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Nashville Scene Fraternal Disorder

Groucho biography reveals the tragedy behind the comedy

By Michael Sims

JULY 31, 2000:  Stefan Kanfer's Groucho The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx is the story of an unhappy man whose stage persona made millions of people happy. Kanfer doesn't belabor the irony, because it's too common a story; we have long since learned that clowns have painted faces for a reason. Kanfer's Groucho is sad because it's the story of an insecure, self-educated man who yearned for acceptance and love, yet who consistently sabotaged his relationships with his wives and children.

You don't have to be able to sing "I'm Against It" or remember the real names of the brothers to enjoy this biography. If you aren't already familiar with the details of the Marx Brothers' story, you will learn many entertaining stories about Groucho, Chico (pronounced "Chicko"), Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo. Kanfer explains where the real-life brothers' nicknames came from (they were inspired by the "Sherlocko the Monk" comic strip that ran before World War I), why Gummo and Zeppo faded out of the picture, and many other fun tidbits.

Even if you think you already know the Marx Brothers, the book is full of insightful analyses, well-informed appreciation, and entertaining anecdotes that range the history of 20th-century entertainment from Vaudeville to 1980s television. And all of it is presented in excellent prose. Although Kanfer does explore the Surrealists' fondness for Groucho's manic non sequiturs, he doesn't promote Groucho and his siblings to the level of great artists or profound commentators on society. He understands that they were professional entertainers whose style embodied certain aspects of their era. He also understands why some movies succeeded and some failed, and he explains how the whole enterprise fell apart over the years. As interesting as anything else in the book is Kanfer's description of how Groucho kept his persona alive even after the movies ended, managing one of the great comeback stories as host of the 1950s TV game show You Bet Your Life.

Kanfer's great virtues as a storyteller are his compassion for all the people involved, his determination to be honest about Groucho's many shortcomings without wallowing in scandal, and his understanding of the family life and social milieu that shaped Groucho's response to the world around him. The biography reads like a novel. The real Groucho becomes an essentially tragic figure even as he perfects his film persona to the level of an absolute icon of comedy. With Kanfer's vivid prose and attention to detail, even the minor walk-on characters--Broadway producers, guests on You Bet Your Life--come alive for their moment in the story. Naturally, there are many good comic moments in this book, and Kanfer recounts them with gusto.

Last year, I hosted a Halloween party at which every guest, male or female, was expected to be in costume as Groucho Marx. Sure enough, everybody who came knew the props and the moves and the voice. That Groucho's persona could be so easily donned was an indication of how much it had become part of our culture. (The other brothers knew this themselves, and more than once they impersonated Groucho in the films.) To this day, Groucho continues to show up in animated films and editorial cartoons, as well as in Woody Allen's recent wonderful musical Everyone Says I Love You (whence I stole the Groucho party idea).

But possibly the most unusual Groucho tribute appears on Stefan Kanfer's new biography. Anyone who pays much attention to books has noticed the logo of Alfred A. Knopf--a running borzoi. Over the decades, there have been many variations of Knopf's canine mascot, but surely the cleverest is the one on the spine and title page of Kanfer's Groucho. The borzoi, which years ago was reduced to a stick figure, trots along in his usual pose, except that here he's wearing glasses and a mustache, and sporting a cigar cocked at a rakish angle. Groucho may have been an unhappy man, but he loved wit, and it's a shame he didn't live to see this odd little tribute to his public face--the painted mask that, in the cheap irony of B-movies and real life, really did hide the sad face of a lonely boy named Julius Henry Marx.

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