A collection of writings by and about the inimitable (though much-imitated) comedian, issued as a companion to editor Kanfer’s new biography, Groucho (p. 451).
Time magazine contributor and theater critic Kanfer (Serious Business, 1997) here limits his consideration of the life of Julius Henry Marx (1890–1977) to the introduction, which reveals that this neglected middle child—Chico (Italian accent) and Harpo (manic mute) were older, Zeppo and Gummo younger—preferred medicine or writing to being a grade-school dropout in vaudeville. The singing-and-clowning brothers had their first stage hit with I’ll Say She Is! in 1924. Kanfer traces the trademark puns, slapstick, and anarchic spoofs that typify Marx Brothers work. The Cocoanuts (1929) was the first movie musical, and Kanfer points out that co-writers and producers alike suffered from Groucho’s irrepressible ad-libs. Both Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) were co-written by S. J. Perelman, with whom Groucho feuded for years. Those films’ social satire gained bite from Groucho’s performances as a con man and a college president, while Duck Soup (1933), Kanfer’s favorite, featured antiwar satire that wasn’t embraced by audiences until the Vietnam War era. Kanfer presents excerpts from the radio series Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, in which Groucho perfected the role of fast-talking bamboozler of the stupid rich before the hit movies A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). Among the correspondence, fan letters from T.S. Eliot are remarkable, but Groucho’s advice to Phil Silvers is funnier. More somber notes emerge in the glimpses of Groucho’s strained marriages and in the chapter on press coverage, which documents how critics often misunderstood the Marx Brothers. “Freelancing” contains the most eclectic and uneven writing; material from You Bet Your Life shows Groucho playing his own straight man.
In total, this often-hilarious collection records Groucho’s significant impact on American entertainment. As one admirer summed it up, “He taught us all how to be irreverent.”