Book: The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia

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While I’d been into The Three Stooges at an early age and got into both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in high school, I didn’t watch a Marx Brothers movie until I was an undergrad. Since then I’ve watched most of their movies and Groucho and Me is one of my favorite books. I guess you can say college turned me into a Marxist (and Plastic Ono Band turned me into a Lennonist).

Okay, that was bad, but it brings me in a roundabout way to Glenn Mitchell’s revised and expanded edition of The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia from Titan Books. This A-Z listing of all things Marx will probably be overwhelming for a newcomer to the Marx Brothers, yet it’s an incredible compendium of facts for fans more familiar with the group’s body of work.

There’s even non-Marx trivia that’s fascinating within these dense pages. For instance, under the listing for “Puns,” it notes that the addiction to making puns is officially known as Foerster’s syndrome. If I could just fake an Italian accent like Chico, I woulda Foerster pun into disa sentence. Peanuts!

Mitchell’s no stranger to the world of vaudeville and early film. He’s also authored The Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia, The Charlie Chaplin Encyclopedia, and The A-Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion. Mitchell is deeply entrenched in the world of these entertainers, and it comes through in the sheer amount of research put into the entries.

In the exhausting first entry of The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia — “Abandoned Projects” — you learn about a Marx Brothers screenplay written by Salvador Dali, a failed collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch, a Marx Brothers biopic that never got off the ground, Harpo’s wish to make a TV puppet show, a live and in-color television version of Animal Crackers that never materialized, Billy Wilder’s proposed Marx Brothers reunion film which would have been an update of Duck Soup, Woody Allen’s attempt to get Groucho into What’s New Pussycat, and Federico Fellini’s desire to cast Groucho in Satyricon as “a philosophical pimp.”

This first entry is only about 1,000 words, give or take.

The same level of research and detail is put into the early careers of the Marx Brothers. There are great passages about their careers in vaudeville, including detailed synopses of some of their routines. This includes the very early schoolroom sketch Fun in Hi Skule, the first of their acts to emphasize their comedic talents over musical numbers. Another tangential and fascinating fact Mitchelll throws in: the phrases “big time” and “small time” apparently originated in vaudeville, referring to the prestige of the vaudeville circuit.

The Marx Brothers’s eventual blacklisting in vaudeville led to their make-or-break attempt at musical comedy theater, I’ll Say She Is. Their hits on Broadway (The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers) eventually went to the big screen during the days of the early talkies. Another great tidbit of trivia from Mitchell (but last one, I swear): early talkie technology required cameras and camera operators to be sealed inside of soundproof boxes, which made panning impossible.

When writing about the Marx Brothers’s movies, Mitchell includes a detailed synopsis, some production information, and then a little bit of the critical response at the time. It’s all worth reading, and a lot of it has to do with how absurd some Marx gags sound when written out. In the synopsis of Monkey Business, the line “Between chasing girls, Harpo loses his pet frog” made me laugh. Maybe it’s because I was remembering the film, or maybe it’s just that non sequiturs like that are goofy. It’s clear why the surrealists loved the Marx Brothers so much; they even gave Harpo a barb wire harp as a gift. It’s mentioned under the entry for “Paintings,” which also has a hilarious anecdote about Harpo’s work as a portrait artist.

Apart from the films, there are numerous entries for the people surrounding the Marx Brothers. Many are for the actors, actresses, producers, and filmmakers they worked with. Margaret Dumont is obviously in there, the put-upon lightning rod for so many of Groucho’s sharp put downs. According to the “Insults” entry, Groucho was often asked by fans to insult them or their significant others. To one fan Groucho replied, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. With a wife like that, it should be easy to come up with your own insults.”

There’s a surprisingly morbid entry for Monkey Business actress Thelma Todd, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her garage in 1935. (An apparent suicide, though some think a possible murder.) Mitchell notes a cryptic line of Groucho’s in the film: “You’re a woman who’s been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you’ll have to stay in the garage all night.”

A number of entries — like for Lillian Roth and director Sam Wood — help provide a sense of the madcap nature of the Marxes on set. The Marxes ad libbed constantly, showed up late, and were usually goofballs and pranksters. Supposedly while filming Animal Crackers, they were kept in cages so they wouldn’t go missing between takes. Wood was once so exasperated he asked them, “Don’t you guys have any sense of dignity?” The Marxes didn’t care much for Wood, and Harpo even pretended to be unconscious for an hour to avoid interaction with the director.

There are obvious appearances from Marx contemporaries, like Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy, and Mitchell notes the friendships as well as the rivalries among them. There are also many unexpected appearances in the book. Graham Greene pops up under the entry for A Day at the Races with snippets of his film criticism. George Bernard Shaw and Jack Kerouac have their own entries, as does influential critic and Algonquin Round Table member Alexander Woollcott, who was a very close friend of Harpo’s.

The great difficulty in reviewing The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia is that it’s an encyclopedia. (Yup, that philosophy degree really comes in handy sometimes.) I could trace things chronologically for a bit, and could leap back and forth, and could proceed alphabetically, but there was always a sense of being overwhelmed. Sometimes I felt like that lemonade guy in Duck Soup: one moment I knew what was going on, the next moment I was holding Chico by the leg.

Yet gradually, reading more of the entries, thinking about the movies, I could stitch together a rough, patchwork history in my head. A sentence in one entry helps illuminate another entry, and so on. I could even sense Zeppo’s gradual marginalization as the group went from stage to screen. The personalities and quirks of the Marxes come across in the text. Sure, it’s not the same as reading Groucho and Me or Harpo Speaks, but nothing is.

What’s important with an encyclopedia is that it informs and that it maintains interest, and that’s where Mitchell excels. I’m obsessed with learning more about that Marx Brothers screenplay that Dali wrote, for instance (it’s called Giraffes on Horseback Salad); ditto with checking out more on the history of vaudeville and finally watching the only so-so Love Happy, which is perhaps more notable for being Marilyn Monroe’s first screen appearance than for being a crummy Marx Brothers movie. Even as overwhelmed as I got, I was always entertained. Can’t say the same for that mook with the lemonade stand.

There’s a great quote from Groucho that epitomizes the comic stylings of the Marx Brothers: “Humor is reason gone mad.” It’s one of my favorite lines about what comedy is, up there with George Saunders’s idea that humor “is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.”

There’s also a great one-liner from Groucho that is my favorite one-liner of all time: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

And yeah, The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia is a good friend for a fan of the Marx Brothers. But for Pete’s sake, just keep out of that poor dog.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.