on June 5, 2004
And I must say that this book of the same title is right up there too. I thought Simon Louvish did an excellent job of digging up the truth on the Marxian tales that have swirled around for many, many years. His research of the ancestral roots of Minnie and Sam "Frenchy" Marx are impeccable.....and Louvish's way of putting the "ages" of the brothers in their proper timeframe is first rate. I think he captured each brother perfectly. I was impressed at his case for giving Chico a hell of lot more credit in steering the brothers to superstardom. Chico was a go-getter, just like his mother Minnie, and I was happy to see Chico portrayed as something more than just the gambling, womanizing, loose cannon type of a guy we all know about (or thought we knew about). That's not to say Chico wasn't like that, it's just good to hear something else about him for a change (I'd kill to have the mathematical mind that guy had!). Harpo is always just the Harpo we all know (just like in "HARPO SPEAKS!") and love. He definitely marched to a beat of a different drummer (Louvish captures that perfectly), Harpo was his own man to say the least. That's a good thing. Groucho, is displayed (like usual) as cantankerous, moody and insulting (well, this IS Groucho we're talking about!). But Louvish gets into the reasons WHY Groucho was that way (let's just say insecurities MIGHT have played a small part in Groucho's disposition).
For me, reading of Zeppo's burden of being so much younger and feeling he was always an afterthought is sad. To be bearing the middle name of his deceased eldest brother, you have to feel some sympathy towards the poor guy. Zep's talents lie elsewhere, as subsequent chapters explain. Louvish's use of prime Marxist dialogue is superb, and he really outdid himself in research at the Libary of Congress, finding several vintage manuscripts just lying there waiting to have their moment in print.......speaking of moments, I was really intrigued by the true story of Margaret Dumont. This woman managed to pull off the ultimate lifelong-practical joke on GROUCHO of all people. Read the book to see what I'm talking about. Everything you'd want to know about the Marxes is here, and there's so much irony in the stories, it's mind boggling. What really got me was the sad way each of their lives ended. None of them (except maybe Gummo) just went along peacefully. Chico died of arteriosclerosis, with practically nothing to show for all the glory years in the movies, Harpo had a heart attack during open-heart surgery (on his 28th wedding anniversary no less), Zeppo died of lung cancer. Groucho's surviving relatives' feud with Erin Fleming (even after Grouch was gone) was a sad closing to an amazing, but sometimes painful life. But it's the laughter that kept the brothers (and brought all of us) together. That's what this book celebrates more than anything. The genius of their comedy, their anarchistic style, they brought THEMSELVES to us, the movie goer. That's why almost 80 years later, we're still interested in them, because there was no one else like them, probably never will be. But it's the legacy of laughter they left behind, the legacy that Louvish writes about so beautifully. First rate book, get this one.
on June 7, 2000
Louvish's comprehensive biography is intelligent, solidly researched (with careful notes, unlike the new Kanfer bio of Groucho), and written with warmth and affection. Where others have accepted mythologies about the lives of the boys, Louvish has dug for facts and unearthed all sorts of tantalizing details and contradictions: he is particularly strong on the family's European roots and their vaudeville career, and he offers the most detailed and lovingly iconoclastic biographical sketch of the implacable and heretofore mysterious Margaret Dumont.
One wishes that his analyses of Marxian comedy were sharper and deeper, and at times the British author seems to have only a slippery grasp of the American pop culture idiom; there are references he just doesn't get. Also, the chatty tone of his writing and his conversational interjections can be distracting.
Overall, though, this is the best Marx book in years--it is trustworthy and enjoyable. Buy it, and tell them AGrouchoMarxist sent you!
on January 13, 2003
I found "Monkey Business" very enjoyable and interesting. I had trouble putting the book down. It reads very quickly and is not dull or academic in the least.
The one drawback I found was that the book is not as focused as Louvish's bio of W. C. Fields, but then here he is following five people as opposed to one.
Still, this was a very good book. I liked the way Louvish challenged some old stories about the Marx Brothers, and I liked the way he made a case for Chico being the chief "behind the scenes" brother in business matters. His assessment of the films seemed quite fair to me, and I found it interesting that the Marxes (or their writers) originally intended "Duck Soup" to be more political, and that they made it after plans to film "Of Thee I Sing" fell through.
Still, this is perhaps not the best "first book to read" on the Marx Brothers. I would nominate Joe Adamson's "Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo" for that.
on May 30, 2000
An excellent book not only for Louvish's analysis of their films but for showing how their homelife at turn of the century New York influenced their humor. The author highlights the personality differences in each brother: Groucho was penny-pinching, cynical, and yes grouchy; Unlike his cinematic woman-chasing (literally) image, Harpo was happily-married and monogamous; and Chico was an inveterate gambler and womanizer.The author does a good job of highlighting their hilarous off-screen antics; of particular value is his recounting of their cruel but always hilarious practical jokes on the stiff and dignified Margaret Dumont.
Simon Louvish follows up his excellent biography of W. C. Fields with this ground-breaking study of the Marx Brothers. As with the Fields biography, Louvish demythologizes the story of the Marxes and gives us Marx fans a lot more information to digest and enjoy. Fans have tended to accept the early stories of Marx family life as carved in stone; Louvish shows how the real story differs and does it with loving respect rather than the harshness of a debunker. In addition to the Marxes, Louvish also takes a few sidebar trips into the lives of the not so well known supporting players, such as Margaret Dumont, whose life was draped in legend. Well researched and well written. As to the criticism of those who think his writing reflects too much of the Marx style of comedy, I can only reply that no one seemed to mind when Joe Adamson did the same thing in his landmark study on the Marx Brothers films, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo. I think this style of writing goes with the turf, so to speak, and in any case its annoyance factor is negligible compared to the rewards of his research. Highly recommded for any serious as well as casual Marx fan.
on July 17, 2000
Writing a new book about the Marx Brothers is a tough job simply because, unless someone can unearth a treasure chest full of Marx memorabilia, there is little left to be found. True, the Marx Brothers have been well documented by many past efforts, but many of these books rely heavily on folklore, old memories reminiscing, documents generated by the studio, or worse, from the mischievous minds of the Marxes themselves! Simon Louvich does a wonderful and thorough job of providing facts, rather than blindly supporting the legendary stories.
For instance; The Marx Brothers always claimed that their father Frenchy was the worst tailor in New York City. The Marx history is riddled with tales of poorly-cut jackets, ill-fitting pants, angry customers and no repeat business. Louvish had the initiative to investigate this story by looking at turn-of-the-century census records of their neighbors to see their occupations. Surprize! Their neighbors were butchers, store owners, and other occupations well above the poverty line, suggesting that Frenchy could not have been so bad a tailor as to live in a decent neighborhood. Louvish's initiative has also led to the unearthing of previously lost scripts of vaudeville routines by checking with the Library of Congress for copies submitted at the beginning of the century for copyright protection. In the book there are many more examples of the very creative detective work performed by Mr Louvish.
Most complaints of this book stem from the writing style Louvish chose to use for the book; He uses Marx quotes to pepper the book with a humorous, familiar tone, which seems to bother some readers. I appreciated the style, mainly because biographies can tend to be quite dry, and Marx Brother fans repeatedly use the same quotes in their shared conversations as well. This led me to take Mr Louvish for a full-scale Marx Brothers fan and the chatty tendency confirmed to me that he is a friend, interested in my favorite comedy team and speaking to me as other fans do. A very brave risk on his part, popularly misconstrued, but hit home with me.
This book is the closest factual account of the Marxes that we'll probably ever see. It's well worth the journey.
on December 2, 2005
The massive comprehensive research Mr. Louvish did for this book is truly impressive. Not only do we get huge amounts of biographical information on the five main subjects, we also get a lot of information on the generations that came immediately before. Some readers might feel all of that information is superfluous, but you can't really understand a person unless you know where the person comes from. I really enjoyed all of this background information. Another highlight was all of the research into their vaudeville years, as well as how for once Gummo and Zeppo don't get the short end of the stick. I also loved the pictures, but wished there had been more, particularly showing the boys with their own families. That would've been a really nice touch, given how much information we got on their wives and children. Another plus was the information on baby Manfred, whom many researchers and even members of the Marx family long believed was apocryphal. Based on the information given, I was able to submit his burial location and the brief biographical information and cause of death to the Find-a-Grave website and will know where to find his grave if I'm ever in the Brooklyn cemetery where he's buried.
I wasn't as bothered by the writing style by others have been, but I agree that it could get a little overly cutesy. Encorporating such a style once in awhile is fine, but sometimes it seems overdone, and you don't really need to write in a funny style when the people you're writing about are already funny enough on their own. I also thought their post-1937 films, for the most part, were given amazingly short schrift. Just because generally speaking most people don't hold them in high regard doesn't mean they're only worth a few pages each. Maybe it's time to give these later films a critical reevaluation and see what is good in them instead of automatically saying they're so bad they don't even deserve the same detailed treatment their first seven films deserve. And I agree, for all of Mr. Louvish's massive research on the Marx family, it seems baffling that he couldn't go to the pretty minor effort to look up the meaning of some of these American references and slang words that he admits he doesn't know the meaning of, instead of saying, for example, "No, I have no idea what a college widow is either." I also noticed a few other minor errors; for example, Mr. Louvish states that Harpo is the one who steals Maurice Chevalier's passport in 'Monkey Business,' when Zeppo was actually the one who did that.
Overall, this is a very engrossing entertaining book, although small things like the ones detailed above prevent me from giving it a full 5 stars.
on September 16, 2002
Simon Louvish's new book has earned an honored place in my collection of Marx Brothers books and memorabilia. I have been a fan of the Marx Brothers for 25 years and have read nearly every book written by or about them. I thought I knew all there was to know and was expecting this to be nothing but a rehash of things I had read before. Instead I find that Mr. Louvish has carefully researched his subject and shares many new insights based on his research while also debunking (or at least challenging) many of the old Marxian legends. In my opinion, this book is not for the beginner in the world of the Marx Brothers. Mr. Louvish assumes that the reader already has knowledge of their films and of the many myths he works to debunk. If you are a new fan and want to learn more, start with "Groucho and Me" or "Harpo Speaks" and come back to this book later. If you are already well acquainted with the Marx Brothers, I think that you will be very pleased with Mr. Louvish's work.
on March 9, 2012
I have never read an author so glaringly in need of a strong editor as Louvish. What's most painful about his atrocious writing style is that-- as noted in other reviews-- it ruins the impact of what are otherwise unusually well-researched books with a surprising amount of new information.
Louvish the researcher would be a gift from the gods if he would only limit himself to being a researcher for a more competent writer. While I can understand not wanting to limit one's career to such an anonymous, thankless role, he's simply a terrible, terrible writer: self-congratulatory, affectedly ornate in his sentence construction, and embarrassingly unfunny whenever he attempts to emulate the comedic style of his subjects. Perhaps this would be fixable by a ruthless editor (crossing out every single one of his jokes would be a good start). But the more established he becomes with each new biography published, the slimmer becomes any hope that he'll ever be reigned in.
Unfortunately for fans of 1930s comedy like myself, with Louvish one the very few authors consistently writing modern volumes on the leading figures of the era, I'm too interested in his subject matter to ignore his work, however deep my disdain. And so I find myself continuing to suffer through book after book despite the fact that I can't turn a page without being annoyed.
Two stars rather than one because there truly is excellent research here (I've found the factual errors noted in other reviews quite insignificant, *especially* when compared to the unbelievable sloppiness of most published work on the era). And he does reveal some brand new information for the dedicated Marx fanatic, something increasingly rare and precious as the years tick by.
The background provided on Margaret Dumont is the high point of the book, for e.g., but typically, even this is marred by the author's constant, and i mean CONSTANT, need to declare just how myth-shattering and novel his new information is.
For the best career overview of the Marx Brothers, I can't recommend more highly Joe Adamson's Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World (A Touchstone book), the only book I've read where the attempt to incorporate Marx-style humor works. For a more biographical slant, Hector Arce's Groucho (The Autorized Biography). Despite the singular title, it's a solid and well written look at the team as a whole (necessarily focusing on Groucho from the 1950s on).
I recommend skipping Louvish's books unless, like me, you are a total fanatic for new scholarship on early film comedy. If so, you'll value the new research, but have some aspirin handy.
on January 7, 2006
I'd give this book one star, but some of the author's patience and endurance in slogging through some old documentary evidence does deserve credit, and does make for some interesting reading. The project as a whole, though, is a monumental failure.
First, the book is almost unreadable. There are multiple puns in nearly every sentence. The tone expresses the author's desperation, and no other word will do, to be thought clever. It gets in the way of what reliable information is in the book.
Second, the author's interpretation of the evidence is shaky at best. Because an early draft of a play script is the same or very similar to a movie filmed years later does not in any way prove that the performers didn't ad lib extensively while staging the play, but the author treats the matter as settled, the ad libbing as something minimal and grossly exaggerated, just because the Marx Brothers' movies are similar to the early play scripts. Nonsensical.
Finally, for all the author's smug assurance that he's gotten the details right where earlier authors were sloppy, you'd think perhaps he could check details like the spelling of Nacogdoches. I live in Nacogdoches -- I'm writing this from Nacogdoches -- and it is NOT "Nagacdoches," an error he repeats five or six times on a single page. It's not the easiest town name in the world to spell, and from any other author I'd shrug and read on, but this author's self-congratulation for his accuracy is so overblown that the glaring error is all the more maddening.
Bits of the book were worth the read, but disappointing isn't a strong enough descriptor.