How Horror-Meister Rob Zombie Ended Up at the Helm of Groucho Marx Biopic (Guest Column)

Author Stoliar (left) and Marx in 1974

Marx's former personal assistant and the author of the memoir 'Raised Eyebrows,' from which the film will be adapted, explains why there's nothing scary about the 'House of 1000 Corpses' auteur directing the story of the renowned comic genius.

When I was a young film student at UCLA in the 1970s, I got a job working for my longtime idol — I was Groucho Marx’s personal assistant, working closely with him and the controversial woman in his life, Erin Fleming. Years later, I wrote a bittersweet memoir about the experience, Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House, which was published in 1996. The book did pretty well (it was reprinted in 2012) and recently it was announced that Cold Iron Pictures would be making my memoir into a feature film. The script is right now being worked on by Love & Mercy screenwriter Oren Moverman. And the director who’ll be shooting it? That’d be Rob Zombie.

The news that a horror auteur would be directing a movie about Groucho Marx seems to have had a high WTF quotient and upset some people. It has been met with more than a modicum of confusion and even a few angry villagers with pitchforks, as many devout Marx Brothers and classic-movie buffs consider it heresy that Zombie — the man behind such macabre pictures as House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects — is helming the intimate story of an entertainment legend in his twilight years. Some of Rob’s fans, in turn, are uncertain who Groucho Marx is and worry that he’s abandoning horror and heavy metal. So how did the heavily tattooed, heavy-metal musician and director cross paths with a soft-spoken author, television writer and voice actor such as myself?

In January of 2013, a friend told me that in a recent issue of the British rock magazine Mojo, Rob Zombie, when asked for the title of his favorite book, gave Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House as his answer. I was as flattered as I was flabbergasted. I knew that Rob’s horror films were peppered with Groucho-inspired character names — Captain Spaulding, Otis B. Driftwood, Rufus Firefly — but I had no idea he was even aware of my book, much less how highly he regarded it.

A few emails later, Rob asked if I’d ever given thought to a film version, because it was exactly the sort of movie he’d been looking to make. In truth, the filmic possibilities had occurred to me even as I was writing the book. I realized early on that my offbeat tale of an aging Hollywood icon and an impressionable youth had echoes of such films as Ed Wood, Gods & Monsters, Sunset Boulevard and My Favorite Year, in varying degrees.

In the years since the book came out, I met with producers, directors and others “in the business” with an eye toward turning it into a film. In some cases, we were in sync, but they weren’t in a position to get the project off the ground. In other cases, they could make it happen, but their vision of the film was so different from mine, I wasn’t willing to compromise to such a degree, just to make a sale. One producer told me, “I love your book, but if you think there’s a film in it, you’re mistaken. It might work as bookends to the complete story of Groucho’s life, but not by itself.” A director told me, “I really like your book, but we first have to decide whose point of view the story will be told through; probably Groucho’s.”

Zombie, to my surprise, envisioned exactly the same screen version I did and said he could, in fact, get it off the ground. I’d already written an initial screenplay, which he thought made a fine base upon which to build the eventual film. Nothing Rob has said or done since has given me second thoughts about having placed the care and feeding of my story in his hands. As we’ve gotten to know each other, I’ve come to realize what kindred spirits we are — despite outward appearances — not just in terms of this project, but in other areas, including a shared love for classic rock and lesser Bela Lugosi films.

Given my proximity to the material — I lived it, I wrote the book, and my 20-year-old self is one of the three main characters — I would never have made such a decision in haste, and yet many observers already have concluded it’s a terrible idea long before the film has been cast or shot, much less released. As is often the case in Hollywood and elsewhere, an artist is being judged by what he has done rather than what he is capable of doing.

Among the many directors who got their start in the horror genre and made a successful transition to mainstream films: Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, John Sayles, Oliver Stone, Curtis Hanson, James Cameron, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and Zack Snyder. Robert Wise began his directing career with The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher, then went on to pick up best director Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

Can anybody guarantee that the film version of Raised Eyebrows is going to be spectacular? Of course not. There are too many variables and unknowns involved in the making of a film for anyone to make a prediction like that. But that’s no reason why an experienced director who is passionate about the material and committed to doing justice to the book, to Groucho, and to me, shouldn’t be allowed to give it his best shot — even if the name of that director raises a few eyebrows.

Steve Stoliar is the author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House.