As a historian of the Borscht Belt and of animated film (Serious Business, 1997), Kanfer would seem to be a good match for the verbally adroit Marx.
By now, the story of how stage mom extraordinaire Minnie Marx pushed her five sons into vaudeville stardom, with an eventual graduation to Broadway and Hollywood, is a familiar one. Feckless father Sam and hypercompetent Minnie and famous uncle Al Shean—this story has been told before many times, but by focusing on Groucho, Kanfer manages to give a somewhat different emphasis to these twice (and more) told tales. Julius (alias Groucho) was the odd man out—literally—as the middle child of five, party to neither the intimacies of his older brothers (Chico and Harpo) nor the younger ones (Gummo and Zeppo). Forced out of school at 13 by his mother (to make up for the income that Chico gambled away), Groucho would often find solace in books and in the peace and quiet that was utterly alien to the Marx Brothers' public image. Ironically, it was the intensely private Groucho who would be one of the first of the family to go on to the Vaudeville circuit. Kanfer is at his best recounting the slow rise to fame of the Brothers; he also shows how the romanticized version of the family history hides a darker reality. Regrettably, however, in the book's second half, that darker reality becomes the dominant tone and, in the chapters covering Groucho's agonizingly unpleasant decline into senescence, things get ugly indeed. A terrific father to small children, Groucho was a dreadful paterfamilias to adults and a nightmarish husband. Kanfer doesn't stint on the hard truths, ranging from sexual inadequacy to bladder trouble, some of which we might well have done without.
A highly competent but finally rather troubling work.