Thursday, December 10, 2015

3 Stars - Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel

Publisher: Yale University Press
Buy: AMZ

About the Book

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.

This book is actually part biography and part criticism of the Groucho character in film. The title is bit of a misnomer as well, since the authors touches also on the lives of the others brothers, in particular Chico and Harpo, perpetuating the theory you can't tell one Marx Brother story without involving the rest. I wanted to read this book because I'm reading up on the era, and opinions vary on the quality of other bios.

Siegel spends a lot of time dissecting Groucho's humor, touching on the moments of cruelty and misogyny apparently passing as rebellion in their earlier movies. While reading this book I got the impression I supposed to have more pity for the brothers than admire their talent. It's difficult for me to explain, but I can say after reading this book I might look at their movies differently.

If you're looking more for a criticism than a straight-out bio, be warned this is more academic than entertainment.

ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley.

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