Posterity lets Groucho down once again

Groucho: the life and times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer (Allen Lane, £18.99)
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The Independent Culture

If a time machine could take me back to any past artistic performance, what would I choose? It could be the original production of Hamlet, or Beethoven improvising. But I think I might choose the Lyric Theatre on Broadway in December 1925. The play was The Cocoanuts, written by George S Kaufman, with music by Irving Berlin, but the stars were the Marx Brothers, newly famous after years of toil in the ruins of vaudeville. People went again and again, because the anarchic comedy was different every night.

If a time machine could take me back to any past artistic performance, what would I choose? It could be the original production of Hamlet, or Beethoven improvising. But I think I might choose the Lyric Theatre on Broadway in December 1925. The play was The Cocoanuts, written by George S Kaufman, with music by Irving Berlin, but the stars were the Marx Brothers, newly famous after years of toil in the ruins of vaudeville. People went again and again, because the anarchic comedy was different every night.

They appeared in one more Broadway show, Animal Crackers, in 1928, before they began the movie career which made them world-famous and earned them new fortunes. They needed them - Chico lost all his money gambling, the others were wiped out by the Wall Street Crash.

It is often forgotten how late they came to films: Chico was 44 when they made Monkey Business, their first Hollywood film. Part of their magic is the difficulty of catching the anarchic style on celluloid. Monkey Business and Horse Feathers are almost wilfully shoddy films touched with genius. Duck Soup is their acknowledged masterpiece, but it flopped and their film career seemed finished in 1933. From then, there was a nervous belief in the industry that they had to be shackled to a proper story with a love interest. This worked fairly well in A Night at the Opera (1935), but then the quality declined drastically.

There's a certain logic in Stefan Kanfer choosing to write a biography of Groucho alone: the Marx Brothers were only really funny when he was present. He was the genius of the family, the only one who managed a post-cinematic career as a brilliantly funny quiz-show presenter in the 1950s. In their personal lives, Chico was a gambler and womaniser, Harpo a family man, but Groucho was more complicated. Highly intelligent, though without formal education, highly successful though always terrified of failure, both attracted to and repelled by women, Groucho was one of the funniest men who has ever lived -yet was trapped in his comic persona.

There are major obstacles to Kanfer's approach as well. There have been many books on the Marx Brothers, including one by Harpo and several by Groucho. These are unreliable, especially on their early years. It might seem that there was room for a serious work that could establish the truth.

The problem, as Simon Louvish explored in his much superior book, Monkey Business: the lives and legends of the Marx Brothers (Faber), is that there is almost nothing with which to correct the legends, no archives apart from playbills, press reports, fragmentary scripts.

If Kanfer's narrative of the mysterious early years is smoother than Louvish's, that is because he solemnly recounts stories Louvish has plausibly shown to be dubious. But the stories are enjoyable, and during the Hollywood era they become better authenticated - even if Kanfer frequently seems to miss the point.

Kanfer refers to Groucho's children swimming at health clubs, "some of them restricted, prompting Groucho's much-quoted remark that since his daughter was only half-Jewish, perhaps she could wade in up to her waist". Surely the point of Groucho's joke is that he had been rejected for membership at a club that didn't allow Jews. Why would he say that if she was already swimming? But then Kanfer, a former editor at Time magazine, refers to "English one-cent pieces" and says that Groucho's late friendship with TS Eliot was curious, given his "ambivalence towards the British". Groucho's own letters make plain his knowledge of Eliot's Americanness.

I suspect that, like many biographers, Kanfer ended up disliking his subject. The barbed wisecracks are scary enough in the films, but used against his wives and children they became cruel weapons. Kanfer gives much space to this, and to the squalid legal struggles over Groucho's estate. On the plus side, there are copious quotes from the films - and they made me laugh all over again.

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