Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Book review. Groucho is not my favorite Marx--that would be Harpo or Chico--but he probably lived the most interesting life of the brothers. This biography by Stefan Kanfer from 2000 gives all you might want to know about Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, Zeppo etc etc and makes me want to watch a few of their films again.

Kanfer's book is a very readable biography (a genre that can be dull if in the wrong hands) and covers in detail the early Vaudeville years (I love reading about Vaudeville!), the film heday of the 1930s and Groucho's TV comeback with You Bet Your Life. Groucho had a lot of ups and downs, three bad marriages, off and on feuds with kids and even a court hearing in his 80s to test his competency when we was being possibly abused by a much, much younger female companion. All very interesting.

My favorite part of the book was some of the antics by Groucho, Harpo and Chico when kept waiting by MGM's Irving Thalberg. Kanfer writes:

The trio made an attempt to be punctual, only to find the producer's office shut; he was forever in story conferences on other movies. The Brothers ultimately took matters in their own hands, lighting cigars, blowing gusts of smoke under the door, and loudly yelling "Fire!" between puffs. A distressed Thalberg emerged, saw what the Brothers were up to, and apologized for the delay. But a few weeks later he kept them waiting again--this time inside his office as he went down the hall to consult with Louis B. Mayer on some non-Marxian matter. The negotiation took longer than anticipated, and when he returned he found the Brothers squatting nude, roasting potatoes in his display fireplace. And still Thalberg could not give the trio his undivided attention. Several weeks later he kept the group waiting once more. On this occasion they barricaded his door with heavy filing cabinets. These took an hour to remove. Never again did the Marx Brothers cool their heels in his waiting room. [page 191]

Imagine stars acting like that now! They'd be arrested, sent off for counseling, plastered all over the gossip rags or the internet and then run out of town. This is a perfect example of the kind of disregard for authority, uprorious hijinks and comic anarchy that peppered their films and that made them such timeless treasures. Groucho was the ringleader of the brothers and this biography is his story.

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