Which is your favorite Marx Brothers’ movie—Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Duck Soup, The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera, or A Day at the Races? All of these movies were made between 1929 and 1937 and yet remain treasured crowd-pleasers today. In Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence, Lee Siegel vividly illustrates how Groucho shaped the dynamism of the films as well as the entire entertainment business.
Groucho’s father, “Frenchie,” was from Alsace-Lorraine, and his mother, Minnie, was from Germany. The five Marx brothers, their parents, their mother’s parents, an adopted sister, and “a steady stream of poor relatives” lived in a crowded three-bedroom apartment on East 93 Street in Manhattan. Julius, the quiet middle child (later to be known as Groucho), wanted to be a doctor. But his mother forced him to leave school in seventh grade to work in a wig factory and help cover family expenses.
Show business entered the Marx brothers’ lives through Minnie’s side of the family. Minnie’s father had been a professional magician in Germany and her mother had played a harp in his act. Minnie’s uncle was a famous vaudevillian and the idol of the boys. Minnie herself urged Groucho to use his singing talent to join the choir of an Episcopal church. Groucho’s success in the chorus propelled him into a vaudeville singing group called the Leroy Trio. At the age of fifteen Groucho went on the road with the trio and so began his lifelong journey in the entertainment business.
According to Siegel, Groucho’s childhood experiences were the “genesis of his comical style.” Groucho used his “body to force the world’s attention to turn toward him” and used “language to expose and burst apart.” His work reflected his “lifelong bitterness at having to abandon his formal education at such a young age.” Spoofs of success, education, and achievement were linchpins of his movie characters as well as his role as an emcee on the popular quiz show You Bet Your Life. According to Siegel, Groucho’s television role illustrated his highly developed “sense of social and cultural atmosphere” and his pitch-perfect “comic timing.”All of these attributes made him an enormous success and typified “Jewish forms of irony and social dissent.” Groucho mastered the skill of being funny while remaining both “confrontational and conversational.”
Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence is a must-read for all Groucho lovers and for all those who want to understand what Siegel states is “the evolution of Jewish humor itself.”