Is it possible to warn children to use their lovely sponge brains carefully? To tell them — this is it, this is what you will remember, these are the things that will crowd out your adult attempts to gather SERIOUS THINGS into your brittle gray matter?
For a lot of boys, it’s baseball and popular music; don’t get me started on how these two things have been fetishized to High Seriousness. (“Ask me what’s on the B-Side,” Shrevie says in DINER. His wife stares in confusion; his best friend just does it.) For me, it was a) Greek mythology b) Broadway musicals and c) the Marx Brothers.
Today, I’m thinking about c. We screened DUCK SOUP the other night and I’m not sure it’s going to pass muster with the next generation. For one thing, it’s black & white, always a stumbling block. (“Was the world in black and white when you were a kid?”) For another, it’s at once too fast and slow; Groucho’s speech is so rat-a-tat that the lines whizz by, but the relatively static camera makes the film feel a little stodgy.
My father adored the Marx Brothers. My mother gave him a book, THE MARX BROTHERS AT THE MOVIES, by Richard Schickel. A chapter devoted to each film they made as a team, with a synopsis and reporting on behind-the-scenes stuff. I don’t know why I picked it up, but I did and I own it to this day. I read pretty much everything I could about the Marx Brothers — GROUCHO AND ME; HARPO SPEAKS; WHY A DUCK; LIFE WITH GROUCHO; SON OF GROUCHO; THE GROUCHOPHILES; GROUCHO, HARPO, CHICO AND SOMETIMES ZEPPO. I read Betty Marx’s bittersweet remnisicence of Chico, the self-indulgent books by those who met Groucho late in life and seemed more interested in establishing their intimacy with the source than telling the story. I was Groucho for Halloween when I was 11; I won a prize, too. I’ll go this far: I have never met anyone with two X chromosomes who knows the Marx Brothers as well as I do.
Will someone one day pick up the worn red book that started my fascination? Right now, it doesn’t seem likely. Ah well, I have the consolation of passing on my fandom for Mystery Science Theater 3000. To quote my favorite line from my favorite MST3K, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS: “Old man, take a look at your elf; he’s a lot like you.” He is and he isn’t, my elf. He’s his own person, with a brain that has sucked up the Odyssey and the Illiad (the real thing, in the new translation!), and all of Tolkien (“Not for me,” to quote Ralph Tabakin, also in DINER).
Maybe one day my elf will sit down to screen MST3K for the next generation and they’ll ask him: “Was the world in just two dimensions when you were a boy?”
What did your 11-year-old brain absorb?
P.S. The title of this entry is one of Margaret Dumont’s lines: “As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.” Even if you haven’t seen DUCK SOUP, you should be able to guess at Groucho’s comeback.