Movies from the Trenches: Marx Brothers Memoirs

Review of two Marx Brothers memoirs: Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx (1959) and Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber (1962)

If you are searching for information about how the Marx Brothers made their films or how some of their most famous routines developed, you will probably be disappointed by both Groucho and Me and Harpo Speaks!  In their respective autobiographies, neither Groucho nor Harpo Marx is really interested in providing us with a behind-the-scenes look at their film work.  Harpo is, it must be pointed out, particularly generous with descriptions of the siblings’ theatrical tenure and their early days on the road. Astonishingly, though, neither brother really spends much time dissecting his later work in Hollywood.

Yet there is so much rich and wonderful detail given here about the private lives of these two famous Depression-era film stars.  Harpo focuses much of his narrative on his youth in New York and subsequent astonishing entrance into the famed social circles of the Algonquin Hotel.  Interestingly, as the mime in the act, who is famous for never having spoken publicly, Harpo emerges in his memoir as the brother who fraternizes with the most outspoken, verbally witty, and cultured members of American society.  His ambition to perform and see the world eventually brought him to Europe and Soviet Russia, where he even participated in some mild espionage on behalf of the U.S. government.  It may seem a little odd at first to read this episode and many other dramatic narratives from a comedian who is well-known for his silence, but after a few pages, it feels natural to imagine him as the real, articulate, talking person he must have been.

Although Groucho treads some of the same territory that Harpo does, the mustachioed brother spends a great deal of his memoir sharing miniature essays about modern life.  It should be noted that unlike Harpo, Groucho penned his memoir entirely on his own.  The young Groucho had dreams of becoming a writer rather than a performer, and although he did not graduate from high school, as a voracious reader he taught himself about history and the arts.  He has a unique, witty, and literate voice that alternates between self-deprecation and irreverence.  Groucho’s wry on-screen persona is one of the unique comic creations of the twentieth century, and Groucho and Me does a marvelous job of authentically revealing the considerable overlap between Groucho the man and Groucho the character.

Groucho especially comes to life when describing his formative days at the turn of the twentieth century.  Harpo’s stories from his youth are equally useful in helping to establish where much of the madcap humor characteristic of the family act developed.  Both siblings share especially funny stories about early jobs (Groucho’s work as a delinquent phone operator comes to mind, as does Harpo’s job playing two-fingered piano for a murdering madam at a brothel).  Their trademark comic sensibility stemmed from the colorful Marx family household.  The Marxes were Jewish European immigrants who relied on the income of father Frenchie, by all accounts one of the worst tailors of his time, before his wife Minnie organized their many sons into a vaudeville musical act that evolved into the comedy group known throughout the world.  Chico in particular figures largely in the stories of both Groucho and Harpo.  He was, as they are fond of pointing out, the only one of the Brothers to graduate from high school and a mathematical whiz.  It is a shame that he never wrote his own memoir.

Although the family seems by all accounts to have been loving and supportive, it had a dark side that the memoirs lightly touch upon. Chico, for example, was a habitual gambler whose betting and thievery caused trouble for both him and the other Marxes.  Groucho had many troubled relationships with women, and his relationships with his children were also strained.  Harpo seems to be the most good-natured.  His stories about marrying his wife of many years and starting a family with her through adoption are both funny and moving.  What one can say of all of the brothers, in addition to the fact that they thrived as social creatures, especially in the presence of witty and spirited others, is that the crazed nature of their comedy on screen and on stage often spilled over into their everyday lives, not always to the pleasure of those around them.  It is not clear whether they would have been difficult or easy to know because of this.  Leo McCarey, who directed Duck Soup, could not stand them, according to the interview he gave to Peter Bogdanovich in Who the Devil Made It.  But reading the two Marx Brothers memoirs makes me wish I knew them, which I suppose is a great accomplishment.

I originally read Groucho and Me during a cold and unhappy winter in New Haven, Connecticut when I was lonely and in need of something to lift my spirits.  Imagine how moved I was to learn that these comedians, whose movies I treasured, had actually performed just a short walk from my apartment at New Haven’s famous Shubert Theater.  I thought at the time that Groucho and Me was one of the funniest things I had ever read, and rereading the book recently confirmed my initial reaction.  While neither memoir will flesh out for you how the “fish/flash/flush” routine was developed for Animal Crackers, for example, or what either brother thought of the political undertones of Duck Soup, both autobiographies do a wonderful job of humorously and humbly shedding light on the private lives of two of the greatest film comedians of the twentieth century.