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?