MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to finish up today with one more story out of the film world. It's a new take on comedian Groucho Marx. You might not have seen his films, but the odds are good that you would recognize his bushy, black eyebrows or thick mustache or maybe his ever-present cigar. And if you have seen his films, you'll likely think of his verbal acrobatics aimed at the rich and powerful.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HORSE FEATHERS")
GROUCHO MARX: (As Professor Wagstaff) I don't know what they have to say. It makes no difference anyway. Whatever it is, I'm against it.
MARTIN: Julius Groucho Marx is certainly a comedy icon. But a new biography suggests a more sinister Marx, one who aimed to deflate not only those in positions of power but everybody. Lee Siegel is the author of "Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence." And he goes so far as to suggest that Marx might have hated just about everybody. Lee Siegel is with us now from our studios in New York. Lee Siegel, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LEE SIEGEL: It's great to be here.
MARTIN: For people who did not grow up watching the Marx Brothers, who were they, and where did they come from?
SIEGEL: Well, they were born in Yorkville, which is now the Upper East Side. Their parents were immigrants. Their mother was from Germany. Their father was from Alsace-Lorraine. Their parents were Jewish. There were five brothers. One brother died - Manfred. And other brothers lived a very chaotic existence in packed tenement apartment where relatives and other people kept moving in and out. And then they spent 15-plus years on a harsh-wounding vaudeville circuit. So by the time they got to the movies, the chaotic Marx Brothers that we see were really just enacting the very lives that they had off-screen.
MARTIN: And each one of them had a kind of an identity. But one of things you point out is that Groucho's distinguishing talent was his sharp tongue. And I want to play an example. This is a clip from the 1933 comedy "Duck Soup." And Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly and the newly appointed leader of a fictional country gone bankrupt. And here he is speaking with the country's wealthy benefactress.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUCK SOUP")
MARGARET DUMONT: (As Mrs. Teasdale) I've sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
MARX: (As Rufus T. Firefly) Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it. I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a hub. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute-man hub. You know you haven't stopped talking since I came here? You must've been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.
MARTIN: OK. (Laughter) So you have kind of a mission with this book, and you're trying to complicate a certain image. Tell us what is the image you think people have? And what are you trying to help them see, that they may not see?
SIEGEL: Well, the conventional image of Groucho is that he was on the side of the little guy, and he spoke defiantly and insolently to powerful people and wealthy people. He thumbed his nose at high society. But my feeling is that Groucho was out to deflate everybody, that he was a thorough-going misanthrope. That is very bracing and very unsettling. But I wanted to get at the roots of his humor, and I wanted to get at what made him an icon, you know? I just don't like the word icon because it dries up all the energies that made the icon in the first place.
MARTIN: Well, you point out that even his most famous line is probably misinterpreted. I mean, here's a clip from a Woody Allen film from "Annie Hall," which popularized the line. I know you hate the word icon, but it's the iconic film "Annie Hall."
SIEGEL: Yes, that's right.
MARTIN: And let me just play that, and then you can tell me what's really true. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNIE HALL")
WOODY ALLEN: (As Alvy Singer) The other important joke for me is one that's usually attributed to Groucho Marx. But I think it appears originally in Freud's "Wit And Its Relation To the Unconscious." And it goes like this. I'm paraphrasing. I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member. That's the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women.
MARTIN: So how did Woody Allen get it wrong?
SIEGEL: Woody Allen presents the line as sort of the epitome of Jewish self-loathing. But that's not what the line means at all. Groucho wrote that line in a famous resignation letter to a club that he felt superior to. He was inducted into a club in Beverly Hills, and he arrived at this club thinking that he was going to talk with other illustrious figures about all the greats of literature. He wanted to be a writer and a serious literary man, Groucho, all his life. So he thought that he could talk about Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare.
Instead, he gets there, and they're all drinking and playing cards. And, as he puts it, they're on the phone with each other's wives. They're philandering, which was just the situation of the tenement apartment where he grew up. His father was a great philanderer. So he's kind of depressed. And a guy comes up to him, as Groucho relates it - according to Groucho, he began - tried to engage this man in a conversation about Chaucer. And instead, the man turns to Groucho and begins to complain about the poor quality of the club's new inductees, of which, of course, Groucho was one. And Groucho, who had spent years on the vaudeville circuit looking at society from the bottom up, never forgot that, always had an inferiority complex about being an entertainer. And so he goes home, and he writes this letter. I would never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member, but from an attitude of superiority.
MARTIN: You also have some things to say about his attitude toward women, which you find not-so-funny.
SIEGEL: Right. His misogyny is relentless and thoroughgoing, and it's very hard to tolerate. His attacks on Margaret Dumont almost always take the form of attacking her status as a woman. And it's very odd that he keeps attacking her because, of course, she might be wealthy and she might be somewhat clueless, and she might be puffed-up with her own virtue. But she's actually fairly kind and a harmless person who just wants to help out these imposters Groucho is inhabiting. But he keeps insulting or for being a woman, and you don't find the same thing in Chaplin or Laurel and Hard or W.C. Fields. But with the Marx Brothers, yeah, they took woman hatred to whole new level. It's difficult to watch.
MARTIN: So it's - you really painted a really complicated picture here. But I did want to ask what you think the relevance of Groucho Marx is to our comedy today or what would you like to leave us with to think about?
SIEGEL: Well, in terms of comedy, you can draw a straight line from Groucho to comics like Amy Schumer and Tig Notaro for all Groucho's women hatred. These are people who are very funny. But they're not always funny. And sometimes they'll say something that simply is shocking. And the only biological response that's available to you is laughter. It's the same thing with Groucho. What he is, is shocking. He presents the spectacle - he and his brothers - of people behaving in public as if they were in private. They are saying things to the audience that, normally, people only say to their closest friends or their therapists. And the Marx Brothers were the first ones to do that.
MARTIN: Do you still like him? I just happened to know that, you know, you really kind of fell in love with him as a kid. But now that you're an adult and you've thought about it, do you still like him?
SIEGEL: You know, I don't know if like is the right word. I'm in awe of him. But at times, I find him simply too abrasive and humiliating to the target of his humor. I guess the way I feel about it is, you know, I have two children, and I love them no matter what they do. But I don't always love other people's kids. So sometimes the Marx Brother are my children and sometimes they're other people's kids. I guess that's the way I feel about them.
MARTIN: OK (laughter). Lee Siegel is a writer and a cultural critic, and he is the author of the new book, "Groucho Marx: The Comedy Of Existence." And he was kind enough to speak to us from our studios in New York. Lee Siegel, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SIEGEL: It's a pleasure.
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