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.
Nevertheless, there's plenty of interest here, especially the useful debunking of legends. Take the mythical day in Nagadoches, Texas. In 1909 the brothers supposedly were doing their musical act when a mule started acting up outside. The whole audience ran out to see the commotion and upon drifting back into the theater encountered a different act: Angry at being upstaged, the boys unleashed their unique brand of delirious humor for the first time. Louvish documents that they'd already been incorporating comedy for quite a while. He also uncovers interesting information about their film careers, including excerpts from script drafts, a discussion of their fight with the new management at Paramount in 1932, and an in-depth look at all the work that went into creating their first two MGM films. He even gives half a chapter to Groucho's most famous on-screen foil, Margaret Dumont, who, it turns out, was seven years older than claimed.
Louvish is also the first writer I'm aware of to satisfactorily answer what might be called the Duck Soup question. This film, now considered their masterpiece, was also their first financial failure. Why? It turns out that it wasn't in fact a big flop, just a falling off from previous receipts. A series of films often gets more and more expensive while the box office take starts going down. Even the most popular series of films in the 1930s, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, was losing money by the last two. Duck Soup, the brother's fifth and final film at Paramount, simply followed this common progression.
While both books are useful additions to a Marx Brothers library, neither in the end really gets under the skin of this team. The Marx Brothers were great, or they wouldn't be worth so much ink. But if one hasn't seen them already, these books won't explain what makes them great. (To those who don't think they're great, I can only say stop reading, because you can't convince someone what's funny through argument.)
The Marx Brothers' approach is rare, almost unique, in comedy. Most great clowns play the underdog: Chaplin and Keaton have to overcome great odds to win the day, and even W.C. Fields is usually put upon, often playing a simple man with an awful family. The Marx Brothers burst this convention, as they do so many others. In Monkey Business they're stowaways on a liner. The usual comic strategy would be to avoid the authorities at all costs. Not the Marx Brothers. While the others are running wild, Groucho is busy upbraiding the captain for the poor accommodations.
No other comedians attack with the full force of the Marx Brothers. They're a comic assault. At their best, they're nothing but laughs coming at you in waves–it's almost impossible to catch all their jokes in one viewing. The humor hits all the bases–they're silly enough to be enjoyed by children but deep enough to be quoted by philosophers. If we side with them, it's not because they ask for sympathy but because their targets–especially stifling, mindless convention–are our targets. The Marxes are the most liberating of clowns.
If there's one word that best sums up their approach, it's effrontery. Consider Groucho. The films often start with Groucho assuming a position of responsibility and openly stating he intends to overthrow accepted traditions while defrauding people. Groucho has funny lines, of course, but it's more than that. It's the cascade of words that make him what he is. Long strings of jokes that double back on themselves, insults that dissolve into non sequiturs, insurmountable problems shrugged off as insignificant, asides to the audience, intentional literal-mindedness just to cause trouble. The torrent he releases leaves one in a world where there's no clear place to stand–speech as a means of imparting information is itself called into question.
Meanwhile, equally talented brother Harpo creates the same effect without saying a word. His ridiculous appearance, with horn, baggy clothes, and fright wig, is already an insult. He (literally) chases women, makes faces, steals anything (even birthmarks), and sleeps with horses. When a bum asks for coffee, he has a steaming cup ready in his voluminous coat. When a cop shows him his badge, Harpo, unimpressed, shows him numerous badges of his own. He tears up telegrams because he can't read. Most important, his signature characteristic–he doesn't speak–is itself effrontery. Keaton and Lloyd spoke in their silent films; we just couldn't hear them. Harpo is the only major clown who works silent in honest-to-goodness talkies. It's more a matter of stubbornness than anything else.
Finally, there's Chico, perhaps the least funny brother but also the most perverse. He seems to be intentionally stupid, as if he's denying reality because it doesn't fit in with his plans. But more than this, his character alone is an insult. If all the Marxes did dialect comedy, they'd be a dated act. But while his brothers have long since moved on, he's still doing Italian, for no discernible reason. Whatever connection it once had to vaudeville, his persona has become unmoored. Rarely in their movies is his Italian ancestry referred to, or made a plot point (in fact, in Animal Crackers his phony background is openly mocked). But that doesn't stop him from chattering away in his ridiculous accent: "Atsa fine, boss."
The Marx Brothers created, refined, and embodied characters that still touch a chord–we can't be this outrageous in life, so it's good to have champions doing it for us. The Marx Brothers aren't merely satirizing high society or education or government; they're questioning the very idea of authority. Their comic existence makes absurd the concept that someone is owed deep respect because of a title or a degree. Expectations are constantly overturned, clichés are mocked, and social conventions are laughed off as not worthy of serious attention.
Other comedies end in certain predictable ways: Buster Keaton gets the girl, and Chaplin shuffles down another lonely road. But since the whole concept of a Marx Brothers film is that nothing in it matters, there is no "correct" way for it to end. To be sure, this turns off a certain type of viewer. The brothers offer no story to carry us along; their films live or die minute by minute on their material and their personalities, which are too aggressive for some. When Harold Lloyd makes a college football film, there's an hour of deep humiliation before the climactic game where Harold turns everything around and wins the day. Horse Feathers ends with a football game too, but since nothing preceding it really meant anything, there's nothing riding on the outcome. The Marx Brothers certainly don't care–they win by cheating outrageously. The exultation comes not from their victory, but from their admission that these things don't really matter anyway.
They inspire, then, the laughter of ultimate liberation. Most comedy plots are about an imbalance in the world being set right. The Marx Brothers see through this–there's no correct balance to begin with. They don't need the approval of the world to create meaning, instead creating meaning themselves. In Duck Soup, they fight for their country but switch sides as the mood strikes them. In the end, they win the war by pelting the foreign ambassador with fruit. Victory is declared, and Margaret Dumont breaks out into the national anthem. So they pelt her with fruit as well.
After a Marx Brothers film is over, we stumble out of the dark into the real world. At least for a little while, we can remember how we felt liberated from the mindless conventions all around us. And we can carry a little of that craziness with us, to help keep us sane. Surrealists such as Salvador Dali mistook the Marx Brothers for one of their own because they thought the team represented freedom from logic. But that's got it backward: They stand for freedom from nonsense.