On Saturday, we drove to Austin to see my oldest son and his wife, Nadia, whose parents were visiting from New York City. Both are about my age. They were born in Bangladesh, then a part of the Raj and later East Pakistan, and immigrated to the U.S. about thirty-five years ago. I hadn’t seen them since the wedding in the summer of 2013. They live in a Bengali neighborhood in Queens and seldom travel. Both speak heavily accented English and my son’s mother-in-law never wears Western clothing. I came full of good intentions but uncertain if we would have anything to talk about.
The television was on when we arrived. After greetings, my son’s father-in-law returned to the couch and resumed watching the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races (1937). For the first time, I heard him laugh, a sort of high-pitched yelp, not what I expected from a man with a gravelly voice. Together, we watched the second half of the film, including the “All God's Chillun Got Rhythm” scene in the stable featuring Ivie Anderson, on loan from Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and the final scenes at the Santa Anita Racetrack. Hoping not to sound too pedantic, I explained how rare it was for black performers to show up in Hollywood movies eighty years ago. There’s a lot of mugging, teeth-baring and eyeball-rolling in the extended musical sequence in the stable, but it’s well choreographed and filmed, and often very funny. The only really uncomfortable scene comes when the Marx Brothers rub axle grease on their faces to blend into the crowd of black dancers and elude the sheriff (don’t ask). Minstrelsy was alive and well in 1937.
I also told him the film was made during the later years of the Great Depression, when the country was slowly recovering but the scene at the racetrack with so many big expensive cars was hardly typical. But Americans went to the movies to see glamour and wealth, not breadlines. When I wasn’t lecturing, both of us were howling at the brothers. He seemed most amused by Harpo, whereas I’m a Groucho man. I’m allergic to theories of humor, explanations for why we laugh, but it seems significant that two men of such varied backgrounds – language, religion, all-around culture – could find a couple of Jewish guys so funny. We were enthralled and the rest of the family was enthralled with us being enthralled. And A Day at the Races isn’t even among their best films, though Groucho seems to have been fond of it. Love, Groucho (Faber and Faber, 1992) is a collection of the letters Marx wrote to his oldest daughter, Miriam, between 1938 and 1967. In one dated Aug. 24, 1955, he writes:
“Took Melinda [Groucho’s youngest daughter] to the studio last night and she saw A Day at the Races for the first time, and she laughed long and loud. It may have been just imagination, but she seemed to look at me with more respect than she formerly had. Up till then she had never seen me in a good picture, but just a few of the bad ones I had made in the twilight of my career, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she now has me mentally in the same class as [Dean] Martin and [Jerry] Lewis and the other current comedians.”