and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales
Edited by Robert S. Bader
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Groucho Marx is best known for the thirteen films he made with his brothers, his lengthy run as host of the game show You Bet Your Life, and the caricature of his appearance that spawned the eponymous novelty glasses. Robert S. Bader, who has written an excellent book exploring the days of the Marx Brothers on the Vaudeville stage in Four of the Three Musketeers, had previously edited a collection of Marx's essays, entitled Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales. The book collects a variety of the essays Marx published over the years and, along with a detailed introduction, provides insight into a side of Marx of which many people are unaware.
On his quiz show You Bet Your Life, George Fenneman would open the broadcast by introducing "The one, the only, Groucho!" Reading through Marx's essays, it is clear that he had a unique voice. Even though most of his film dialogue was written by other writers, including George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, and many others, when Marx wrote his own work, it is easy for the reader to hear it in Marx's own cadence and his soft, New York accented voice. His writing captures his speaking rhythms as well as the wit he demonstrated when allowed to ad lib on You Bet Your Life and other shows.
Given the number of writers who had provided words for Groucho and his relationships with Arthur Sheekman, Perelman, and other writers, accusations of ghost writing have long persisted regarding Marx's literary oeuvre. Bader addresses and demolishes those claims in his introductions, which admits that some things that appeared under Groucho's name, especially in the early days, were written by anonymous studio publicists, but most of his writing, including the essays Bader has selected for this book and the various memoirs and other books that Marx published. While it might seem this means the reader can learn a lot about Groucho, instead what becomes clear very early on is that Marx is, at best, an unreliable narrator. Even essays which purport to relate the early history of the Marx Brothers should be taken with a grain of salt.
Many of the essays in the book are light weight pieces, written to keep Marx's name in the public eye or to fill a column. Although these articles demonstrate his sense of humor, there is little meat to many of them and reading too many in succession can feel repetitive. However, there are also longer essays with more meat on them, looking at Marx's private life, his history with his brothers, or his opinions on the state of Hollywood. His unreliability does mean that the reader has to decide what to believe from these articles, but they do offer a glimpse into Marx's history.
The best way to enjoy Groucho Marx is through his film and television appearances and his books, Groucho and Me, Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, Groucho Letters, and Love, Groucho, and others are well worth reading. Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales offers a additional works by Marx, which are entertaining, but not necessarily insightful. As Bader writes in his introduction, Marx wanted to be known as an author, and he achieved some success in that field, although most of his essays as collected in this volume are light weight.
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