

As much a part of the character as the look, the walk and the gags was the Groucho delivery, with its heavily New York Jewish inflection, that has entered the comic language and that you hear in your head when you read any Marxian line, such as, "And that's the nast-iest remock I evah hoid!"

Groucho's character was born in him, on the Lower East Side, one of five sons of Minnie and Sam Marx, supposedly the worst tailor in New York City. Minnie was the ultimate stage mother celebrated in the musical "Minnie's Boys." Both parents had been performers in Germany.

Although studious, with hopes of becoming a doctor, Groucho left school at 14 and a few weeks later was shoved onstage by his mother, eventually finding fame performing with his brothers in "I'll Say She Is."

Groucho preferred discussing politics, sports and books to show business and wrote six books, the most memorable titled "Memoirs of a Mangy Lover."

He was an avid reader and letter-writer who prized his literary friendships and correspondences with T. S. Eliot, H. L. Mencken, Alistair Cooke, Harry Truman and James Thurber (his letters and papers ended up in the Library of Congress); Shaw called the Marx Brothers his first four favorite actors.

Perhaps not surprising, considering his acerbic wit (which he once called "a bad habit"), he had a checkered personal life that included three divorces, three children and a public courtroom wrangle for his $2.8 million estate, which was battled over by his last companion, Erin Fleming, a red-haired 37-year-old Canadian showgirl, and son Arthur, before it was finally placed in the conservatorship of a grandson, Andrew.

In his last years -- he died Aug. 26, 1977, at 87 -- Groucho did a series of one-nighters, wearing a beret and a rather more benign air, slowed and a little sad.

At Carnegie Hall, frail in his 80s and now gripping a cane, he told stories in a quiet, raspy voice, the old rapid-fire banter and goggle-eyed skirt-chaser reduced to rambling anecdotes, yet his attitude remained caustic to the end.

Even at 84, Grampa Groucho could still gum you to death.

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