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copper compadres

August 23, 2010

Q: What do Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Groucho Marx have in common, besides facial hair of varying authenticity, a taste for Cuban cigars, and nominal relationships to an unrelated philosophical forebearer of the comedian’s surname?

A: The Anaconda Copper Mining Company. The one Marcus Daly built in Butte, Montana. The one that built Anaconda, Montana, 13 miles down the road from where I’m living. The one whose toxic mine tailings pollute the Clark Fork River that I’ve been paddling, and are otherwise being stored—”separate from the natural environment”—in the BP-ARCO Waste Repository adjacent to Opportunity, Montana.

Groucho invested pretty heavily in the Anaconda Company, and took a beating when the company stock tanked during the Great Depression. Two of his films, Animal Crackers (1930) and Horse Feathers (1932) make now-obscure references to the company. Answers.com on Animal Crackers:

One more complex running joke has Groucho turning the dialogue into a scene out of a Eugene O’Neill play, Strange Interlude, in which the characters continually spoke asides that revealed their thoughts. Groucho’s voice becomes deep and droning as he steps apart from the other characters to comment on the scene:

“Living with your folks. Living with your folks. The beginning of the end. Drab dead yesterdays shutting out beautiful tomorrows. Hideous, stumbling footsteps creaking along the misty corridors of time. And in those corridors I see figures, strange figures, weird figures: Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Cane 138…”

The comedy, thus, is in the unpredictable shifting of the scene’s meaning, from two socialite ladies and a world-famous explorer mingling at a party, to a parody of O’Neill’s work, to a mimicking of a man reading out stock prices. Incidentally, Groucho had heavy investments in Anaconda Copper and after the stock market crash of 1929 experienced a bout of depression as well as insomnia.[3]

In Horse Feathers, after Anaconda stock had dropped to $3 a share, Groucho uses the company name as an epithet: “Jumping Anaconda!”

I confirmed the references by checking out a Marx Brothers DVD collection from the Hearst Free Library in Anaconda, Montana, one of two surviving Hearst Free Libraries in the country (the other is in Lead, South Dakota) built and originally funded by philanthropist Phoebe Hearst, wife of George Hearst, California Senator, father of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and an early (and wildly successful) investor in Marcus Daly’s Anaconda Company.

Che Guevara had a different experience entirely. Traveling through South America in the 1950s, Che encountered Chilean peasants trudging off to work in the mammoth Chuquicamata copper mine. As dramatized in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), Che tried to get a foreman to give the miners some water, only to be threatened with a charge of trespassing on the property of the Anaconda Copper Company (which bought the Chuquicamata mine in 1922).

In other pop-cultural references, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged seems to base its d’Anconia Copper company on Anaconda—both the fictonal and real companies were nationalized by the Chilean government. (I’m trusting the interwebs on the Rand reference, by the way; I read that turgid pile of crap in high school, and life is too short to read it again). Rand appears to have been prescient here: Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, and it wasn’t until 1971 that socialist Chilean president Salvadore Allende confiscated the Anaconda mines. (Two years later, after the CIA helped install Augusto Pinochet to replace the coup-ousted Allende, Chile repaid the Anaconda Company $250,000,000.)

Got any more Anaconda references to share?

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