by Robert S. Bader

Northwestern University Press


520pp/$35.00/October 2016

Four of the Three Musketeers

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Live theatre is, by its very nature, ephemeral. Therefore, the task Robert S. Bader set for himself when he decided to write Four of the Three Musketeers, was already a difficult task: to write a history of the Marx Brothers on stage from Groucho's earliest appearance in 1905 through 1945. Given the Marx Brothers' penchant for exaggeration and creation of facts to suit their narrative needs, Bader's task was made even more difficult, as he tried to correct the accepted record of events that dates back to the brothers' own errors, both intentional and accidental.

All five of the Marx Brothers, as well as various of their children, have either written autobiographies or given interviews discussing their lives. Unfortunately, as Groucho advised his niece, Maxine, when she was writing her autobiography, Growing Up with Chico, she should feel free to make stuff up, that's what all the brothers did. Bader has set for himself the task of looking at the stories the brothers told and trying to find corroborating evidence that the stories happened, in the process finding that many of the tales had more truth to them than might be expected.

Over the years, the myth of Minnie Marx as the quintessential show-biz mother and hustler manager extraordinaire has been built up by the Marx Brothers in their interviews and books, solidified by Groucho's son's play Minnie's Boys. Bader looks at the larger picture of what was happening in Vaudeville and to other acts and determines that after a certain point, Minnie's experience held the act back and closed opportunities off to them. Nevertheless, her dutiful sons worked to support the vision Minnie would have wanted the world to have of her show business acumen.

Bader manages to assign specific locations and dates to many of the stories which have worked their way into the Marx Brothers' lore, from the burning of the theatre to the presentation of their nicknames by Art Fisher, although when they began using those names professionally a little more amorphous. One of the important evolutions in the Marx Brothers' act he is not able to date specifically is when Groucho began using a greasepaint moustache, although he is able to limit it to a short period when they were performing in New York after Arthur Marx's birth. Similarly, he notes that Alexander Woollcott suggested the start using their nicknames professionally shortly after the start of the run of I'll Say She Is, but Bader doesn't track down exactly when they began advertising themselves as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo.

Many people pass through the Marx Brothers' story, some of them, like Margaret Dumont, remain and have a major role in their success. Others disappeared from the scene and history shortly after they worked with the Marx Brothers. Bader works to provide closure on many of the Marx Brothers' co-stars and entourage members following their departure from the troupe. Not strictly necessary to the story of the Marx Brothers on stage, but certainly satisfying.

The included appendix, which lists all of the shows the Brothers played, in their various troupes or solo up through 1945, is a wonderful touch, the only drawback of which is that the reader will constantly be shifting between the text and the appendix, which not only lists where they played (and when), but includes the make-up of the act and occasion notes about shows which were extraordinary in some way.

The research behind Four of the Three Musketeers is incredible as Bader tracked down references to one-day appearances in towns around the United States (as well as Canada and the UK). He ties these appearances into a master narrative that not only tells the story of the Marx Brothers, but also of Vaudeville final years and the rise of movie houses. If, at times, he descends into what feels like a listing of places and dates, that is only a minor part of the book and easily overlooked, although the listing of dates (with occasional notes) in an appendix makes for its own interesting reading. Four of the Three Musketeers is required reading for any fan of the Marx Brothers or the history of musical theatre. The end result is a book that will send the reader back to re-watch The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers while wishing there were some way to see the Marx Brothers' various Vaudeville routines.

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