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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 14. July 21, 1971

Global Overview

Global Overview.

As Schell and Weisberg point out, "the ecosystem of Southeast Asia is one organic fabric in which all living things are tied together by an infinite number of interdependent strands". American policy in Indochina today aims not simply at destroying the "enemy", his food crops or his culture, but the whole ecosystem of which the Indochinese people form part and within which their societies have for centuries found sustenance and meaning; as such, it goes beyond anything attempted by the Nazis.

But, just as the various elements of living Southeast Asia form parts of a tightly woven and intricate web, so does this region form one element in a greater global ecosystem. The destruction of Indochina cannot thus be considered in isolation; the diseases born of war recognise no boundaries, the chemicals poured on the devastated landscape find their way into the ocean, the oil bound for Vietnam spills into the offshore waters of the USA, the brutalization and the drug addiction bred by war in Indochina feeds back into the American internal situation.

And, indeed, the destruction of Indochina is different only in degree but not in essence from the world-wide social and ecological destruction being wrought by "a civilization out of control". Five thousand miles may separate the dying mangrove forests and murdered peasant communites of the Mekong delta from the menaced shores of Manapouri or the increasingly polluted New Zealand environment. But are not both the Indochinese and New Zealand situations to be located simply at different points along the same psychological continuum? James Baldwin long ago commented: "It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own; in the face of one's victim one sees oneself." Do not the majority of the ecological and social problems which confront us in our own society have their roots in that denial of humanity which alone makes it possible for us to accept, or connive in, the processes of ecocide in Indochina?

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I spent most of my early years on the road. I started when I was 14. I sang Coney Island on a beer keg, and got a dollar. That's the first money I ever made.

Why did you stop singing?

I didn't. I sang later at the Protestant church on Madison Avenue, in the choir, until they found out what I was. That's an old vaudeville joke, but it was true. I did sing - I got a dollar every Sunday. I had no idea what I was singing. And I had less interest in it. That's about as far as I ever got in religion. In those days, I was as innocent as the average young girl today of 14. Sex was frowned on. We didn't know anything about sex and we didn't learn anything about it. My father came from France, my mother came from Germany, and my father was a very stupid, inept tailor. My mother was bright - a shrewd brightness like Noel Coward's mother. She had a great deal to do with his success. Many mothers had, in the early days of vaudeville. At any rate, I didn't know where babies came from until I was about 18. And by that time my folks had had five boys.

How did you find out?

I don't really know. It has never been a subject that was discussed in he house. Or any place else. Oh, there were dirty jokes. We lived near Central Park, and we had heard of fellows taking girls in the bushes. But I didn't know what they were doing, so help me. The first time was when I was playing in Montreal, in some dump theatre there. A hooker picked me up, and I didn't know what that was even. She took me down in the cellar. Eight days later I had gonorrhea. And I still have it. They say it's something you really never get cured of. The vestiges of that always remain in some part of your body. I think that's true. I think it's a very dangerous sickness, and it's increasing now because of the pills, and the diaphragms, and the various devices that the kids use now. They don't seem to car whether they get pregnant, or get gonorrhea or syphillis.

When did sex start getting boring for you?

My last marriage, I was 57 years old. I had ten wonderful years with her, but by then the magic had worn off, and we got divorced, I've been single ever since, and propose to stay that way for the rest of my life. It would be folly, at my age, to start getting married again. I've paid a lot of money in three alimonies. It's not worth it. The cheapest way is to have legalized whorehouses, so if a fellow is young, and wants to get laid, his folks should give him $20 or $50, or whatever it costs to get laid. And not get married just to lay a girl. This is the reason there are so many young girls today who have three or four-year-old children, were married when they were 16 or 17, and are now divorced. There are not many men who want to take on a girl with a child, especially if they've raised three as I have. I didn't come here to do a monologue - somebody else say something.

Before the movies, when you were on Broadway, what was it like?

Vaudeville. First we were in vaudeville, small-time vaudeville, where there were rats in the dressing rooms. Frequently, it was the manager.

What lured you away from Broadway and out to Hollywood?

Paramount offered us more money than we could afford to reject. We went there and we did five pictures.

Which film was your favourite?

Duck Soup, Night at the Opera and Day at the Races. Some of them were terrible. To us, not to the audience. The kids, today... I get more fan mail now than I did when I was at the height of my career.

You're a hero for a generation that's seen your films only in revival.

A couple of generations.

Why do you think kids love your movies so much? A lot of other old films, nobody wants to look at anymore.

They're not about anything, most of them. I thought ours were generally about something.

What were they about?

They were attacking the contemporary establishment of those days. We did a picture called Duck Soup which was about monarchy. We did a funny picture about a school, and we certainly satirized the opera in America. So I think our pictures were about something. Whereas in most cases - Harold Lloyd, Keaton and those fellows - they weren't about anything, they were just about trying to be funny. We were trying to be funny, but we didn't know that we were satirizing the current conditions. It came as a great surprise to us.

How do you feel about the establishment now?

I think it's hopeless. This whole gang in Washing, at least half of them are thieves - I don't think there's any question about that. Every day you read about it. Look at the tolerance that Johnson gave to Bobby Baker, who's now in gaol. This goes on all the time. The only honest senator I ever knew was a fellow named Williams, from Delaware.

John Bell Williams.

I just wrote him and told him how much I admired his integrity, and that there should be more people like him. He finally quit. Not from the correspondence - I think he had had it. But he was an honest man. Look at the Speaker of the House, McCormack... he stole everything before he left. And they gave him a bonus besides, because he didn't steal enough.

Do you think there's any hope for Nixon?

No, I think he only hope this country has is Nixon's assasination.

But then we've got to deal with Agnew.

Well, I mean it would be near the end of the term. Agnew won't run again. I don't think. But I think Muskie is a good man. The trouble is when you run for important office, you have to promise so much, and you have to obligate yourself so much. To everybody. In Illinois, in Chicago, in Maine, North Carolina, no matter where you are - if you just move in without any friends, you just can't get elected. You have to obligate yourself in some way to get to that office. I think the other guy, McGovern, is a joke. The mere fact that he's against the war is not enough. He says he's been against the war for three years. So what? I've been against the war since the first war with the Kaiser, but that doesn't qualify me in any way to run for the Presidency.

How involved were you in writing of the pictures?

I've always been a writer. I wrote five books. One is in the congressional Library in Washington; 'The Groucho Letters'.

Do you think there'll ever be a second volume of that?

I don't know. The cast I had in those days was pretty good: T.S. Eliot, Thurber, Fred Allen. I spoke at T.S. Eliot's funeral, you know. His wife asked me to. A very dull, blonde, middle-aged woman.

That seems to be true of a lot of very talented men - their wives seem to fade into the background.

Because, as a rule, a young fellow marries a girl to go to bed with her. This is the normal procedure. I did that three times, with very beautiful girls. When the beauty started fading, there wasn't any reason to stay married. The sex stimulant was gone.

What about companionship?

For that you need a different kind of girl - you don't necessarily need a girl with big tits. You need a girl that normally you wouldn't marry, or wouldn't try to lay. But if a fellow gets both, he's a very fortunate man. If he gets a woman that he enjoys sitting with and talking to, and she understands what he's saying, he's a lucky fellow. You see, I don't believe there's such a thing as love. I believe two people can like each other, and I think that's much more important than love. Love just means going to bed and fucking.

Did you ever fall in love, in your youth?

I always thought I did, yeah. So I paid three alimonies. And I look at those women and wonder, 'What did I see in them?'

I was curious how you see the films now, in retrospect.

A scene that I like is the scene in Animal Crackers where a painting had been stolen, and Chico and I pulled up a couple i of chairs and said, 'Let's see if we can figure this thing out, where the painting is.' He said, 'How are you gonna do that? We have no house.' I said, 'We'll build a house. This'll be your room here, and this'll be my room, and this'... be the maid's room.' And he said, 'You mean I'd have to go through the maid's room in order to get to your room?' It was kind of a Lewis Carroll scene. We had a fellow named Morrie Ryskind, who had a Lewis Carroll quality about him. He could take lunacy and build it up. (The waiter arrives with a large menu, hand-lettered on a large square of cardboard which he props up next to the table.)

(to the waiter) How long did it take you to paint that?