Who’s the best comedic commentator too many people haven’t really seen? Long before Jon Stewart, ages prior to SNL’s Weekend Update, decades in advance of Johnny Carson and even years ahead of Bob Hope, the world had Groucho Marx. A biting satirist when needed, Groucho had an advantage over all these heirs: He had no pretentions about his own humble beginnings (vaudevillian slapstick can do that to anyone). How did Groucho achieve this while Stewart, SNL and, at times both Carson and Hope, fail the snideness test?
Many credit Irving Thalberg with the successful relaunch of the Marx Brothers. After a five year run with Paramount, the Marx Brothers left the studio over a disagreement. Thalberg picked up the act for MGM. Though their Paramount movies proved popular, those pictures lacked something. Thalberg knew what the films overlooked. Besides a traditional story line, the Marx Brothers’ earlier movies placed the boys in rather impish roles. Other than laughs, the roles contained no socially redeeming qualities.
Thalberg gave the audience a reason to love the Marx Brothers. No longer would they simply make fun of the establishment for no other reason than to make fun of the establishment (this is what Stewart and SNL do on a regular basis). Rather, beginning with A Night At The Opera (MGM – 1935), they attack an obviously foolish and/or corrupt establishment in order to protect the innocent. If Duck Soup (Paramount – 1931) represented the height of their devil-may-care anti-heroic self mockery, the ensuing MGM productions gave the Marx Brothers their angels-with-dirty-faces heroic self-mockery.
What’s more, this unassuming demeanor remained with the Marx Brothers after their movie career waned. The Groucho Letters most exemplifies this trait. Published in 1967, the messages to and from Groucho show a man clearly in tune with his impoverished beginnings (and not unaware of his current station – the downside of his career). Groucho saw nothing special in his person. He might come loaded with comic ammo, but he directed it just as often at himself as he did at other, perhaps more deserving, elites. Nothing says the latter more than his letter to Warner Brothers upon they’re complaint about the title of A Night in Casablanca:
“You claim you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about ‘Warner Brothers’? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.”
Of course, at the same time he took on the Warner Brothers, he lamented to a New York Times drama critic:
“If A Night in Casablanca turns out disastrously, and there is no reason it shouldn’t…”
Although he fought the idea of continually playing the character that made him famous, The Groucho Letters reveals that very character flowed in his veins, through his fingers and out of the ink from which he penned these epistles. If you want to peer into the soul of a man, read his private correspondence.
Groucho considered this book with initial reluctance (to the publisher who originally proposed the idea, Groucho wired: “Your letter received and promptly burned. I prefer not to have strangers prying into my mail.”). He, however, did his fans a huge favor in agreeing to publish The Groucho Letters. We get to see an inner man consistent with his public persona. He’s funny, intelligent, sharp and self effacing. The Groucho Letters is a must for every aficionado of wit.
So, what would Groucho say about this next generation of sardonic comics, those pretenders to his throne? In June 1947 he wrote a column for Variety, (“I trust this is illiterate enough even for your sheet,” he wrote the editor). He concludes with this line:
“…someone might ask, what about the next generation? Look, I’ve seen some of the next generation – perhaps it’s just as well if the whole thing ends right here.”