November 14, 2008

Groucho Trilogy (a modest revue)

Down below (ratatatatata)
Down Below(ratatatatata)
Sat the devil talking to his son
Who wanted to go
Up above(ratatatatata)
Up above(ratatatatata)
But the Devil said listen lad
Listen to your dear old dad

Stay down here where you belong
The folks who live above you don't know right from wrong

To please their kings they've all gone out to war
And not a one of them knows what he's fighting for

'Way up above they say that I'm a Devil and I'm bad
Kings up there are bigger devils than your dad

They're breaking the hearts of mothers
Making butchers out of brothers
You'll find more hell up there than there is down below

One can only speculate on the reasons Irving Berlin was embarrassed every time Groucho Marx--the only one who ever did--sang this song. It's as bold, imaginative, witty and daring as any lyric he ever wrote, but perhaps as his success waxed with the ongoing years he lost the desire to be, or to have it thought that he ever had been, daring. Groucho in a letter incorporated into the memoir Groucho and Me told Berlin that with all the great songs he'd written, he could afford to have it known that he'd let slip the odd turkey, but anyone who's heard his heartfelt rendering of it in An Evening With Groucho Marx, the Carnegie Hall concert, will know Groucho's real sentiments. He thought it was a great song that should be kept alive in people's memories. He was happy at every opportune moment to sacrifice the hundred dollars Berlin had promised to pay him each time he didn't sing the song. I think it'd be better for the world at large if this song and not White Christmas were his best known and most often recorded number.

This is one of many stories told in Groucho and Me (but I've gone to the Carnegie Hall concert for its rendition of this lyric. The quoted version in the book, and in the lryic sheet on Google, is less concise, so I suppose Groucho's rendition is a lyrical collaboration between the two. A good many of the same stories are retold in An Evening With, some of them more succinctly. It's in the book however that he developed the easygoing memoir style that (along with about a dozen great songs) drove the Carnegie Hall concert, and about a third of the book is just as good and didn't get into the concert. About a third of it would have been worth trimming, but two thirds of a fine book is two thirds more than you can find between most book covers.

In Groucho and Me he says the two films the Marx Brothers made with Irving Thalberg were their best, but in later years the first film that came to mind when interviewers posed the question was 'the war picture'--Duck Soup, which I think was far and away their best film but what do I know? I missed a golden opportunity to sell Enron stock at its highest posted value, just before the bottom fell out. What stopped me was that I didn't own any Enron stock, otherwise I'd have made a killing.)

The Groucho Letters is more uneven, but there are quite a few comic high points, some from other correspondents such as Fred Allen and Harry Kurnitz. A letter about attaching a remote control to his television to mute commercials seems prescient, even more so one to the President of Chrysler urging him to stop advertising speed so much and start advertising (and improving) auto safety and reducing carbon monoxide emissions. Ralph Nader didn't get around to tackling this subect for at least another decade, but then he'd have been in High School when this letter was written.

I've only begun Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, but so far it seems a slighter book than Groucho and Me.

I have a friend in Hollywood... I think I do, but I'm not sure. [laughter] His name is Harry Ruby [applause] and he wrote a lot of songs that I've sung over the years...
Today, Father, is Father's Day
And we're giving you a tie
It's not much we know
It is just our way of showing you
We think you're a regular guy
You say that it was nice of us to bother
But it really was a pleasure to fuss
For according to our mother
You're our father
And that's good enough for us
Yes, that's good enough for us

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