Sure, I’m a Marxist

During the 50s and 60s, my grandmother’s television, a small black-and-white model perched on a metal stand, played constantly, both day and night, commencing with Dave Garraway’s Today Show and ending with Jack Paar’s Tonight Show[1]

When I spent the night with Mama Blanton, she allowed me stay up as long as I could keep my stinging eyes open. As a young child, I fought sleep as if it were an enemy, as if it were death itself. At home, I had to be in bed by 7:30 on weekdays and nine on weekends, so I always looked forward to staying over at Mama Blanton’s on Saturday nights and watching those old black-and-white movies, which seemed in my naivety ancient artifacts from a more glorious age.[2]

When I was five or six, I recall watching a Marx Brothers movie – probably Duck Soup – and making it past midnight. The Brothers’ antics enthralled me, especially horn-honking Harpo. I struggled mightily that night to stay awake but eventually succumbed to the Sandman’s strangle hold. Mama Blanton let me sleep on the couch until the movie ended, then led me, shuffling like a blind boy, to bed. I can’t recall if I realized then that the Groucho in the movie was the same Groucho (now twenty years older) who hosted the gameshow You Bet Your Life. However, I do I remember some time after the movie purchasing one of those Groucho masks featuring glasses, nose, eyebrows, and mustache.

I didn’t see another Marx Brothers’ film until college when my high school friend and Citadel cadet Gene Limehouse visited USC for a weekend.  High on whatever, we decided to catch a matinee screening of A Night at the Opera at the Russell House theater in the student union building. Fifteen or so years had passed since that first taste of manic Marx Brothers madness at Mama Blanton’s, but once again, I was laughing out loud, though now appreciating more than the slapstick, taking note of the verbal cleverness and also the mockery of the upper classes, most deliciously, Groucho’s offering a tuxedoed opera attendee a tip for retrieving his top hat that had fallen from the balcony. “Go buy yourself a stogie,” Groucho says, leaning over the railing and offering the fuddy-duddy a coin, which he refuses in a huff.

Yet another fifteen years later when I taught AP English and we studied Marxian criticism, I’d show A Night at the Opera on the week of Porter-Gaud’s musical, offering exhausted students a reprieve of sorts. I’d explain how the promotion of the impoverished tenor, the rollicking fun the peasant passengers below deck enjoy on the trans-Atlantic voyage (as opposed to the stiff stiltedness of the first-class passengers), and the Marx Brothers’ revolutionary takeover of the performance of La Traviata conform to Karl Marx’s theories.

Although students back then – perhaps still do – balked at anything in black-and-white, the classes eventually got into it, sometimes applauding at the film’s conclusion.

A Night at the Opera, Marx Brothers’ movie with a Marxian message.

At any rate, I appreciate my grandmother’s liberality in allowing me to wander into her late-night adult world and watch movies not not necessarily suited for children, a benefit I passed along to my boys when they were growing up. 

Despite the clucking of a few disapproving tongues at the time, I’d say we turned out okay.


[1] I remember the local NBC station’s signing off with the National Anthem, followed by a short film featuring the poem “High Flight,” and then an announcer’s canned spiel about kilowatts and licensing. That done, the Indian head test pattern appeared with its accompanying high-pitched whine. Finally, exactly at one a.m., a blizzard of static would obliterate the test patten. Time to go nighty-night.

[2] Ironically, many had been filmed during the Depression.