I have had the pleasure of interviewing Robert S. Bader, the editor of the book Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales (read my review of the book here). He shared a lot of wonderful insights on Groucho Marx's writing career. Enjoy!
The Marx Brothers were going through a bit of a revival when I was growing up, so in the late 1960s and early 1970s I discovered them on television. I was an inquisitive kid and after seeing a couple of the films I checked out everything I could find on them in the local library and was surprised to learn that Groucho had written several books. So I became interested in him as a writer and a performer almost simultaneously. And his writing was as enjoyable to me as everything else he did from the beginning.
2) What would you like people to know about Groucho's writing career?
Groucho was mostly self-educated and sought acceptance from writers more than film critics. Writing was very important to him. He wasn't just a movie star who wrote some books and articles. He was a formidable enough writer to have succeeded at it without his other more successful endeavors.
3) Do you think Groucho's fame as a theater and film star interfered with him being taken seriously as a writer?
The most frequent criticism Groucho received as a writer had little to do with his writing ability. It was often said that he was funnier on stage or screen than he was in print. It would be hard to argue against that, but it seems unfair in assessing his written work, which is frequently hilarious. So I would agree that his status as a successful entertainer kept him from his rightful place in the world of literature. And in part because of the constraints on his time. He had a pretty successful and prolific writing career for a guy who was busy being a star for 60 years. He found time for writing because it meant a lot to him.
Several of the additional items in the new edition were considered for the original but left out for one reason or another. I tried to keep everything in context – placing the pieces in the five sections of the book, which each deal with a certain aspect of Groucho's life and career. Many very funny and beautifully written pieces just didn't fit into any of the sections. So for the new edition I created an extra section for these difficult to categorize essays as well as a few of the items I've discovered in the years since the original publication. In the new edition I've also included a few speeches Groucho delivered. Since he wrote these without any intention of publishing them, I didn't consider them for the original edition. But over the years I've enjoyed reading them so much, I decided they belonged in the collection. Groucho's writing style is so conversational that the speeches seem like they were written for publication. My methods of finding some of this material are purely unscientific. In some cases I simply went through every page of a publication until I found Groucho's contribution. I spent many hours in libraries reading magazines from the 1930s like Judge and College Humor, which have never been indexed. As you would expect, I found a few other interesting items too. I consider it time very well spent. And the process rescued a few small treasures by Groucho.
5) Which piece in the collection is your favorite and why?
While I'm partial to anything Groucho wrote about his days in vaudeville I can say that there is one piece that stands apart for me. It was one of the things I read at a very young age that made me think the world needed a collection of Groucho's essays. "Our Father and Us" was one of the very few things written by anyone about Sam Marx, the father of the Marx Brothers. There are many articles and stories about their mother, Minnie and she developed legendary status as a result. But Sam was a very special and unique man who was so beloved that his sons considered him a sixth brother. This piece was published shortly before Sam died in 1933 and it shows a sweet and loving side of Groucho that is rarely evident in anything else he ever did. I first discovered this piece when I was around twelve years old and recall it making me more aware of the great relationship I shared with my own father, who always seemed like a friend first and a parent second.
6) My favorite piece in the collection is What This Country Needs. Could you tell us about the history of it and how Groucho came to write it?
Groucho became a very prolific writer in the early 1940s. The Marx Brothers were winding down their film career and Groucho had yet to find success on the radio, so he planned on becoming a full time writer. He wrote topical humor, quite a lot of which was published in This Week, a Sunday newspaper supplement to The New York Herald Tribune and other papers around the country. It was during this time that Groucho was involved in some collaborating with his writer friend Arthur Sheekman, who is sometimes erroneously referred to as Groucho's ghost writer. The truth is that Groucho helped Sheekman make a little money by hiring him as an editor and letting Sheekman sell a few of his own humor pieces through Groucho's agent. When he had trouble selling his own stuff Groucho and his agent let him sell the material under Groucho's name. "What This Country Needs" came to be as Groucho and Sheekman kicked around ideas and decided it would be a good time for a political piece, since it was an election year. Sheekman made some uncredited contribution to this piece but it is unmistakably Groucho's. I almost didn't include it in the book because of Sheekman's involvement and the fact that a truncated version of it appears in Groucho's 1963 book Memoirs of a Mangy Lover. But the full length original version from 1940 has so much good additional material I felt it merited inclusion.
7) What is your favorite Marx Bros. movie and why?
Like many Marx Brothers fans I love the five Paramount films – their earliest. It would be ludicrous to say that they were funnier with Zeppo, but I like seeing the Four Marx Brothers because that's how they became stars on the vaudeville stage. We get to see them as relatively young men in these films. Many people don't realize that Groucho was almost forty when the first film was made and Harpo and Chico were a couple of years older. If pressed to pick one I'd select Money Business or Duck Soup. Do I really have to pick only one? It's almost impossible for me. All of their films mean so much to me. I can say Duck Soup now and it'll be Money Business next week.
8) Why do you think people today are still drawn to the Marx Bros. movies?
Obviously they're still funny. The films were very carefully written and considering that some of them are more than 80 years old, that care paid off. There's hardly anything dated in Marx Brothers movies. Duck Soup in particular will continue to resonate as long as countries have poor diplomatic relationships. Wouldn't the world be a better place with a man like Rufus T. Firefly as president of a country? He certainly couldn't do any worse than some real presidents. Groucho's attacks on authority will remain timeless. I recently attended a double feature screening of Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers and was pleased to see a packed house that included many children laughing their heads off. It seems that each generation finds the Marx Brothers and finds them funny.
9) Tell us about your own writing career.
Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales was my first book – and as it turned out, my second book as well. (I can count the new edition, can't I?) A few years ago I wrote and produced a documentary film called The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk and I've written a few other things for television as well as several magazine articles and things like DVD and CD liner notes – usually for projects I've produced. I've also nearly finished a collection of S.J. Perelman's lost writings, which will be very similar in format to the Groucho collection.
10) What are you working on now?
For many years I've been toiling away on an exhaustive history of the Marx Brothers vaudeville and stage career. I hope to finish it in the next year or so. It's taken on a life of its own and has turned into a history of the vaudeville business as seen through the eyes of the Marx Brothers. There will be a lot of information in it that will be new to the story of the Marx Brothers – a substantial amount of material that has never been in any previous study of them. I'm also writing scripts for a weekly radio show that should debut sometime in the spring.
Thank you Robert!