Groucho The life and times of Julius Henry Marx

Stefan Kanfer

Book - 2000

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BIOGRAPHY/Marx, Groucho
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New York : Knopf 2000.
1st ed
Physical Description
x, 465 p., [8] p. of plates : ill
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Stefan Kanfer (-)
Review by Choice Review

Kanfer plows relatively familiar ground in revisiting the career of the most visible and durable of the Marx brothers. He roots his tale more deeply in the private life than the public art, though clearly one of his goals is to explore the evolving and ultimately problematic relationship between Marx's star image and his often-troubled private persona. Kanfer's most enduring focus is on the psychological aspects of his main character: his Groucho is a man caught in the dynamics of a childhood he could never escape. Kanfer particularly emphasizes Groucho's relationships with women--his mother; the wives who became alcoholics in his company; Margaret Dumont, whom he abused verbally onstage and off; his two daughters; and Erin Fleming, who became his controversial companion in the end. This is a fascinating, well-told story, and it will interest a wide variety of audiences. Scholarly readers will regret the fact that Kanfer provides no footnotes for his extensive research, a choice that makes it impossible to gauge or consider the relative weight one ought to impute to the particular tellings he provides for a multitude of obviously contested incidents. Nonetheless, the book will be of value and interest for collections emphasizing classic Hollywood comedy. K. S. Nolley; Willamette University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission. Review by Booklist Review

As blandly handsome You Bet Your Life announcer George Fenneman used to say (didn't he?), "Here's Groucho!" To which one could add "in spades." Just why all this attention comes just at this time is neither obvious nor explained in any of these books. The spotlight, however, is unquestionably on the youngest of the three brother comedians (the fourth and youngest performing brother, Zeppo, was too handsome and calm to be anything but a straight man), even in Louvish's collective biography. (For his part, because the Marxes worked together and lived near one another, Kanfer is obliged to limn the other brothers' lives quite fully.) Groucho was the most verbal Marx, gifted from the beginning with a wit capable of hilariously reducing, in mere seconds, any conversation, however rational and civilized, to free-associating, anarchic drivel. Indeed, Groucho's comic mind and tongue were so sharp that he was one of the few comics who could use another language-mangling, zany foil--Chico Marx--as a regular partner. The best parts of all three books are quotations from Groucho's routines and writings. Kanfer and Louvish know this and compensate for the comparative drabness of their own prose by, in Kanfer's case, homing in on Groucho's cantankerousness, and, in Louvish's, by covering the Marxes' enduring legacy--their films--in great detail. Early on, Kanfer allows that there really isn't anything in his book that hasn't been published before, and Louvish's reliance on the same sources endorses Kanfer's assessment. If neither book makes any big breakthroughs knowledge-wise, both books are more thoroughly researched and formally presented than any of their predecessors, and either is an excellent summary source on the Marxes, whose success is one of the greatest Lower-East-Side-to-Hollywood, vaudeville-to-the-cultural-vanguard stories. Readers could be forgiven, though, if they abandoned the biographies mid-read for Kanfer's gathering of writings (overwhelmingly) by Groucho. He just may have been the funniest man of the twentieth century. --Ray Olson

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

According to this engrossing, exhaustively researched biography, Groucho Marx (1890-1977) was a grouch who merged his raffish public persona with his dour, peevish private self. Former Time cinema critic Kanfer presents Julius Henry Marx as a browbeating spouse who drove his three wives to alcoholism or heavy drinking, and to divorce. Though he could be an endearing parent, his aloofness and fault-finding alienated his son and two daughters, in Kanfer's verdict. Groucho remained a perpetually insecure "infantile grownup," Kanfer avers, because of his troubled relationship with his aggressive stage mother, Minnie, who took eldest son Chico (Leonard) as her pet, and thought Groucho unattractive and let him know it. This is not a debunking biography; on the contrary, Kanfer calls Groucho the father of modern comedy, whose influence extends from M*A*S*H to Jerry Seinfeld to Woody Allen to daily conversation. Although Kanfer tries to warm up to his subject on a personal level, Groucho comes off as a thoroughly dislikable misogynist who nursed lifelong grudges against his children, wives, managers and compatriots. Long stretches of this bio make for painful, even depressing reading, despite a truckload of gemlike anecdotes, incisive mini-biographies of all the Marx Brothers and invaluable film and stage criticism. Still, the book's first half, which follows the brothers' comic quartet from struggling vaudeville act to stardom, is exhilarating. Photos. Agent, Kathy Robbins. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Former Time editor Kanfer examines the sorrow behind the laughter. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

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. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.