Grou­cho Marx: The Com­e­dy of Existence

Lee Siegel
  • Review
By – January 7, 2016

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.”

Relat­ed Content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions