Even in Groucho Marx's twilight years as an aging icon, a celebrity relic of screen comedy's Golden era running amok in 70s Hollywood, his wicked streak reigned supreme.
Off-screen, approaching his 80th birthday Groucho had the same keen eye for a pretty woman displayed in the classic Marx Brothers comedies. When journalist Charlotte Chandler phoned to ask for an interview Groucho invited her over, ostensibly so he could tell her "no" in person.
Of course his ever agile and mischievous comic brain had other thoughts in mind. Groucho obviously liked what he saw and Chandler entered his world. Thus commenced a series of dinners and parties at home and on the town with Groucho that would provide the raw material for Chandler's
Groucho biography Hello, I Must Be Going.Though his physical health was failing Groucho's spry spirit and razor sharp wit was still intact. In life as in his art Marx's love of anarchy, his license to say the unsayable and do the undoable never ran out.
"People cherished being insulted by Groucho," Chandler recalled. On a typical outing to the Beverly Hills Hotel Groucho handed the cloakroom girl his girl and told her to "have it cleaned and ready by Thursday." Proceeding to his table he stopped to take bread from one diner's plate, a radish from another then buttered the radish at a third. Once seated he ran verbal rings round the waiter ending the meal with his request for dessert, "do you have any fruit in the kitchen? Apart from the chef."
"Yes," says Groucho rolling his devilish eyes, "but think of the fun."
A wicked sense of humour was Groucho's lifetime passport and as long as he lived he would not let the world forget it. Marx humour and convention defying worldview had taken him from an impoverished German Jewish immigrant family background in uptown New York to fame and fortune that was unimaginable to his grandparents, escapees from a Germany turning towards fascism.
Ridicule and revenge were the fuel that fired unforgettable screen creations such as Rufus T Firefly , the surreal dictator of Duck Soup. Released in 1932 the movie's prophetic worth perhaps only became clear some years later - after another moustachioed self important dictator, Hitler, brought REAL wickedness to the country Groucho's forefathers fled.
Firefly's rationale for bringing his brand of havoc to the imaginary state of Freedonia - "any country that has me as a leader deserves to be treated badly." –pre-empts the destructive mindset of Hitler in the final years of the Reich. When he is told that a putative adversary will do anything to avoid war Firefly's response is an eerie foretaste of how and why wars in the near and distant future will be fought. "Its too late, " he says, "I've already put a down payment on the battlefield."
As a child it was poverty that prevented Groucho making good on his ambition to become a doctor, as an adult star he lost no time in satirising the professional classes. As Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new President come to bring havoc to Huxley College, his opening address is a riot of scandal and innuendo. At one point he tells the pupils that he has thought of a joke "so dirty I am ashamed to think of it myself". Groucho's insults always seem inexhaustible – and fearless. Wagstaff is challenged by another college professor who he tells to go home to his wife - then changes his mind.
"I'll tell you what I'll go home to your wife, outside of a few improvements she'll never know the difference."
Groucho's childhood dream of becoming a medic comes true in A Day At The Races where his Doctor Hackenbush is the supreme quack, a horse doctor, who hustles himself a place as the saviour of a fading Sanatorium. Margaret Dumont, the widow ever susceptible to Groucho's leering ribald charms, is in thrall to Hackenbush's ludicrous prescriptions. A snake in the grass in polite society, Hackenbush is Groucho's version of Rasputin, the mad Monk whose infiltration precipitated the fall of Russia's Tsar Dynasty.
Karl Marxism may have been kept at bay but Groucho Marxism was the great enemy within, pushing at the edge of acceptability, an irreverent gospel defining the American cultural landscape in the years ahead. Groucho was irrepressible, hypnotic when polite folk recoiled from his more outrageous utterances, he just just beamed back, waggish and wide-eyed, and everyone was drawn a little closer.
The appeal of Groucho Marxism, a world where enjoyment and wickedness are forever entwined springs eternal. In the Brothers first post World War 2 Movie A Night In Casablanca Groucho is Ronald Kornblow the new manager of the Hotel Casablanca who suggests changing the numbers on all the guest room doors. His bosses are aghast. "But the guests they will go into the wrong rooms, think of the confusion," one protests. "Yes," says Groucho rolling his devilish eyes, "but think of the fun."