Vince Gilligan’s breaking Bad, widely regarded as one of the greatest television shows of all time, was known for its callbacks to vintage movies and television, allusions often deployed with comedic effect. For the last episode Felina (2013), Gilligan pulled out the big gun. When international drug trafficker Lydia Rodarte-Quayle called one of her criminal partners to confirm whether Walter White, the show’s anti-hero, was indeed dead, we saw that she had a personalized ringtone – Julius “Groucho” Marx singing Lydia the tattooed lady.
It was one of many vaudeville-inspired numbers sung by the American comedian, Broadway and Hollywood star, and one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. References to this quirky little song crop up in the strangest places, like in the superhero show. Hero from the late 2000s. There was a circus figure called Lydia, whose tattoos told her how the person in front of her felt.
But that’s just the long shadow that Groucho – born 130 years ago on October 2 – still casts today, four decades after his death. Was it the signature facial disguise, with the exaggerated fake mustache (although he had grown a real one in his later years), eyebrows and nose? Maybe it was his hilarious take on the chicken-walk (squat, dart, rehearsal), developed after seeing French actor Max Linder’s WWI films? Regardless, Groucho not only became the preeminent comedian of the first half of the 20th century, he also expanded the repertoire of what performers could do to let audiences roll the aisles.
Of the 26 feature films he made, 13 were with his brothers Harpo and Chico (after World War I the group started calling themselves The Marx Brothers). Some of his early blockbuster films are taken from the early Marx Brothers musicals on Broadway, such as Animal Crackers (1930) and Coconuts (1929). From the 1930s he made the films that arguably cemented his legacy – the hilarious 1933 film. Duck soup (perhaps the choice of his work) as well as other light outputs such as A night at the opera (1935), Monkey affairs (1931), Horse feathers (1932) and At the circus (the 1939 film where Groucho first sang Tattooed lydia).
Groucho’s main weapon throughout these classic films was his knack for writing and performing unforgettable reprimands. He was, quite simply, a master of insult comedy. Whatever genre it has become today (modern “roast” isn’t to everyone’s liking, to say the least), the comedy of insults has reached Americans thanks to Groucho and comedian Don Rickles . In a time when artists couldn’t swear onscreen or even mime in a way that might be considered âobscene,â Groucho depended only on his words.
“A big change will do him good, he still has the same face!” “
âFrom the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. One day I intend to read it.
“I only have respect for you – and not a lot of that.”
“I had a perfectly wonderful evening, but it wasn’t that.”
Some of Groucho’s best jokes are like this – a sweet politeness followed by a quick, almost abrupt knockout. Others discuss his gift for dissecting the oddities of language. As one of his most famous jokes puts it: âApart from a dog, a book is probably man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it is too dark to read.
It’s no surprise that Groucho thinks deeply about linguistic dead ends. Some of his most famous friendships were with writers such as Carl Sandburg and Booth Tarkington (not exactly a household name today, but by the 1920s he was America’s most famous novelist and two-time Pulitzer winner. ).
He also maintained a friendly correspondence with the poet TS Eliot in the 1960s, although the exchanges became more and more heated over time, especially after Eliot made his voice heard with his anti-Semitic views (Groucho was without shameful Jew). In a letter, Groucho even calls Eliot’s wife “Mrs. Tom” in order to remind the poet that “TS” was a pretentious affectation worthy of Eliot’s minauding anglophilia.
What would Groucho be kidding today?
It’s tempting to speculate on his take on the rise of authoritarianism in the United States, but I must admit: I’m not at all interested in talking politics to Groucho. Not because he was naive or ill-informed in this context (quite the contrary) but because he was at his best when talking about comedy and movies – the arts. What would he have thought of 21st century television, the dominant art form of the era, both critically and commercially?
After all, he was the man who once said, âI find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go to another room and read a good book.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer