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Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx Hardcover – May 9, 2000


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (May 9, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375402187
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375402180
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.7 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #266,906 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Groucho Marx mastered the worlds of vaudeville, theater, movies, radio, and television, yet he remained a moody, morose, unfulfilled man. Plagued by nagging financial insecurities, partly realized literary ambitions, and difficult, unsatisfying relations with his wives, lovers, and daughters, Groucho was a "depressive clown," notes Kanfer (The Eighth Sin). This is the show business saga of "Minnie's boys," Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and, sometimes, Gummo and Zeppo. Groucho never really had a childhood, as mother Minnie drove the boys relentlessly as they perfected their trademark antic, ad-lib style. Many books on the Marx Brothers pay homage to their innovative wisecracks, word play, and nonstop non sequiturs, but Kanfer shows the show biz realities behind the madness. The book also details Groucho's ambivalent relations with his son, Arthur; his brothers; New Deal liberals; intellectuals and collaborators like S.J. Perelman; and his custodian, Erin Fleming. Although Chico and Harpo remain shadowy figures in this portrayal, this is the first comprehensive portrait of Groucho in years. Recommended for large public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/00.] Pubbing in the same month as Kanfer's book, this work may signal the beginning of a Marx Brothers revival. The brothers' nonstop barrage of verbal and visual gags delighted average moviegoers and intellectuals alike. Kanfer focuses on Groucho, where Louvish, the author of The Man on the Flying Trapeze, a biography of W.C. Fields, expands the canvas to appraise the contributions of the other brothers, plus Margaret Dumont, a regular target of the brothers' mayhem. Chico was a compulsive gambler and risktaker. Harpo, whose comedy career was limited by his silent act, found fulfillment in family life. Dumont, Louvish shows, was more than a dimwitted comic stooge. (In fact, the Marx Brothers often failed to attract a female audience, an interesting topic covered more fully by Kanfer.) The Marx Brothers' story is now encrusted with numerous myths and dubious anecdotes, and Louvish does a solid job of separating fact from fiction and includes a family tree and a discussion of the FBI's file on the group. Like Kanfer's book, Monkey Business includes generous excerpts of classic Marx Brothers film dialog. Recommended for public library film collections.
-Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Unfortunately, the book is weak in several other areas.
Mike Stone
One of my great childhood memories is being permitted to stay up late at night to watch a series of Marx brothers' films being rerun by the BBC in the seventies.
Mr. V. J. O'Sullivan
Author shamelessly lifted whole passages from Hector Arce's "Groucho," Steve Stoliar's "Raised Eyebrows" and many others, contributing virtually no new material.
Steve Dallas

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By M. Ritchie on June 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book does a nice job of putting together bits of information and stories from a variety of sources into one volume. The author's style is strong and brisk and keeps you reading. The best parts of the book are his discussions of the plays and movies, although he pads things out with a few too many pages of direct film dialogue transcription. Even when the material was very funny on its own, the Marxes' delivery is what made their movies classics, and no amount of quoting can really bring Groucho's performances to life on the page. The first part of the book is, by necessity, also largely about Chico and Harpo, and Kanfer keeps all the brothers in focus as long as they remain important to Groucho; Kanfer also nicely charts the various rises and declines of Groucho's later life.
There are two main problems: one is that there are virtually no notes, despite the vast amount of direct quotes from various sources. There is a list of major published works on Groucho, with some given helpful annotation, but more detailed notes should have been present. The other problem is that, too often, Kanfer forgets to let us know what year he's talking about, or how much time is passing between sections. Several times, I found myself flipping back and forth, trying to place an incident in time. The book is strictly chronological, but the details get slippery. I would also have liked a few more photographs. Overall, recommended--almost certainly the best bio yet about a cherished and never to be forgotten man.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By John DiBello on June 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
As a Marx Brothers fan, I've purchased and read many of the biographies/critiques of Groucho and Bros. (and there are a *lot* of them!), and I found this to be one of the most entertaining. We've reached the point in history where first-hand biographies can no longer be written--most of Groucho's friends, collaborators, and family are dead, so Kanfer's is likely the first of books that will study Groucho from a more historical perspective, using newspaper articles, movie reviews, and the books that have gone before (Kanfer points out, a little defensively for my tastes, that Groucho told so many tall tales you couldn't take first-person testimony at face value anyway). "Groucho" makes for an effective (if somewhat detached) bio: overall quite entertaining, not skimping on Marx's low points and somewhat pessimistic worldview as well as his more familiar triumphs. By all accounts, including this one, Groucho was not a guy you'd want to pal around with unless you had the sharpest wit (and even then he'd dislike any attempt to outshine him), and Kanfer does a credible job of portraying Groucho's sourness as well as handling a controversial subject: just how badly Groucho was treated by women in his later years (and to be perfectly fair, his less-than-stellar treatment *of* women throughout his whole life). I have to praise an aspect of this book not many other reviewers have mentioned: it is immensely funny, not because Kanfer is a humorous writer, but because he has the good sense to occasionally step aside and recount some of Groucho's funniest lines or dialogue. Still, the occasional sloppiness in writing and editing (as mentioned by other Amazon reviewers) did make me scowl once in a while as I read it.Read more ›
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Mike Stone on September 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Kanfer makes a point late in this book that once he was pushed into show business at an early age, Julius Henry Marx ceased his existence, eternally replaced by the acerbic, wisecracking, iconoclastic character "Groucho". The man no long was; only the persona remained. The detailing of this problem -- which ruined Milos Forman's recent Andy Kaufman biopic, i.e. the examination of the man where the public persona is omnipotent -- is the real strength of this book. Kanfer does a great job showing how Groucho could never escape being Groucho; he was either the funny little man with the greasepaint moustache, cutting people down with his razor sharp wit, or he was nothing. It's a great psychological portrait.
The vaudeville sections are bright and lively, really capturing the anarchic spirit that the brothers held. Kanfer does a good job showing the transition from vaudeville to movies, including the fears and trepidations of those involved, especially Groucho's. Even though we know that worldwide fame would eventually come, the road traveled to get there is filled with much tangible drama.
Groucho's later years are done particularly well. They're especially effective when the reader gets an indication of how far Groucho has fallen: a man who once verbally terrorized all the women in his life gets his karmic retribution. It's quite a sad chapter; I as a reader couldn't wait to read of Groucho's death, just to put the old man out of his misery. Very powerful.
Unfortunately, the book is weak in several other areas.
The sections dealing with Julius' childhood needed a deeper biographical sketch of his mother Minnie Marx. We are told repeatedly of her great will and dominance over the boys, but we only see glimpses of that.
Read more ›
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