Groucho Marx: What this country needs

0 Posted by - February 2, 2012 - Features, Screen, Word
Groucho Marx in Horse Feathers

Groucho Marx (right) in "Horse Feathers" (1932) directed by Norman McLeod. (Image: http://goo.gl/RpbZR)

This is an excerpt from Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx, edited by Robert S. Bader.

During the 1940s Groucho would often write about topics related to World War II while remaining, for the most part, non-political. At home, however, most discussions with his friends involved world events and politics. Groucho teased Morrie Ryskind about his incessant campaigning for Wendell Willkie in the 1940 presidential race, but he did vote for Willkie, stating that electing Franklin Roosevelt to a third term would set an unhealthy precedent. Four years later Groucho would support FDR, feeling that changing presidents with the country at war would be unwise.

Groucho first threw his hat into the political ring in 1932. The Four Marx Brothers were candidates for vice-president on the Will Rogers presidential ticket in a studio publicity stunt. “What This Country Needs” was written as the Marx Brothers were wrapping up the filming of Go West. Groucho’s letters from this period suggest that Arthur Sheekman made some contribution to “What This Country Needs.” Groucho included a considerably shortened and retitled version of the article in Memoirs of a Mangy Lover in 1963.

This essay is reprinted with permission of the publisher, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard.

I want to say at the outset that I am not a candidate for anything. The Marx for-Vice-President boom never had my support, nor did it ever get very far. It was launched by an obscure Californian who was politically inexperienced and, incidentally, very drunk.

The whole thing was nothing if not spontaneous. I was at an obnoxious little dinner party the other evening, talking about world affairs, when this fellow said suddenly, “Let’s run Groucho Marx for Vice-President.”

Naturally I was touched, but only for five dollars, and that came later. At the moment, I asked why I should be singled out for this honor; why should my friends want me to be Vice-President?

“Because,” snarled my sponsor, “the Vice-President generally keeps his mouth shut. It might be an interesting experience for you.”

So you can see that the boom didn’t get a good start, which is just as well because, as I say, I’m not a candidate for any office.

But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t any false modesty. If somebody wants to start another boom, the Vice-Presidency is right up my alley, although I’ll admit it might take a little time before I could manage to listen to the Senate every day. I remember that about twenty years ago a Vice-President made himself famous merely by announcing that what the country really needed was a good five-cent cigar. Now that’s more in my line. As a matter of fact, I’ve been making a few notes about what the country needs and, regardless of politics, here they are:

Frankly, I don’t believe we need a $30-every-Thursday plan, because Thursday is such a bad day. In the first place, the maid is out; Junior has the car and—but there’s no point to rehash a measure that’s already in the ash can.

But the nation does need, for one thing, a good ham sandwich. I refer to the simple, old-fashioned (now obsolete) single-decker ham sandwich which was a national institution until the druggist, with his passion for mixing things, ruined it for us.

As an experiment, I went into a drugstore yesterday and ordered a ham sandwich.

“Ham with what?” the clerk asked.

“Coffee,” I told him.

“I mean,” he said, “do you want the ham-and-tuna combination, the ham-sardine- and-tomato, or ham-bacon-and-broccoli? And will you have coleslaw or potato salad?”
“Just ham,” I pleaded. “A plain ham sandwich, without even tomato or lettuce.”

The young man looked bewildered, then went over to the drug counter to consult with the pharmacist who glowered at me suspiciously until I fled.

That’s the sort of thing the country is up against.

Another of our direst needs is a coat for carrying tobacco without making it necessary to carry a bulky, bulging pouch. It has been suggested that tailors make suits out of tobacco so that, if you wanted to fill your favorite pipe, you would merely have to tear off a piece of the material and plug it into the bowl.

This is unsound on the face of it, because a suit, with its lapels smoked off, would be highly impractical. Where would you wear your campaign button or elk’s tooth?

My suggestion is that only the vest be made of tobacco, because the vest is an otherwise useless garment. It isn’t ornamental and it doesn’t give much warmth. I believe that a nice mild, Burley-cut vest, trimmed with Turkish, would add a great deal to the comforts of the American man.

In designing this outfit, some enterprising tailor could also supply another need: A pair of pants that would automatically hide at night so that your wife couldn’t possibly know where you were caching your bankroll.

Making your pants vanish may sound a trifle visionary, but I have been making quite a bit of progress with the idea. I’ve already succeeded in making my shirt disappear, merely by sitting down at the bridge table with my wife. I know a fellow who bid two hearts with only three quick tricks in his hand, and his wife disappeared.

That, of course, solved his problem. He could then hang his pants out in the open at night. But this solution is not to be recommended generally, because I believe that wives have a definite place in the home. They’re invaluable as mothers, and also for keeping you informed when the lady next door gets a new car, or a fur coat, or is taken out dancing. Wives are people who feel that they don’t dance enough. Give them their way and you won’t have to hide your pants at night, because there’ll be nothing in them to conceal.

The country also needs the old-fashioned corset which was laced up in the back. It’s simply ridiculous to say that the present-day girdle serves the same purpose, because it doesn’t. Why, thirty-five years ago, the wasp waist meant something to a man. It gave him his daily exercise, tightening up his wife’s laces. But now the girdle is here and we’re becoming a nation of softies. (My wife has just informed me that the old-fashioned, laced-in-the-back corset is here, so disregard the whole paragraph. On second thought, I feel that the American man exercises too much. He doesn’t get enough peace and repose.)

We need two oxen in every garage. There! I’ve said it. Not that I don’t realize it will mean a political break with the automobile industry (I need any kind of break I can get), but because I wouldn’t be worthy of a Vice-Presidential boom if I didn’t have the courage of my convictions, both of which were for parking forty minutes in half-hour zones.

That’s the problem: parking! With oxcarts, our great-grandfathers had nothing to worry about. Although it took them an hour to drive six miles to the downtown shopping district, they could immediately pull up in front of any store they chose. And, while we can drive the same distance in ten minutes, it takes an hour to find a place to park. That gives the ox a clear ten-minute advantage over the automobile. Of course I realize that no ox is as good-looking as one of the 1940 sport models (the yellow, snappy job): also that it might be a little inconvenient trying to buy hay at a filling station. But we cannot overlook the fact that ten minutes saved every day amounts to 3,650 minutes a year, or sixty hours and fifty minutes. And that time, properly used—say on the radio by Charlie McCarthy—is worth approximately
$250,000. And while $250,000 ain’t hay, it would feed a lot of oxen.

Another national need is laundries that will send you a sheet of pins with every shirt, instead of making you pick the pins, one at a time, out of the collar or (if you don’t see them in time) your neck. My own laundryman and I have an understanding. Every time he sticks me with a pin, I stick him with a bad check. His cries of anguish can be heard from Culver City to my bank in Beverly Hills.

We need, too, a vacuum cleaner that won’t scare the daylights out of you by whining like a Boeing bomber whenever you try to snatch a brief four-hour nap in the afternoon. At considerable expense and bother I’ve managed to solve the problem in my own home but, as you will readily see, it is far from the ideal solution.

I’ve placed land mines around my bedroom door. (Neutrals, of course, have been warned.) Thus, if the cleaner zooms within twenty feet of my room, it’ll be a good joke on our maid. The only disadvantage is that, after a direct hit, you have to get a new vacuum cleaner. And of course a new maid.

Another of the country’s needs—a project nearest my heart—is a federal school for love-making. Under GMP (Groucho Marx Plan), girls would be taught to sigh like Garbo, smile like Myrna Loy and pout like Ginger Rogers, and men to moon and roll their eyes like Charles Boyer.

I’d been practicing the eye-rolling business at home, but under a serious handicap. My wife asked me to stop, because it was frightening the children. So I’ve resigned myself to remaining the Gary Cooper type (with spectacles). Although the resemblance between Gary and myself is often commented on, I believe he’s a little too tall and has too much hair on his head. And yet I feel that he is even more the Gary Cooper type than I am.

In the theatrical world I feel that we need a chain of movie houses where there are no movies, so a housewife can get her free dishes and turkey without delaying dinner. It’s getting so that some women, not having time enough to sit through two pictures, go to department stores for their crockery. This is hurting show business. Now I’m not suggesting that movies be done away with. They could very easily be shown in the dish stores and poultry markets.

I would like to see a call bureau established, so anybody who wants a fourth at bridge can get immediate satisfaction. I don’t know why it is, but bridge players have a habit of convening in threes; and there is nothing in the world so futile and bitter as three bridge players.

They’ll call you up and, although you insist you can’t play, that you loathe the game and that you’re in bed with a fever which the doctor says has a good chance of developing into pneumonia, they become savage and accuse you of trying to ruin their evening. They keep phoning until, out of desperation (and perhaps your mind), you put on woolen underwear and a mustard plaster and get to their table.

Then, after your first card is put down, your partner immediately winces. You’ve betrayed him. He had wanted you to lead a spade. He takes it for granted that you’re an expert in mental telepathy who is maliciously lying down on the job. He assails your character, and intimates that to call you an idiot would be flattery. Why didn’t you go up with your King, instead of your fever, doubled and redoubled? So you write out a check for $12.70 and trudge home to bed where the doctor smiles, very pleased with himself. His prediction has come true. You’ve got pneumonia, which means you won’t have to be a fourth again for at least three weeks—or ever, if that call bureau is established.

One thing more. The country needs men’s hats that can be neatly folded and put away in your pocket so you won’t have to buy them back from the hat-check girl. In fifteen evenings out, I have paid $3.75 (at two bits a night) for the return of an old fedora that originally cost only $2.95, and for which no haberdasher would now give me thirty cents. Obviously that’s bad business, and what we need in Washington are businessmen. See what I mean? . . .

“Folks, go to your neighborhood politician and ask for a nice, warm, mellow
Groucho Marx for Vice-President.”

This Week
June 16, 1940

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