Book review: Groucho, Julius or a combination of both

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I was in high school and college, I read several of Henry James’ short stories and novellas. I enjoyed them a great deal, that is until we started discussing them in English class. The analysis ruined what I thought were excellent works. Since reading Lee Siegel’s biography “Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence” (Yale University Press), my fear is that I may never again enjoy a Marx Brothers’ film. His commentary transforms the films from examples of innocent mischief and funny plays on words to something far darker.
“Groucho Marx” is part of the Jewish Lives series, which means the work is not a traditional biography in the sense that it follows the subject’s life from birth to death. Instead, as Siegel notes, “What I’ve tried to write is what you might call a biocommentary, a book that weaves the outward facts of Groucho’s life into and through a story about the inward facts of Groucho’s life.” This includes showing how his public persona and his private one were often the same.
Born the third of five surviving brothers, Julius Marx grew up desperate for attention. The least favorite child, he learned that words have power. According to Siegel, “words that could be used to transform harsh circumstances into ideal ones became a psychological necessity. Julius had to learn how to defend himself from his highly verbal mother, who waged war on him on a psychological level. Not one to suppress her sentiments, Minnie noticed Groucho’s resentment of all the attention lavished on his brothers and nicknamed him ‘der Eifersüchtige’: the jealous one. She berated him for not having the looks or charm of his brothers.” In the Marx Brothers’ films, Groucho often spoke as if no one was listening to him, perhaps, as Siegel suggests, because that was true during his childhood. His rudest comments are usually ignored with the dialogue continuing as if the offending comment had not been made.
The brothers’ humor was based on a type of anarchy – on shocking the audience by performing antisocial and unexpected acts. For example, in many of the films, Chico and Harpo physically bully innocent people. Groucho’s humor, though, took a different tack: “the neglected introvert, who loved books, naturally chose the verbal route. For all his subversion achieved by means of contorting logic, he was supremely rational. In splintering the meaning of words, he imbued them with a new sense, a new rationality: a super-rationality, if you will.” However, although most people believe Groucho’s characters only made fun of society’s upper crust, he treats those below him in the social order with the same contempt. His verbiage – the sarcasm and caustic remarks – serves as a cocoon that prevents anyone from coming too close.
While many performers have private and public lives, Siegel feels that in the case of the Marx Brothers, their public and private personas overlapped. For example, the nicknames used for each came from real life, rather than having been created for the stage: “Julius, who had a sour, bitter nature, became Groucho.” Groucho’s caustic humor was not restricted to stage and screen. After making an inappropriate remark to a customs agent, he, his wife and their young children were subjected to a strip search. What might have been funny in a film was traumatic in real life. The fact that Groucho was unable to differentiate between the two underlies the humor of the films: “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. It is like watching a wild animal that does not know it is being watched. It is an acting style of people who are not really acting.”
Siegel also offers a radically different interpretation of Jewish humor, a category to which he believes the Marx Brothers belongs even though their humor contains no specific Jewish content. His thesis is that the “equation of Jewish humor with self-loathing” is completely wrong. That interpretation “refuses to acknowledge that in so many Jewish jokes themselves the source and the effect of self-disparagement is confidence, power and a sense of one’s own moral superiority. Wisdom is a supreme form of self-possession and self-confidence, and the very shape of Jewish wisdom can possess the contours of a joke.” In simpler words, while the joke teller may be making fun of a simple-minded Jew, the teller and those hearing him feel superior to the Jewish simpleton. Siegel notes that “behind the self-deprecating style of Jewish humor is, not just the aggression that always lurks in wit, but a robust sense of one’s own intelligence and worldliness.” He sees Groucho as a prime example of this type of humor.
The moral ambiguity Siegel finds in the Marx Brothers’ films never occurred to me before reading his book. While some readers might object to specific aspects of his analysis, Siegel makes many valid and interesting points. His greatest success was in changing my view of both the films and Groucho’s life. While “Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence” is an excellent addition to the Jewish Lives series, it didn’t leave me eager to watch one of the Marx Brothers’ films.