Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence (Jewish Lives)
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Born Julius Marx in 1890, the brilliant comic actor who would later be known as Groucho was the most verbal of the famed comedy team, the Marx Brothers, his broad slapstick portrayals elevated by ingenious wordplay and double entendre. In his spirited biography of this beloved American iconoclast, Lee Siegel views the life of Groucho through the lens of his work on stage, screen, and television. The author uncovers the roots of the performer’s outrageous intellectual acuity and hilarious insolence toward convention and authority in Groucho’s early upbringing and Marx family dynamics.
The first critical biography of Groucho Marx to approach his work analytically, this fascinating study draws unique connections between Groucho’s comedy and his life, concentrating primarily on the brothers’ classic films as a means of understanding and appreciating Julius the man. Unlike previous uncritical and mostly reverential biographies, Siegel’s “bio-commentary” makes a distinctive contribution to the field of Groucho studies by attempting to tell the story of his life in terms of his work, and vice versa.
Harpo drops a hat he is now holding in his hand, and Groucho bends to pick it up, handing it back to Harpo. This doesn’t stop Groucho, however. He continues trying to outfox Harpo, even after he has proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it is Harpo he sees in the mirror, not himself. Relief at not being himself, suspicion of his own image, a shared identity with Harpo, a characteristic contempt for appearances—“He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He
up Harpo’s hat, he has become both the teller of the joke, and the joke itself. It would be like someone telling the joke about the American tenor who knows full well that he is, at that very moment, living through the same experience as the American tenor. Or as if the wife in the joke from Odessa were to say, “Ours is the best” when her husband’s girlfriend walks by, not as the unaware protagonist of a joke, but as the one making an ironic joke herself, not at her own expense, but directed at
The newly tricked-out seasoned outsider formed an instant bond with his audience. At a time of fear and paranoia—the House Un-American Activities Committee held its first hearings on communism’s influence in Hollywood the same month You Bet Your Life made its radio debut—Groucho’s insolence toward his guests, from clerks to generals, was a welcome relief. (Groucho himself succumbed to pressure and dropped the show’s music director when the latter took the Fifth Amendment during an appearance
Schuster, 1973. Arce, Hector. Groucho. New York: Putnam, 1979. Arnason, Johann, Kurt A. Raaflub, and Peter Wagner, eds. The Greek Polis and the Invention of Democracy: A Politico-Cultural Transformation and Its Interpretations. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell, 2013. Auden, W. H. Collected Poems. New York: Vintage International, 1991. Beckett, Samuel. Watt. New York: Grove, 1959. Buber, Martin. Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings. New York: Schocken, 1947. Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace.
have written this book without the support of John Donatich, who published it, and Ileene Smith, who edited it. I am profoundly grateful to both of them, professionally and personally. If there is, so to speak, something going on in this book, it is the laughter of my children, Julian and Harper, both of whom, in the course of my writing it, perfected Groucho’s walk, in their strange, unforgettable, and separate ways. I love you, Julian. I love you, Harper. To my wife, Christina Gillham, I can