THAT'S ME, GROUCHO!
THE SOLO CAREER OF GROUCHO MARX
By Matthew Coniam
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When most people think of Groucho Marx, they have an image of an anarchic figure with thick greasepaint moustache and eyebrows duckwalking around a movie set and interacting with his brothers. In That's Me, Groucho! Matthew Coniam points out that although Groucho spent much of his career working with his brothers, most of his career that is accessible to modern audiences via recordings (both video and audio) are from a stage of his career when Marx lost the greasepaint and the brothers and found success as a solo act.
From the earliest pages of the book, Coniam addresses one of the problems in writing about Groucho Marx. Coniam's subject is, at best, an unreliable narrator. Marx never allowed the truth the get in the way of a humorous anecdote. Fortunately for Coniam and the rest of us, Marx isn't the only source for information about his career and Coniam does an excellent excavating the truth of Groucho's solo career from those other sources to present a complete image of Groucho. Coniam makes the distinction between the "Groucho" character, Groucho the performer, and Julius Marx, the individual. While it is less than clear that those distinctions are particularly well divided in Groucho's mind or the way he interacted with the world, they do serve a useful way to discuss his life and his career.
Aside from the thirteen films Groucho made with his brothers, he is probably best known for his radio and television series You Bet Your Life, and Coniam discusses both shows at length, relying on interviews and recordings, not just of Groucho, but of Groucho's foil, George Fenneman, and various people who worked behind the cameras, such as Robert Dwan, Bernie Smith, and some of the writers who worked on the shows. In his discussion of the shows, COniam makes it clear that the production schedule for the shows fit in much more with the persona of Julius than the public personas of Groucho. It allowed Marx to earn significant money (and security), which he craved ever since his youth, but also had a much more relaxed schedule that allowed him to remain close to home and keep limited working hours.
But Coniam also looked at Marx's various radio broadcasts that led up to You Bet Your Life, depicting Marx as somewhat bitter at seeing his contemporaries achieve great success in radio while he was relegated to guest appearances on their successful shows. While Marx doesn't seem to have understood why he wasn't offered a similar show, Coniam takes the time to explore what audiences and sponsors were looking for and explains why Groucho was not a good fit for a radio variety show in the vein of Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, or any of the others he guested on. It shows Marx as a victim of his own success in creating a character whose abrasiveness needed to be surrounded by the anarchy of his brothers in order to be entirely palatable.
And while Coniam's book purports to be about Marx's solo career, it also delves into his personal relationships with his wives, children, and Erin Fleming, all of whom overlapped with his professional life in various ways. Marx worked to help promote his wives' careers, although neither second wife, Kay, or third wife, Eden, had particularly successful careers. Eden's sister, Dee Hartfield, was a more successful than Eden was. Marx also pushed his younger daughter, Melinda, into a career, that saw her performing with him on various shows and having her own brief music and film career, although it wasn't the route she really wanted. The most revealing of his relationships was with older daughter Miriam. Many of Groucho's letters to Miriam were collected in the 1992 book Love, Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam and reveal his real thoughts about his solo projects in an unguarded truthfulness that he couldn't reveal when trying to maintain his personality as Groucho the performer.
Although That's Me, Groucho! only presents a portion of his life, which can't fully be understood without knowledge of his career with his brothers, Coniam has presented a concise and in depth look at a part of Groucho's life which is often overlooked, and in so doing reminds the reader that Groucho can't fully be understood without knowledge of his solo career. After spending his youth chasing success, Groucho found that is wasn't enough and he needed to branch out on his own, proving to himself, and incidentally to the public, that he was more than just a wise-cracking insult comic hiding behind the greasepaint.
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