6.22.2009

The Marx Brothers in New York: Interlude - On Groucho Walking

This special new series about the Marx Brothers in New York continues this week, following the brothers into a career in Broadway and into the movies, but first I would like to take a little time to discuss Groucho's peculiar way of walking. Sometimes described as a "lope" or "stoop," Groucho's silly and often lecherous walk became just as an important part of his persona as his glasses, eyebrows, cigar and greasepaint moustache. He didn't walk this walk all the time, but as you recall from the films, Groucho would often bend his knees and lean forward as he proceeded from point A to point B. To imitate Groucho properly at a costume party, it's important to get this part down.

• Groucho explained that it was simply a bit of inspired improvisation. From the book Hello, I Must Be Going by Charlotte Chandler, he says, "I was just kidding around one day, and I started to walk funny. The audience liked it, so I kept it in."(pps. 153-154) Chandler adds a funny comment by the inimitable Oscar Levant, who commented on Groucho's walk, 'I wouldn't stoop so high.' On the other hand, the Wikipedia entry on Groucho suggests a more deliberate satire: "The exaggerated walk, with one hand on the small of his back and his torso bent almost 90 degrees at the waist was a parody of a fad from the 1880s and 1890s. Then, fashionable young men of the upper classes would affect a walk with their right hand held fast to the base of their spines, and with a slight lean forward at the waist and a very slight twist toward the right with the left shoulder, allowing the left hand to swing free with the gait." Well, well. As much as I would like to believe the Wiki explanation - and madly so, really, because Groucho would have been making fun of a flâneur fashion, I think it's more likely an adaptation of the kinds of exaggerated walking gestures Groucho would have seen in melodramas.

• Walking like Groucho, bending the knees slightly and leaning forward, proves to be a good strengthening exercise. Try this at home (or while walking along E. 93rd St.), and you'll feel a good stretch of the quads, hamstrings, and ankles. The Groucho walk is so effective that it's been recognized and so named in exercise literature. For examples, see these pages in the book, Walk Yourself Well by Sherry Brourman and Randy Rodman, and the instructions on this webpage, "Exercise: Groucho Walk" from Stack Magazine.

• For her book, Hello, I Must Be Going, Charlotte Chandler interviewed the aging Groucho Marx while she accompanied him on his daily walk around Beverly Hills. Walking around Beverly Hills is a bit unusual in itself, because Southern California is a car culture, but Groucho used the occasion to meet social needs, to greet people, friends and strangers alike. In addition, he was aware of the perils of aging. Chandler writes, "His appreciation of physical well-being had been enhanced by the negative blow of seeing about him so many friends becoming much less physically fit than he was." Chandler leaves out an additional explanation for Groucho's walking routine. Walking around Beverly Hills may be unusual, but not if you're someone accustomed to walking around an older city, for example, like New York, the Marx Brothers' home town. Walking around New York is perfectly normal, even for the most reclusive of celebrities.

• I must share one additional item on Groucho walking, a news bit dating from the spring of 2003: "Researchers Say Elephants Walk Like Groucho Marx," April 05, 2003 in LA Times.

Well, it's "a gala day" in Freedonia!



Images: frame shots and You Tube video from Duck Soup (1933).

To see other posts in this special Marx Brothers in New York series, follow this link.

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