Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, by Stefan Kanfer, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 465 pages, $30
Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers>, by Simon Louvish, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 471 pages, $25.95
Salvador Dali loved the Marx Brothers so much he wrote a screenplay for them. Called Giraffes on Horseback Salad, it was pure surrealism: mirrors with holes in them, musicians with roast chickens on their heads, Groucho ordering Harpo to round up dwarfs, Chico installing indoor rain, etc. Actually, artists and intellectuals have always been big fans. George Bernard Shaw called them his favorite actors. T.S. Eliot wrote gushy fan mail. James Joyce refers to them (apparently) in Finnegans Wake.
At the same time, the Marx Brothers were popular with a mass audience. They were a top vaudeville act that eventually hit it big in Hollywood. You don’t achieve that sort of popularity by being highbrow, and you certainly don’t by performing scripts from Salvador Dali. So how did these brothers, growing up poor on the streets of New York in the 1890s, become internationally known comic characters who have made all types of people laugh for almost a century now?
Two new books, Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx and Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business, attempt to answer this question. In doing so, they help explain the enduring appeal of the Marx Brothers. While most comic characters just try to fit in, here was a group tapping into the deeply American strain of anti-authoritarianism, expressing contempt for prestige and privilege, living by their own lights.
It is one of the great show biz stories of the 20th century. One by one, in the early 1900s, the brothers were pushed onto the stage by their mother, Minnie. First Julius (Groucho), then Milton (Gummo, who never appeared in their movies), then Adolph (Harpo), then Leonard (Chico), and finally Herbert (Zeppo). Starting as a musical act, they began to incorporate comedy and within a decade were one of the funniest, wildest turns in vaudeville.
They did dialect humor: Groucho had a German accent, Chico an Italian one, and Harpo an Irish brogue. Harpo eventually realized he was funnier saying nothing, and Groucho ditched his character after the Lusitania was torpedoed. Bit by bit, they developed the characters for which they would become famous: Groucho, the fast-talking con man with the loping walk; Chico, the amazingly dense Italian with larceny in his heart; and Harpo, the crazed mute who’d chase blondes and steal silverware. There was no master plan–if it got a laugh, they kept it in. Ultimately, they were able to transcend the crazy comedy tradition of vaudeville they started out in.
In 1922, following years on top, the Marx Brothers’ careers were suddenly in jeopardy after they toured England without the official permission of the powerful Edward Albee, the vindictive head of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. The Marxes were saved, however, when Chico found a backer for a Broadway show. The brothers had doubts that they were ready for this venue, but when they opened the musical comedy revue I’ll Say She Is in 1924, these veterans were discovered by the top newspaper critics. For the rest of the decade, they were the toast of Broadway, starring in two more hits, The Cocoanuts (1925) and Animal Crackers (1928), both tailored to their talents by top comedy writer George S. Kaufman (with Morrie Ryskind).
In 1929, they broke into movies with an adaptation of The Cocoanuts and were an immediate smash. They made a movie a year through 1933, next filming Animal Crackers, followed by three written directly for the screen: Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup–the purest Marxian films. All were hits except Duck Soup. Unfortunately, this was the last film on their contract with Paramount, and the studio let them go.
It looked like they were in trouble again, but the most powerful producer in Hollywood, the talented but conventional Irving Thalberg at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, saved them. He liked their films but thought they were too anarchic. He told them he could make them twice as effective with half as many laughs. Their first film at Hollywood’s biggest studio turned out to be one of their best, A Night at the Opera (1935). They brought back Kaufman to help with the script and tried out scenes at live shows to perfect the lines and timing. The brilliance of the comedy in Opera somewhat obscures that this is a new Marx Brothers. They’ve been tamed, made more sympathetic. Worst of all, they actually seem to care if the sappy romantic leads get together. But Thalberg’s formula worked, and the film was their biggest hit yet.
They followed it up in 1937 with the weaker but still good A Day At the Races. This was an even bigger hit. But during production Thalberg died. MGM never handled the Marx Brothers as well again, shunting them off to worse writers, giving them lower budgets, and making their characters even sappier until they called it quits with The Big Store (1941). While they made a few comebacks, and Groucho went on to even greater fame as a TV quiz show host in the 1950s, the Marx Brothers as a great comedy unit was essentially spent.
This is the tale at the heart of both Groucho and Monkey Business. Though Kanfer and Louvish are hardly the first to tell it–there are scores of books on the Marx Brothers, and Joe Adamson’s out-of-print 1973 study Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo is still probably the best of the bunch–both authors have produced worthwhile accounts.
Kanfer and Louvish dig up interesting new information, though Kanfer weaves it better into his tale. For instance, he reveals the original endings to Monkey Business (it was supposed to be in a brewery) and Horse Feathers (the Brothers would calmly play cards as their college burned down), which were apparently never filmed due to budget constraints. He also definitively puts to rest the sentimental family claim that Minnie was the mastermind behind their success. She helped start them out, but once they’d been up and running for a while, they controlled their own careers.
Unfortunately, Kanfer gets bogged down in psychological explanations. Perhaps Groucho was jealous of all the attention showered on his older brothers, but that doesn’t explain much about his turn to comedy. Harpo, after all, apparently had a much happier life than Groucho, but both turned out to be brilliant clowns. Perhaps Groucho would have preferred to be a doctor instead of an actor, as Kanfer speculates, but that was never a serious possibility for this 1890s street urchin, and it’s hard to believe he would have spent years performing in dives and living in flophouses if he didn’t really want to do it. Similarly, perhaps aggressive clowns played well to audiences during the Depression, but the Marx Brothers made people laugh just as much during World War I and the Jazz Age.
Louvish is in the end the better researcher, uncovering even more unknown tidbits than Kanfer. But Louvish’s book suffers from the same problem as did his previous one on W.C. Fields: He basically takes all the facts he’s unearthed and dumps them in your lap. There are numerous interesting nuggets, but it’s quite a slog to get to them. Furthermore, he occasionally makes simple mistakes that give one pause–for instance, he states the wrong release date for A Day at the Races and claims George Gershwin won a Pulitzer Prize for Of Thee I Sing while Ira Gershwin wrote the music (he’s got the wrong brother in each instance). And Louvish’s stabs at humor consist of bad puns and heavy-handed whimsy.