Book Review: Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell

There are few artists whose art remains timeless, and even fewer comedians.  Which is why the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, and Chico, have long remained in the spotlight even though their last film together came out in 1949.  The brothers, along with other brother Gummo, began as a wildly successful vaudeville act, right at the time motion pictures came to be the primary form of entertainment, especially for urban dwellers.  As they realized their audience could expand far beyond Broadway, the brothers were quick to attach themselves to the ‘gimmick’ of motion pictures, if only to widen their audience.  At the time, motion pictures were new, and sound was the latest revelation of the day.  The Marxes took full advantage, staging their goofy musicals to take full advantage of the medium, along with Groucho’s lightning quips, and the group’s penchant for visual humor.

Really, the Marx Brothers were the first comedy team to really be able to exploit the new medium to their benefit, and being well versed in business as a group, they weren’t easily led astray like so many actors that ended up in Hollywood.  Constant showmen, they would perfect a routine in front of a live audience in New York, and then during the summer break from vaudeville, they would shoot a film based on that routine.  This is where their first film, The Cocoanuts came from, along with one of their most famous films, Animal Crackers.

What author and comedy historian Glenn Mitchell (to call him anything less is an insult) has done here is collect every fact, wayward story, anecdote, and behind-the-scenes gossip into one easy-to-read A-Z encyclopedia.  It lists their favorite supporting players and which films they appeared in, stories of how the brothers came to work on a specific film or TV show, rsonal anecdotes (such as stories about Harpo’s notorious gambling, or Zeppo’s constant poverty), and dissections of their work in one hundred different directions.  Curious as to why a certain musical interlude got cut from Animal Crackers?  The answer is here.  The same can be said for most questions concerning the brothers, and so much more.  Under sections such as “In-Jokes”, “Insults”, “Mustaches”, and “Weddings”, you can learn where the Marx brothers got most of their jokes, who they were influenced by, and why they often went back to recurring themes.

This isn’t a book for the fair weather fan, or someone that saw Duck Soup once in college.  This is for the die-hard Marx brothers fan, the person that has to know every final detail about everything they’ve ever done.  The joy is, those people exist, in growing numbers every year, and being that the Marx style of comedy is timeless, many generations to come will benefit greatly from such a detailed source of information on the team.  Author Glenn Mitchell does well to even the coverage of the films, projects, shows, and even the brothers themselves.  Too often, it’s easy for authors on popular subjects to get carried away with the most famous aspects of a certain subject (such as Groucho, or A Day At the Races), but the coverage is even across the board.  The fact that the Marxes have remained relevant to this very day is as much a compliment of their comedy as it is their style of self-promotion and prolific nature.  The Marx brothers may have set the bar high for comedy troupes, but their longevity is proof that what they set out to do is no easy task at all.


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