I’m a huge Marx Brothers fan; I have read a ton of books about the legendary comedy team. Usually, they tend to focus on their movies and their personal lives. When these books get around to talking about Groucho’s solo career, which entailed stage, radio, movies, and television, they do this in about a chapter or less (with the exception of You Bet Your Life). Luckily, lifelong Marx Brothers fan, co-host of the Marx Brothers Council Podcast, and author of The Annotated Marx Brothers: A Filmgoer’s Guide to In-Jokes, Obscure References and Sly Details Matthew Coniam has filled this gap with his 2016 book That’s Me, Groucho!: The Solo Career of Groucho Marx. It’s a great for any Marx Brothers aficionado, and I really mean any Marx Brothers aficionado.
In great detail, the book dives into Groucho’s solo career from being the first brother to be in Vaudeville in the 1900s to the 1976 reissuing of his book Beds the year before he passed away. Coniam clearly admires Groucho for his wit and swagger, but he can also be critical about his work at times. For example, while he likes his solo film Double Dynamite, he is more mixed on the movie A Girl in Every Port. Like other fans, he too is baffled by why Groucho participated in Skidoo. This allows him to be objective about his subject at much as possible. And of course, I have to talk about how Coniam cites his sources with a detailed bibliography and thorough chapters/appendix notes as well as provides captions with the photographs used. One might be surprised when a nonfiction book does not contain those aspects, but believe me, I have learned to be entirely grateful when one puts in the effort to show their credibility (see The Cold War review).
The book contains not one, not two, but FIVE appendixes written by Coniam and Marx Brothers Council colleagues Noah Diamond, Gary Westin, and Jay Hopkins. They touch upon a variety of aspects of Groucho’s career that were not mentioned in the actual book like whether or not he actually said the infamous cigar line and his theory of creativity. These should intrigue Marx Brothers lovers. My personal favorite was “Anatomy of a Mustache” by Diamond, which analyzes the evolution of the iconic thick, black greasepaint (and eventually real) mustache.
Throughout the book, I learned about certain aspects of Groucho’s solo career that I never would have thought about before. For instance, when Groucho reached new heights of fame with You Bet Your Life, his name and image were used in napkins that contained jokes and cartoons that he approved beforehand. He promoted them in magazine and newspaper ads, and according to Coniam, “what the napkins show us is the final and complete severing of Groucho the man and Groucho the icon” (p. 81). In other words, Groucho became immortalized not through film and television, but through napkins and other ephemeral merchandise.
One problem that I noticed while reading this is that Coniam has a tendency to phrase things that might not be immediately understandable to the readers. For example, when he talks about Groucho leaving for England to film Groucho aka the British version of You Bet Your Life, he describes it this way, “He was telling the truth, but what may have sounded an exciting new departure was undertaken, once again, à la rescherche du temps perdu” (p. 108). Luckily, Google is always there to help.
Another, and more immediate, issue that I saw with this book is that it’s not for all readers. What I mean is that it’s not for those who are just starting to get into the comedy team. For example, Coniam writes that Groucho had a gig as the host the radio program Pabst Blue Ribbon Town, but “within a year he had been replaced by Kenny Baker, the singing circus owner” (p. 40). Now, that might fly over the heads of anybody who hasn’t watched the Marx Brothers film At the Circus, in which Baker does play a singing circus owner. Even the chapter names are quotes that mainly diehard Marx Brothers fans, especially those who know a lot about Groucho’s solo films, would know like “I wish Harpo and Chico were here.”
I experienced a similar issue with Caterham Sevens: The Official Story of a Unique British Sportscar From Conception to CSR, where it contained a lot of car jargon that I couldn’t wrap my head around without looking up certain terms on the Internet (or asking my car crazy fiance.) Besides my present knowledge of the Marx Brothers, the main difference between the Caterham Sevens book and this one is how they target their audiences. In the former, the author Chris Rees tries to reach out to those who love cars even if they know very little about the vehicle in question because one is more likely to run into a car expert than into a Marx Brothers one. Rees does this through a variety of methods like car lingo and pop culture references. In the latter, Coniam is very aware that being a Marx Brothers fan is very niche. In fact, his aims for the book are “more to divert the confirmed enthusiast than to introduce the subject to the newcomer” and “to dig beneath the surface, and see if there are any surprises hiding there” (p. 3). Therefore, those who read this book should already have basic knowledge of Groucho’s solo career. Those who want to get into the Marx Brothers can read books like Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo by Joe Adamson and watch documentaries like Marx Brothers in a Nutshell.
All in all, That’s Me, Groucho!: The Solo Career of Groucho Marx by Matthew Coniam is a wonderful add to the Marx Brothers book universe. Even though its appeal is primarily for Marx Brothers fans, readers will appreciate the research and information that even the most diehards might not know. As a huge fan myself, it was definitely a book that I couldn’t put down.
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