Monday, March 28, 2011

Groucho Marx and Memories of Dead Friends.

Because I was in serious need of distraction last night I watched The Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers on TCM. I hadn't seen it in thirty years, maybe longer. It is the film that contains Groucho's famous line, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas. What he was doing in my panjamas, I'll never know."

The old film (1930) was made right after the advent of sound and it certainly looks it. One can see Groucho looking off to the crew or director for approval at times. The camera is essentially stationary and they simply do a play in front of it. Clearly, no one has any idea what to do with this new medium called motion pictures. And yet, there's Groucho, right in the middle of it all, being ridiculously funny. Eighty one years after it was made there I am, sitting on my couch giggling uncontrollably while my wife looked at me as though I were daft. Everything about the movie is just horribly dated, even Harpo (although he has his moments of absurdity). But Groucho still holds up. He's still funny. He's still Groucho.

There's a wonderful book out there, out of print now I think, called 'The Groucho Letters.' It is exactly that. Letters from and to Groucho Marx. It is a really fun, surprisingly thought-provoking book. Groucho Marx, oddly, kept a running dialogue with the likes of Einstein, John Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Jack Benny. The letters, some absurd, others shockingly serious and intelligent, are a pleasure to read. Groucho was self-educated but unbelievably bright. And one can never predict which subject he will choose to take seriously. I recommend the book highly. It's easy to understand why the likes of Dick Cavett and Woody Allen have always worshipped at the Groucho altar.

There are hundreds of Groucho stories out there amongst old timers like myself. When I was doing Praying Small over in NoHo last year, there was a show right next to mine, a new musical, based on The Marx Brothers and I would stand by the stage door chatting with a couple of the actors from that show sharing Groucho stories. My favorite has always been one from his television show in the fifties called 'You Bet Your Life.' It was a simple premise, designed to let Groucho adlib and talk about whatever was on his mind. The guest would come out, usually an everyman in an everyday job, and Groucho would try and get him to say 'the secret word' during conversation at which point a duck would drop from the ceiling and he would win a few hundred bucks. Not the duck, the guest. This is the one I saw many years ago on a 'blooper reel.' The man came out and sat and the conversation went like this:

Groucho: So. Do you have any children?

Man: Why, yes, Groucho, I do.

Groucho: Good, good. How many do you have?

Man: We have 13 children.

Groucho: Really? Hm. Why so many?

Man: Well, Groucho, I love my wife.

Groucho: Uh huh. Well, I love my cigar but I take it out now and then.

Pure Groucho and still funny. Naturally, it was edited out seeing how it was 1955 or something.

So, my buddy Jeff Wood and his delightful family came to stay with us last week while they made a couple of trips to Disneyland. It was a great joy to hang out with Jeff again after some twenty years or so. Like most old friends it was as though we'd been together only the day before. Our friendship was instantly rekindled and I realized why I had chosen him as a friend to begin with. Now if I could just get him to drop everything and move out here and get back into directing. Probably not gonna happen. Nonetheless, a good time was had by all and I think, I hope anyway, his little girls had a great time. Disneyland is something every little girl should experience at least once.

On Thursday night we played a concentrated yet fun game of Trival Pursuit. Afterwards, as another old friend, John Bader, was leaving to go home, someone brought up the fact that it would be perfect if our late friend, Robert Fiedler, could have been here. Robert died about a year and half ago from an overdose. But the four of us were together often back in our NY days and all three of us, John, Jeff and myself, were somehow acutely aware that he wasn't with us. Robert, in and out of a terrifying lifestyle of drugs and booze, was nonetheless part of who we were, what we stood for, where we were going, how we lived. His absence, strangely, was felt that night. His name was mentioned and we all stood there, by my front door, momentarily silent and giving him an instant of tribute in an entirely unpremeditated way. No one really had anything to say about it. Death and unfairness has intruded upon all of our lives all too often over the past two decades and, like the older men we are now, we didn't drag the pain out, simply acknowledged it and moved on. Robert, in all his predictable insanity, was still a chunk of that time for us. His memory is a bit of an unhealed scab that none of us like to itch. There but for the grace of God...and so on and so forth.

Big audition tomorrow, more shooting on the new film on Thursday, rewrites on the new play, a leisurely yet pleasantly examined day planned. The dogs need a walk, I have to take my diabetes medicine, Angie is making her list of things to do. Beautiful, exquisite, sensible, magical mundanity. Life is good.

See you tomorrow.

1 comment:

Clowncar said...

Well said, Clif. This bit particularly: "Death and unfairness has intruded upon all of our lives all too often over the past two decades and, like the older men we are now, we didn't drag the pain out, simply acknowledged it and moved on." That was a potent moment. Whistling past the graveyard.

It was very nice seeing you again.