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Book Review: The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell

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Originally published in 1996 and now released in a “Revised and Expanded New Edition,” Glenn Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia (Titan Books) is an imposing compendium of all facts Marxian. It’s a tribute to the density of the bros.’ work that there’s so much to be found in this volume. The Marx Brothers’ oeuvre, lest we forget, comprises a fairly short list of 13 feature films, some of which are of decidedly dubious quality. (Love Happy, anyone?) Still, Minnie’s Boys offer an entrance to so much 20th century entertainment — vaudeville, theater, movies, radio and (say the magic woid!) television — that there’s loads of great material for fans and dabblers alike.

The entries in this book range from the little seen (as in a description of the boys’ first vaudeville routine, “Fun in Hi Skule,”) to the minute (a discussion of Groucho’s fake-then-ultimately real mustache) to full-blown, somewhat flat synopses of each flick that the quartet/threesome made. If that last seems unnecessary to the fanatic who can spout Groucho or Chico patter before the comics have a chance to deliver ‘em on film, Mitchell also includes snippets of some dialog that didn’t make it into the completed product. In at least one instance (a courtroom scene from At the Circus) the material proves superior to much of what finally appeared on film.

At times, the book’s exhaustive attention to the supporting cast of each feature can seem a bit much, though when it comes to such figures as the indomitable Margaret Dumont (the grand dame in seven Marx flicks, she also played the comic foil against W.C. Fields, Red Skelton, and theater comedy vets Wheeler and Woolsey) and Marilyn Monroe (in a brief but memorable role in Love Happy), the attention is fully justified. In the much debated question as to whether Dumont understood the jokes in the movies in which she appeared, Mitchell doesn’t clearly take sides but seems to favor the idea that the lady knew more than she was telling. I like to believe that myself.

Mitchell also excels when it comes to detailing the relationships between the Brothers Marx and many of the literary figures who came within their circle (Alexander Woolcott, S.J. Perlman), a rich source for anecdotes since in many cases the writers themselves chronicled their experiences with the Marxes. Two of the brothers themselves have written about their history — Groucho in a slew of entertaining books, Harpo in Harpo Speaks — and on more than occasion in the encyclopedia, Mitchell notes where their stories have diverse tellings. It seems apt that this most anarchic of comedy troupes would have such a malleable history.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.