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Rags to resentment
Groucho Marx was a penny-pinching, wife-insulting insomniac. Was that any way for the greatest clown of the 20th century to live?
(CNN) -- Groucho Marx "would be funny in a still photograph" is how one critic in the 1930s summed up the inexhaustible powers of the comedian, then in his prime. Today, one look at that face with its greasepaint mustache, bushy eyebrows, spectacles and cigar is enough trigger a film of the mind.
Remember, you're defending the honor of this woman, which is a lot more than she ever did.
Groucho has become "timeless, disjoined from the man who created him," Stefan Kanfer writes in his new biography. So timeless that we recall him in his glory only -- as the heartless heart of the Marx Brothers in their 11 movies, or the wisecracking host of the quiz show "You Bet Your Life" and, finally, as the living legend who basked in sentimental acclaim in the years before his death in 1977.
In "Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx" (Knopf, $30), Kanfer reacquaints us with the rest of the man, born Julius Henry Marx 110 years ago in a New York slum. And, despite the laughs Groucho generated in his 86 years, his story is largely a sad one.
A nasty edge to the wisecracks
The hair-trigger wisecracks that were Groucho's signature on stage and screen made him a tyrant at home. He browbeat his three wives until they left them, and became estranged with his three children as soon they were old enough to assert their independence. He lost his savings in the stock market crash of 1929, but despite quickly rebuilding his fortune, spent the rest of his life suffering from insomnia and worrying about becoming destitute. He was a legendary cheapskate.
Is that the way for the greatest clown of the 20th century to live? It sounds like Groucho could have benefited from some therapy.
"Groucho's daughter Miriam always felt he put down psychotherapy," says Kanfer, a former film critic for Time. "He did have one of the classic childhood traumas -- he had his childhood taken away from him."
At his mother's insistence, Groucho quit school when he was 12 to help support the family. Until then, the quiet, bookish middle son had thought of becoming a doctor. Instead, he auditioned as a boy singer and went on the road. Kanfer finds the seeds of Groucho's lifelong "hostility to women and to life in general" in his "being pushed out of the nest before he was ready" and into the unforgiving world of show business.
"This wasn't a typical rags-to-riches story," Kanfer says. "It wasn't like he left school and apprenticed to a butcher or tailor. He was on the road, living like adults did."
Urged by their single-minded and indefatigable mother, Minnie, Groucho's brothers soon joined him in the act. As a result, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, who left the group after they made their first films (a fifth brother, Gummo, quit when the team was in its infancy) never quite grew up.
The font of his humor
Groucho's life story has been mined many times before, yet it still held some surprises for Kanfer, whose other books include "A Journal of the Plague Years," about the Hollywood blacklist, and "Serious Business," a history of animated cartoons in America.
"One of the things that keeps astonishing me is how really bright he was. He wasn't an intellectual, but he was intellectually inclined in a place [Hollywood] not known for its IQ.
"And of course, he was so unhappy. The font of a lot of his humor was resentment -- of feeling excluded, of being the middle son."
Kanfer says he prefers the Marx Brothers' early, funnier movies, none more so than the 1933 antiwar farce "Duck Soup," with its "heartless songs and no love story. You can see it once a year and find something fresh in it."
Kanfer was a Marx Brothers fan from boyhood. While working for Time in the late 1960s he got to know Groucho and get a glimpse at the man behind the mask.
"Groucho was still on top of his game then. I was sitting with him at lunch one day, and his face was in repose -- he wasn't fooling around with the waitresses for once. He looked to me like the kind of doctor we've all had -- a good doctor, but he can't wait to tell you the latest joke."
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