Sunday, April 17, 2016

Making legends out of clay

One of the things I discuss in my new and now available for pre-order Groucho book is the way in which our biographical conception of the great man is to some extent a fantasy, conditioned by our tendency to believe what we want to believe about him and discard what we do not - whether it was that he was exactly the same wisecracking comedy dervish off-screen as on, or a tears-of-a-clown tragic figure, or a snarling misanthrope. 

This manifests itself in big ways and small, and I find the small ones just as interesting as the big ones. 
For instance, everybody knows the story that on the set of A Day at the Races director Sam Wood watched Groucho play a scene and declared ruefully, "You can't make an actor out of clay." Whereupon Groucho snapped back, "Nor a director out of Wood!" Very funny. And very much the Groucho we want our man to be. 
But do you really believe it happened?

If you do, why do you? Doubtless because it is quoted, and stated as fact, more or less every time the film is mentioned. But where does it come from? 
My assumption, in so far as I considered the matter at all, and perhaps yours, was that it was a story that came up somewhere in someone's first hand testimony, and was singled out and repeated ever after. But it's not. It's a publicity story, just one of dozens and dozens that the studios sent out to the newspaper gossip and film pages. 

Now, of course, this in itself does not mean that it didn't happen. There is indeed a very, very, very slim chance that it did - just as the Valley Morning Star (January 2, 1937) and scores of others would have us believe. But that certainly wouldn't be standard procedure with a story like this. In the main, such gems were concocted by people who were paid to do just that; people whose job it was to sit in an office and dream up funny or eye-catching stories about the stars, to plant in the press and grease the publicity wheels for their forthcoming releases. My point therefore is that on the evidence there is no actual reason why we should believe it - and the fact that it happens to be a great line shouldn't be a reason in itself. There are, after all, many more such nuggets to be found in the inkies about A Day at the Races, as there are about all their other films. So hats off to whoever came up with this one - it proved itself a classic.

But think about it. Even if Groucho were the wittiest, most spontaneous man who ever breathed, does this sound like an off the cuff exchange to you, or does it sound like a joke someone has sat at a table and thought up? Even if Groucho were that capable, in the first instance he has had the most tremendous luck that Wood so fortuitously handed him so perfectly worded a feedline. There are an infinite number of ways he could have made the same point, without explicitly evoking the metaphor of crafting the performance from a building material. And even if he had done that much, he could so easily have worded it differently, so the structure forbade the precise formulation needed by the comeback. Brilliant and lucky, Groucho!

Ah, but then - it's not just funny, is it?  Not just proof of Groucho's lightning wit. It's also biographical evidence of the dislike that existed between the two men, right? Nope. It's a publicity story. 
Groucho certainly did dislike Wood, and I don't doubt that the stories of Wood being frustrated and baffled by his stars are likewise true. But any kind of real feud, if made manifest in such a way, would not have traveled from the set to the papers via the publicity department. It's just a joke, merely a play on words. If Groucho had said it, he'd have said it of anyone, should the structural and linguistic opportunity have arisen. It's not evidence of anything at all.

As I explain in the book, I choose to dwell on things like this not because I like spoiling people's fun, nor because I think it's particularly important in itself. The real issue is that what it reveals about us - that we craft our images of our heroes from desires as much as from the evidence - has wider implications, especially in the case of someone like Groucho, whose offscreen character was also, much of the time, a performance. 
This is why each new sensationalist biography vies with the last to exaggerate his negative traits still further, in their quest to portray him as demon father, tyrant husband or all-round sarcastic bastard. But when you return to the primary sources, this deeply unpleasant character is simply not to be found there. The real Groucho is a basically rather ordinary fellow, with his full complement of frailties, as are most of us, but - frustratingly - offering little to satisfy our need to make him the equal of his onscreen persona in importance, vitality or dominance. So we jiggle things around a bit, and change him into that which we prefer, and thus prove that you can make a man out of clay. 
That is the phenomenon that interests me, and which I believe has distorted our sense of Julius Henry Marx (whoever the hell he was), and which I address in the new book. 


Roger said...

Not sure I agree with you there. I can recall many occasions when someone has made a comment that was left wide open for a witty rejoiner. I usually try to oblige.

Matthew Coniam said...

I like to think I'm no slouch myself. But the point here is first that it is a press release, and a very typical one. These are written by people who do it for a living, a long way from the sets. And second, the feedline is so very painfully contrived to set up the joke. Sorry, I don't buy it.

LAGuy said...

If you do research into any historical subject, (especially show biz, which is full of made up stuff) you realize that certain stories derive from one basic source and often can't be verified. After that, it doesn't matter how many times it's repeated--the information is brittle. It might be true, but can't be proved. The best you can hope for--especially after everyone who might know is dead--is to look at the overall picture and see how well it fits.

Groucho was, of course, noted for his wit. Yet I have no doubt many lines attributed to him were either not spontaneous or not his at all. As for this one, it's hard to say, but I admit for years I've felt the set-up is a little awkward--but then, maybe that's how people (especially Sam Wood) talked in those days.

Anyway, looking forward to your book.

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