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The Marx Brothers crash history.

A Day at the Library
By Mick Sussman

Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx
By Stefan Kanfer
465 pages

Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers
By Simon Louvish
St. Martin's Press
464 pages

Groucho Marx, in a mock-review of Kyle Crichton’s 1950 biography, The Marx Brothers, expressed a characteristically uneasy attitude towards the world of letters and the Marx Brothers’ place in it. “When I was a lad,” he wrote for the New York World Telegram, “biographers used to write about Napoleon, Dante and Byron’s escapades through Italy,” not “five nonentities crashing into a world that formerly belonged to the brothers Karamazov.”
     Part of the article’s gag is that the book under review was no weighty tome; it was more of a puff piece, written with the assistance of the brothers. But Groucho had hit upon an insight that extended beyond Crichton’s book: American pop culture had conquered the world, but it always seemed goofy, scruffy, out of place when analyzed in print, whether it was talked down to by the intellectuals, or talked up by the PR flacks.
     Books about the movies of the Marx Brothers are a good place to start when considering America’s cultural inferiority complex, because the essence of the Marx Brothers’ humor is the discomfort felt by both parties when a group of scamps invades a high-class social milieu. Their films are variations on the theme: The Marx Brothers bring chaos to, for example, the luxury real estate market in The Cocoanuts (1929), a socialite art collector’s party in Animal Crackers (1930) or government in Duck Soup (1933). At a time when America was rapidly usurping Europe’s role as the world’s main economic, military and cultural power, the Marx Brothers’ movies seemed to express Americans’ anxious feelings about our new influence. Were we, as the old rulers of the world would have it and we secretly feared, a bunch of shysters incapable of running the show, or could we pull it off with sheer exuberance?
     Two new books, Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx and Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers try to steer a course between the show-biz-bio style of Crichton and the academic tone of scholarly papers like Martin Gardner’s 1970 Ph.D. dissertation, “The Marx Brothers: An Investigation of Their Films as Satirical Social Criticism,” which marked the beginning of an era of scholarly respectability for the Marxes. Kanfer and Louvish struggle toward a way to talk about historic pop culture, a notion that still sounds oxymoronic. But as the last of the living witnesses die off, the early days of film now reveal themselves to us only in artifacts. Kanfer says explicitly he is writing a documentary history, though he doesn’t adhere to academic, or even journalistic, standards in attributing his anecdotes, many of which Louvish proves to be fictions. Louvish does a better job of teasing insights out of documentary evidence. For instance, he assembles drafts of the script to A Night at the Opera to reconstruct a fascinating account of the process by which the film arrived in final form.
                                                  c o n t i n u e . . .

© September 19, 2000 — Ironminds
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