HUMORISTS: FROM HOGARTH TO NOEL COWARD
By Paul Johnson
Harper, $25.99 228 pages
Some authors are so major that even their minor efforts deserve attention. Such a man is Paul Johnson, the English writer whose 15 books include an outstanding history of Christianity and several worthy popular compilations on subjects
including the American people, the English people and the birth and evolution of modern times.
As is inevitable with so prolific an author-journalist, quantity sometimes outpaces quality, but even at his cut-and-paste worst, Mr. Johnson has a gift for focusing on the heart of his subjects and writing with informed intelligence, combining an easy Fleet Street fluency with a genuine feel for history and human nature.
All of which helps to make his latest book - a slender and sometimes arbitrarily selective volume on humorists that gives the impression of being a hasty piece of work to top off a multibook contract - well worth the reading. In 14 loosely discursive chapters, Mr. Johnson offers combined appreciations and analysis of, among others, Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Damon Runyon, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and James Thurber.
Only one woman is included in the entire lot, Nancy Mitford, and she has to settle for second billing in the chapter she shares with Noel Coward, who is not exactly remembered as a lady’s man. In fairness, however, humor tended to be a predominantly male domain until recent decades, both on paper and in public, and, in at least one case, Mr. Johnson does justice to a much-underestimated female talent.
Margaret Dumont was the matronly actress of a certain age whose great comic gift consisted of seeming to be oblivious to the humor in the madcap events exploding around her. As Mr. Johnson explains in his chapter on the Marx Brothers, she played the society benefactress whose wealth was an engine of the plot: Tall, well mannered, dignified and immobile, she stood for the principle of order.
Groucho scurried around her, accompanied by his two destructive brothers, creating chaos that drew from the lady’s shock, horror, distress, tolerance and forgiveness. Then the cycle would begin again. She was needed, in order to be shocked. She also was needed to reassure the audience that all the destruction was playacting - property was not really being wrecked, and nobody really was getting hurt. Chaos comedy only works if those watching it feel safe in the knowledge that it’s just a story.
Interestingly, Groucho - who was never known for his generosity of spirit - was dismissive of Margaret Dumont’s pivotal role in the comedic structure of his best films, claiming that she simply read her lines straight, clueless to the humor they contained. In 1980, when we happened to be guests on the same New York television show, I asked Kitty Carlisle - who had played the romantic heroine in one of the Marx Brothers’ finest films, “A Night at the Opera” - about this. She insisted that Groucho was just being his usual not-so-nice self. “Margaret Dumont knew exactly what she was doing,” Kitty told me, adding: “It takes real talent to play the perfect naif, and that’s what she did.”
Sadly, Groucho isn’t the only one of Mr. Johnson’s comic greats to emerge as bitter, misanthropic or mendacious. Not content to take credit for surmounting real hardships in his early years, Charlie Chaplin invented an even grimmer phoney early biography claiming, among other things, that his father had died when he was 7, he’d never had a day’s schooling in his life, his mother worked as a seamstress to support him, and, when she died, he was apprenticed to a company of traveling acrobats. As Mr. Johnson points out, “None of these, [nor] many other autobiographical statements of his, were true.”
Chaplin’s ego was as insatiable as his appetite for pity. After he achieved superstardom in the silent movies, he tried to do it all himself, scripting, directing, starring in and even composing for a series of later talkies, none of which matched his best early work. In one case of which I have personal knowledge, he even paid a prominent emigre musician to anonymously compose part of the score for “The Great Dictator,” while claiming to have done it himself. On the other hand, another acquaintance, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who knew Charlie Chaplin as a friend of his own celebrity father, remembered him as a pleasant, playful adult who always had a kind word for him as a small child. Perhaps all of these traits - good and bad alike - stemmed from a sensitive, aggrieved nature that never really grew up.
One of the advantages Mr. Johnson brings to this work is that as an octogenarian, he’s been around long enough to actually have met some of his 20th-century subjects and many of their prominent contemporaries, including Groucho and Nancy Mitford. Yet he sometimes seems more at home with the temperaments and mores of his earlier subjects, most notably that remarkable 18th-century sage and man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson, whom he aptly describes as a ” ‘good-humored man’ till the last, and since then, as at the time, his sayings have been preserved and repeated, and have conveyed much excellent sense, and made us laugh, outwardly and, perhaps more importantly, inwardly.”
Where did it all begin? Although his featured characters go back no further than the 18th century, in his introduction the author finds a humorous starting point in Chapter 18 of the book of Genesis, when the aged Sarah, wife of the biblical patriarch Abraham, can’t help laughing when God tells her that - despite being “old and well stricken in age” - she is about to become pregnant again. God is not amused; indeed, according to Paul Johnson, while the Old Testament “contains twenty-six laughs,” God himself “does not laugh. …”
For once, the usually meticulous Mr. Johnson is wrong - and happily so. He seems to have overlooked the 24th Psalm, which informs us that as long as “the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing” and the mighty of the earth scheme their sad little schemes, “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh. The Lord shall have them in derision.” As a quick glimpse at today’s headlines makes clear, we poor mortals continue to rage, scheme and imagine vain things as much as ever - so, presumably, the Lord is still laughing.
Aram Bakshian Jr., who served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.