by Matthew Coniam



304pp/$39.95/February 2015

The Annotated Marx Brothers
From Animal Crackers

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

A volume entitled The Annotated Marx Brothers, especially one subtitled A Filmgoer's Guide to In-Jokes, Obscure References and Sly Details, as Matthew Coniam's book is, may be expected to offer the same level of detail as Roy Blount, Jr.'s 2010 volume Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, which focused its entirely on a single Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup, although Blount's book was written almost as a commentary track to that film rather than as an annotated guide to the brother's entire ouevre.

Each chapter dedicated to one of the Marx Brothers films (plus one chapter about the 1959 television episode “The Incredible Jewel Robbery”) begins with a background of the film. Coniam does not provide a synopsis of the film, assuming, probably correctly, that anyone who is reading this book is either already familiar with the movies or will be watching the films while the referring to the book. To make the latter easier, when he does annotate activity, he provides the time code for both PAL and NTSC DVD formats.

Coniam raises issues of what was happening behind the scenes and points out where there are questions which can never be answered. For instance, there has long been a debate concerning the number of voices singing “Sweet Adeline” in the opening sequence of Monkey Business. Coniam, of course, cannot give a definitive answer, but he discusses the controversy, as well as noting those, such as Glenn Mitchell (whose The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia is essential) who have a strong opinion.

Coniam picks and chooses what to discuss, often skipping scenes which could stand additional discussion. Early Go West there is a scene in which Joe Panello (Chico) outfits S. Quentin Quale (Groucho) for his trip out west (and to raise money for this own ticket). The scene is clearly modeled on the similar sequence in A Day at the Races, in which Tony (again, Chico) sells a tip to Hugo Hackenbush (Groucho) in order to raise money for his own bet. Coniam only makes a quick reference to an anachronistic comment Groucho makes, ignoring the parallel or one of the truest exchanges between Chico and Groucho in all of their works* (granted, that is a personal opinion).

Based on his discussion of Edgar Kennedy’s primary scenes in Duck Soup as the lemonade vendor in his introduction to that film, Coniam ignores that actual scene and practically glosses over the eventual payoff (which is, admittedly weak. Coniam also generally pays short shift to actors whose careers were beginning with their appearances in Marx Brothers movies, with no mention at all of Dorothy Dandridge (A Day at the Races, and barely more of Lucille Ball, Ann Miller (both Room Service). Marilyn Monroe gets the most mention, despite having a small role, with Kitty Carlisle getting the only real significant coverage for her major role in A Night at the Opera.

While Coniam’s book serves as a nice companion to watching the films, it pales in comparison to Blount’s book for a specific one of the movies, and contains less information than Mitchell’s Encyclopedia. Coniam’s organization by film works well, but there are times when the vast gaps in his coverage make the reader wonder why he couldn’t find anything to write about. Other times, his off-hand comments feel like they need to be fleshed out. During his discussion of The Big Store song “Sing While You Sell,” he makes a quick reference to Virginia O’Brien’s “trademark deadpan” “Rock-a-bye Baby.” This would have been the perfect time to give a little more background about O’Brien, whose “trademark deadpan” style was originally born out of stage fright but eventually led to a career that spanned most of the 1940s (and a year after The Big Store was released, she married Kirk Alyn, the original cinematic Superman). These are the sort of "in-Jokes, obscure references, and sly details" that Coniam frequently misses.

The Annotated Marx Brothers has a lot of information, and a lot of potential that the volume doesn't quite live up to. There are many jokes and behind the scene stories Coniam could have included information about that would have strengthened the book, and at just over 300 pages it would seem that Coniam had the space to incldue that information to make the viewing and reading experience even stronger. That said, it provides a nice, if not essential, companion volume to Mitchell's The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia and, for Duck Soup, Blount's Hail, Hail, Euphoria!.

*Quale: "You love your brother, don't you?"
Panello: "Nah, but I'm used to him."

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