By Robert E. Weir

McFarland & Co.


294pp/$39.95/August 2022

The Marx Brothers and America

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

As Robert E. Weir explains in the first chapter of The Marx Brothers and America, the book is a response to his students' pronouncement that The Cocoanuts, the brothers' first film based on their hit Broadway comedy, was not funny. Realizing that a modern audience watching the film didn't necessarily have the cultural touchstones necessary to understand the film, either the humor or referents in him, this volume is designed to introduce the films and their world to newer viewers.

The book is divided into fifteen chapters, an introduction and afterword and a chapter for each of the Marx Brothers' thirteen films. Each chapter follows a template and describes the films, provides some background on the production, explain the societal background for the film, and offers insight into some of the gags that don't work. Weir also includes a section which attempts to put portions of the films now deemed problematic, into context.

Weir makes some minor mistakes throughout the book, indicating that Buster Keaton performed the falling house gag in The General, rather than in Steamboat Bill, Jr., mentioning that Harpo playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” (by Queen) in A Night in Casablanca instead of “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. In C-Sharp Minor” by Franz Liszt, and noting that when Will B. Johnstone was assigned to Monkey Business he had a thin resume, but the Marxes knew him from an aborted radio project, not mentioning that his “thin resume” included the book and lyrics for the Marx Brothers' first Broadway hit, I'll Say She Is. These errors scattered throughout the book raise questions about the accuracy of any of Weir's other claims.

The Marx Brothers and America is targeted at a younger audience and while it is ostensibly an introduction to the Marx Brothers' films, it is also a history book that serves to introduce them to aspects of American culture throughout the first half of the twentieth century that they may not be familiar with. Weir uses Horse Feathers to explore the reasons for, and impact of, Prohibition. The Florida of The Cocoanuts was very different from the current Spring Break and amusement park destination, and medical care has undergone a sea change since A Day at the Races.

While Weir's book has something for everyone, many readers who are more knowledgeable about American society will find his explanations to be a strange and unnecessary adjunct to his discussion of the Marx Brothers' films, however for the target audience, a young readership for whom the films are being used as a way to introduce them to a half century of American culture, those discussions are the point of the book. Things were done differently and people's concerns were different in the past and The Marx Brothers and America highlights those differences. Weir's explanations are only part of that focus. He also discusses things that are now seen as problematic, but weren't then, attempting to put them into context without condoning them.

He best introduction to the Marx Brothers movies is watching the movies themselves, but Weir correctly identifies that the movies may look dated to newer audiences and may need explanations for things the filmmakers took for granted in order to make them more fully enjoyable. The Marx Brothers and America attempts to fulfill that mission and for the most part does an admirable job, although there are errors throughout the book that are obvious enough to call other claims into question.

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