We’d been drooling to get our mitts on Robert S. Bader’s Four of the Three Muskeers: The Marx Brothers On Stage, ever since we heard it was in the works back at Marxfest in 2014. It was published back in October; apologies for only just now getting to it.
The book is everything that was advertised — it makes all previous books on the Marx Brothers look incomplete, introductory, and incorrect. It’s not the hugest shock that books like this one and Arthur Wertheim’s recent W.C. Fields from Burlesque and Vaudeville to Broadway are only just coming out now, over a century after the acts got their start, and decades and decades after they passed on to Vaudeville Valhalla. Only 21st century information culture could make both the research and the market possible. For Marx Brothers fans, the rewards and the punishments of most previous accounts have been the same thing: first-person testimony from the comedians themselves, who were first, last and always entertaining storytellers, but the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. It makes for great entertainment and cocktail party conversation, but plenty of frustration for the people who would like to know what really happened.
As for the facts, it ain’t ever gonna get better than Bader’s book. He’s spent most of his life with his nose buried in primary sources on this topic. He discovered the location of Groucho’s first audition. He uncovered the fact that one of Groucho’s first colleagues may have been the perpetrator of a grisly murder! We learn that one of the most most famous Marx Brothers anecdotes (how they came to become a comedy act when the audience ran out of the theatre to look at a runaway mule) was actually TWO anecdotes (the two incidents happened on separate occasions.) Countless revelations on that order are presented. For the first time ever we get to see the evolution of the vaudeville act in bite sized increments with minute detail as to the venue and the city and what the performances consisted of. Let the buyer beware though: this is not the gateway drug. For an introductory book for the casual movie fan, I would still probably recommend Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, which may be much hazier and out-of-date with regard to facts, but is the most entertaining cocktail to quaff on its effervescent topic. Bader’s book is for the junkie, the obsessed fan who is at the end of his rope in the strung-out need to know more. There are countless countless rewards in this book for that readership.
And I’d also add, for those interested in the wider topic of vaudeville, this book delivers many dividends, as well. As the name implies, the book is concentrated on the Marx Brothers of the vaudeville and Broadway years. It touches a little on the movies towards the end, but the focus is on the early years. There are many passages on the machinations of the U.B.O. (United Box Office), and the jostling of the various circuits for prominence, and relations between vaudeville managers and labor (the acts). The book gives a real feel for the cockamamie way the team came up, which was very different from someone like W.C. Fields who went right to the big time in a clear, easy to digest manner. Because of poor management and bad decisions by their mother Minnie, the brothers spent long years toiling near the bottom of the smallest small time. Groucho, in particular suffered — he’d made the big time quite early as a child star, but Minnie’s insistence on creating a family act meant starting at the bottom again. And the team was also banned from the big time Keith circuit for long periods, until they got so big in small time chains like Pantages, that even the notoriously cantankerous E.F. Albee couldn’t justify banning them, despite their flagrant indifference to his many rules. Some of the sections of the business end of “The Business” contain more detail than even rabid Marx Brothers fans will want or require, but scholars (even casual pseudo-scholars like me) will be grateful that Bader worked that stuff out and published it. It’ll be a useful thing to lay one’s hands on again and again, as will this entire book be.
Special thanks to Noah Diamond.