By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin November 29, 2011 at 7:39PM
Edited by Robert S. Bader; foreword by Dick Cavett (Applause Books)
The world may know Groucho Marx as a great comedian, but I’m sure I’m not the only fan who wasn’t terribly familiar with his writings—aside from his autobiographies and The Groucho Letters—until now. Updating his 1993 compendium, Marx scholar and aficionado Robert S. Bader has added 19 new essays and letters to an already-impressive collection of Marxiana. They confirm, beyond dispute, Groucho’s considerable talent as an essayist.
It’s no secret that like many self-educated men, Julius Marx was well-read, but more than that, he loved words and wordplay. At a time when Robert Benchley, Ring Lardner, James Thurber and other great humorists were at the peak of their powers, Groucho joined their ranks, penning pieces for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker. What’s more, he never hesitated to express himself in letters to the editor, firing off hilarious missives to publications as diverse as Variety and The New York Times.
One of my favorite pieces is a Movie Glossary first published in The Hollywood Reporter in 1932. In a timeless punchline, he defines a “trailer” as “a warning to next week’s patrons.” Other contributions include a graduation speech he made at the University of Oregon in 1952, an unexpurgated speech he made at a “roast” for a colleague at Hillcrest Country Club in 1956, and a previously unpublished letter to Woody Allen.
In a well-researched introduction and in his prefaces to each entry, Bader places every piece in the context of Groucho’s career. His helpful footnotes explain dated references that might not “play” to most modern-day readers. A photo insert includes a number of rare shots of Groucho and his brothers, at work and play.
Bader also discusses Groucho’s longtime collaboration with Arthur Sheekman and explores just how much the writer may have contributed to some of his good friend’s essays…but he stops short of identifying him as a ghost writer, offering ample evidence that Groucho was fully capable of doing the job himself, as early as the mid-1920s. (Having examined Groucho’s private correspondence, he finds ample evidence that, if anything, the comedian helped out Sheekman, particularly with employment opportunities, over the years.)
If you love Groucho’s sense of humor, as evidenced in his movies, radio and TV appearances, you’re bound to enjoy him on the printed page. I would recommend dipping into Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales a few pieces at a time: it’s better to savor each one than to overindulge, as one might with a large box of chocolates. Some of the entries are short and sweet; others are more ambitious. They all bear Groucho’s distinctive imprint, and they’re a delight to discover.