Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In his long career from the Vaudeville circuits to Carnegie Hall, he was known by many names: Captain Spaulding, Dr. Hackenbush, President Firefly. . . but none were more famous than the stage name he adopted for himself. . . Groucho. Groucho himself wrote several autobiographical works, although it was not always possible to tell when he was relating the truth and when he was telling a good story. Many others, ranging from his son, Arthur, to his friends and colleagues have also turned their attention to documenting his life on the screen and off. The most recent foray into this world is Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx.
Kanfer traces Groucho world from his grandparents’ and parents’ decisions to come to the United States, through his childhood and his failures and successes at show business. He is at his best when relating the stage and screen antics of the comedian, but also examines the relationship Groucho had with his family. Here, however, Kanfer falls short. Frequently noting that Groucho and Harpo were reasonably close but Chico’s irresponsible was distancing, Kanfer focuses on Groucho’s relationship with his mother, Minnie, practically ignoring any relationship with the other two brothers, Gummo and Zeppo and dismissing Groucho’s relationship with his father, Frenchy, as loving but lacking in respect.
Kanfer’s description of the brothers’ antics in the stage version of Cocoanuts leaves the reader imagining this classic Marx Brothers shtick which never managed to be recorded on film and lamenting its loss. With the success of “Cocoanuts,” Kanfer depicts Groucho as fusing his stage persona and his real life personality. However, Kanfer has not really shown what Groucho was like off-stage to this point and the reader is left wondering how much of the change (if any) was caused by the change in circumstances in which Groucho found himself rather than in his personality.
In his dealings with women, Groucho was less than admirable. The anti-authoritarian streak which appears in his films seems to have been targeted at his domineering mother, Minnie. When he was off-stage, he had a tendency to direct that same animosity towards any woman who got close to him, most especially his wives. The only woman who was not a direct target seems to have been Minnie, herself, whom Groucho had elevated to a type of sainthood.
Many of the anecdotes Kanfer relates have previously appeared in the memoirs written by the various brothers and their children, however, Kanfer includes them in a broader portrayal of his subject. Nevertheless, Groucho as a person never is fully realized in Kanfer’s book, and the only insight the reader receives is that Groucho’s personality was formed by Minnie and enhanced by the stock market crash of 1929.
Unfortunately, Kanfer spends too much time quoting extensively from the films, sometimes including pages of quotes without any original or explanatory materials. Just as he points out the Marx Brothers’ materials worked best when they could be seen, rather than heard over the radio, so, too, do they fall flat when they appear in black and white on a printed page without the actors’ inflections, props and antics. Even when not quoting from the films, Kanfer provides an in depth summary of each of the films which allow his personal biases to show through concerning the relative merits of the films. To quote Clive Barnes’s New York Times review of the play “Minnie’s Boys,” which Kanfer quotes, the book “at its best has you looking back fondly upon the old movies. You would be better at home watching the old movies.”
Kanfer is at his weakest when defining Groucho’s relationships with his relatives, wives, and friends. This problem becomes worse as Groucho’s success increases. Although Kanfer spends a lot of time discussing how “You Bet Your Life” was created, he hardly describes the problems which were destroying Groucho’s second marriage to Kay at the same time, merely indicating that they were having some problems. None of Groucho’s wives come across as having any real personality, nor does the reader come away with any understanding of why Groucho married any of them. The only insight Kanfer has to Groucho’s relationship to women is that they are all tainted by his desire to break away from Minnie’s constraints by demeaning and browbeating any woman who came into his life, whether friend, wife or child. Kanfer’s attempt to explain Groucho as disdaining the weak, rather than women, doesn’t quite ring true.
Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx is an enjoyable book, but for a Marx Brothers fan is mostly a regurgitation of stories and incidents which are already known. For the more casual reader, they will learn much about the Marx Brothers, but little about Groucho the person, except for the disconcerting feeling that Groucho did not, perhaps could not, exist apart from his stage persona. However, Kanfer is unwilling to focus on Groucho as an individual away from his screen persona. Even after Groucho has managed to put the greasepaint moustache behind him, Kanfer still defines him by his professional role on “You Bet Your Life.”
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