(During summer vacation, I thought I’d repost some of my favorite blog entries. Here’s one from 2006.)
Have you ever wondered what would have happened if Groucho Marx had appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in the 1950s? Sound like a bad episode of Star Trek Voyager? Perhaps not.
It seems that Groucho (not to be confused with Karl) Marx was the subject of much FBI monitoring from the late 40s to early 60s. While hardly a Communist, the legendary comedian was know to be a member of Hollywood’s left and to be outspoken on a variety of political issues. A lifelong Democrat, in 1947 he joined the Committee for the First Amendment, an organization of Hollywood’s elite who opposed HUAC’s investigations. In addition, his FBI file was replete with correspondence from clearly unbalanced but “loyal Americans” who hated his wisecracking and suspected him of being a Red-sympathizer.
By 1953 Groucho’s long-running quiz show You Bet Your Life was #3 in the ratings, and his name had become a household word. It would have been a feather in Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover’s trim little bonnet if he could bring down such a well-known celebrity as Marx (the fact that Groucho was not a Communist had little to do with it). The comedian had built a career on off-color remarks, some of which, if stretched beyond the limits of English semantics, could possibly expose him as a Communist propagandist. But even Hoover knew it was a longshot.
Amazingly, however, it seemed the FBI chief was beginning to move in for the kill when HUAC called in Jerry Fielding, Groucho’s musical director on the show. “I think they wanted me to name Groucho,” Fielding later admitted. Fielding was a member of about 60 of the 240 groups on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. He wouldn’t have stood a chance. So he ended up pleading the Fifth. You Bet Your Life’s sponsors, those good folks at the DeSoto-Plymouth Dealers of America (a division of Chrysler), responded by demanding Fielding’s immediate removal. (Exactly how much Commie propaganda one could spread by playing “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” twice a week is a matter of conjecture.) Under enormous pressure, Groucho complied. “That I bowed to sponsor’s demands is one of the greatest regrets of my life,” the comedian confessed in a 1976 autobiography, published a year before his death.
In taking the fall, Fielding spared Groucho, and DeSoto, an embarrassing battle, but one wonders what would have happened if the comedian, known for his rapier wit and trademark effrontery, had been called before the Committee. It is perhaps one of the great losses to history.
HUAC: Mr. Marx, are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
Groucho: Gentlemen, I make it a point never to join any organization that would accept me as a member.
HUAC: Mr. Marx, we’ll get a lot further if you’ll answer my question.
Groucho: Mr. Chairman, we’ll get even further if you won’t question my answer.
HUAC: May I remind you, sir, you are standing under oath?
Groucho: Well, my shoulders are tired. Tell Oath he can stand under me for a while.
HUAC: Mr. Marx, this sort of testimony is most irregular.
Groucho: I don’t know why. I was up all night after taking that magnesia.
HUAC: Sir, you strike me as a fool.
Groucho: Well, I’d rather strike you as I am, but it’ll do.
HUAC: These remarks are highly insulting.
Groucho: Yes, and in Ethiopia they’d be Highly Selassie.
HUAC: Sir, you should have a little respect for this Committee.
Groucho: Oh I do. I have very little respect for this Committee.
HUAC: I believe I detect contempt of Congress.
Groucho: Can you notice it from over there? I’m always that way after I eat radishes.
HUAC: Mr. Marx, let’s get to the point. Have you had relationship with any known Hollywood Reds?
Groucho: Of course. Red Skelton, Red Buttons, and then there’s Red Robin.
HUAC: What about Red Robin?
Groucho: He just keeps bob-bob-bobbin’ along.
For more about Groucho’s FBI file