Sunday, October 16, 2011

Avert innocent eyes: a delicate enquiry about Groucho and pornography


I sense an unresolved tension in Groucho during his latter years.
Like many another comedian before him - Bertrand Russell, for example - I'm sure he was intoxicated by the adoration of the young and trendy college generation that hailed him as a counterculture hero, bestowing upon him the kind of cred so rarely accorded those of such advanced years.
The urge to return the favour, and assume their attitudes and opinions, must have seemed not merely mannerly but virtually an obligation, not least because his continued golden boy status might easily rest upon his continuing to live up - or down - to their preferred image of him.
Obviously, the crusty conservatism of a Bob Hope was out of the question, and in later interviews, Groucho obligingly toes the line in many areas, especially regarding Nixon and the war in Vietnam. He was a regular visitor to the Playboy mansion, too, and a notable subject of the Playboy Interview; he seems to have genuinely liked Hugh Hefner.


Then, of course, there is the notorious Marx Brothers Scrapbook, in which author Richard Anobile published, without Groucho's sanction and to his great subsequent chagrin, unedited transcripts of what he had assumed were off-the-record digressions into his sexual history and fantasies, relayed in the kind of censorable language he might well have assumed would never in a million years make it into print. If so, he misread the age.
Hilarious as much of it is (he explains how he "wanted to fuck" Thelma Todd and Marilyn Monroe, the latter of whom "wore this dress with bare tits") you strongly get the impression that this is not the voice of the real off-duty Groucho, but rather that of an old man attempting, a little desperately, to impress a young author with his modern attitudes.

But when you watch him on the Dick Cavett Shows of the sixties and seventies, beyond the modish front and the comic lechery (when Erin Fleming describes herself as his secretary on one show, he mumbles "that's the euphemism of all time"), a frequently very old fashioned fellow indeed emerges.
He talks of his boredom with permissiveness in films and theatre, and tells, at least twice, the story of his walking out of Hair halfway through - an anecdote more calculated to alienate him from the counterculture can scarcely be imagined. There is a wounded sincerity about him in these moments, suggesting that he felt himself to be at the centre of a culture he in fact somewhat disapproves of.
As well as expressing the old-fashioned idea that men should only tell 'dirty stories' to each other, out of the hearing of women (and gets as close as Groucho ever could at that time to audible audience disapproval when opining that he will approve of women's lib only when women pay alimony), he frequently makes plain a squeamishness about nudity and sexual frankness in popular culture. (A friend and fan of Woody Allen's, he was nonetheless greatly displeased by Erin's appearance in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, a film whose humour he found alienatingly one-note.)
However else he may have made friends with the sixties generation, it seems certain, pornography, and in particular its new, overground popularity among unashamed trendsetters (so-called 'porno chic') would have left him cold.
So imagine my surprise when I read this passage in John Baxter's biography of Fellini, concerning an occasion in which il Maestro approached Groucho with a view to him making an appearance in Giulietta of the Spirits:Marx ... declined, though he and Fellini did meet in new York. Strolling down Broadway, Marx took him into a sex shop to show him some porn movies. 'He himself had seen an enormous quantity,' says Fellini. 'He said to me: "You're Italian, yes or no? Then you can't have not gone to see porno films." He was convinced that Italians spent their life going to see porno films and masturbating.'
Now, I can believe this of Fellini - though it's hard to imagine any commercially-available pornography able to keep up with his fantasies - but not of Groucho. I would have trouble believing it of the Groucho
who called for Nixon's assassination in the 1970s, but given that this would have had to have taken place in the early 1960s I think it is simply unimaginable.

So what does everyone else think? Have you heard this story anywhere else, or anything comparable? Does it ring true to you?


Hello, I must be coming?

8 comments:

LAGuy said...

This sure doesn't sound like the Groucho that so many others who knew him (including Groucho himself) have described.

Even if everyone involved was trying their best, there are a lot of filters here. First, you've got Fellini in a strange city dealing in a foreign language with a Hollywood star from his childhood. It'd be easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what occurred.

Then you've got him telling this story, I assume, decades after it happened. Personal stories told by professional storytellers often get "improved" over the years. Plus people forget specifics and fill in things as best they can, even conflating one story with another.

Finally, you've got author Baxter who in this biography often reaches for the senational and even sordid.

Perhaps there's a kernel of truth here, but I'd say unless there's some sort of corroboration, we can mostly discount this tale.

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, my guess would be a small kernel, built up into a great big bag of nuts by a mischievous Fellini.

Andrew Smith said...

That last caption has to be one of my favorites of all time!

Ginger Ingenue said...

I think Groucho was a man who loved beautiful women...but I don't think he was some sort of obsessive porn lover, No.

I never heard the story you mentioned towards the end of this piece, but again: it doesn't ring true for me, either. And I imagine if it did happen, he was only joking! ;)

I read the Marx Bros scrapbook, and I wish it would have never been published. The photographs are great though...I just flip through it and look at the pretty pictures. :)

Noah Diamond said...

Fantastic article.

I don't think the Fellini story is impossible. Despite Groucho's prudishness regarding popular culture, he was hardened (so to speak) by the sexual carnivorousness of the years in vaudeville. There are plenty of stories about the young Brothers' sexual exploits on the road -- I'm sure you've read them -- which make ducking into a Times Square porno theatre look like a night at the opera.

noahscomedypalace.blogspot.com

aquarium supplies said...

Brilliant post as usual! thanks for share it with us!

Matthew Coniam said...

You're welcome. Must make a change from all those fish.

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