By Trav S.D.

Bear Manor Media


324pp/$30.00/March 2024

The Marx Brothers Miscellany

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In his introduction to his book The Marx Brothers Miscellany, Trav S.D. informs the reader that the book is "intended to be read in small chunks, not all at once as a narrative." He also notes that the book is not meant as an introduction to the Marx Brothers, expecting that the readers have some basic knowledge of their career and movies, even if the reader is not as immersed in their history as Trav S.D. is. Both of these statements provide a necessary context for the collection, which began life as a series of unrelated (except by topic) series of essays on his blog, Travelanche.

The book is divided into sections, introducing the brothers as a team and as individuals, including Zeppo, who appeared on stage and in the first five films, and Gummo, who left the act during their stage career. Trav S.D. then includes several essays looking at different aspects of their work and life, including discussions of the recreation of their first legitimate stage play, I'll Say She Is and thoughts about their lost first film, Humor Risk. The final section of the book includes essays on the people who made the Marx Brothers possible, their co-stars, writers, producers, and influences. In many ways this is the most important part of the book. When it comes to the Marx Brothers, especially Groucho, people seem to forget that writers created their memorable routines (actually, Harpo is the one who did the most to originate his own schtick in the films). This section reminds the reader of all the people who were necessary to make the brothers a success on the screen. Many of these individuals, with the exception of Margaret DuMont, Sig Ruman, and Irving Thalberg, are all too often overlooked.

Many of the essays present subjective opinions, rankings of the films (which Trav S.D. admits are in flux as he reconsiders them: Go West is their worst film, unless The Big Store is and he notes there are at least four films in contention for that dishonor). Other essays demonstrate him trying to reconsider ways to examine the films, such as his thesis "The Chico Years," which takes a different look at the MGM films and tries to understand the changes in the brothers' films in terms of trying to fit into the changing taste of not just the studio heads, but also the audiences who would watch the films. In Trav S.D.'s theory, the films during this period are set in a milieu that is most conducive to Chico's character, even if his character is not the central or driving force. It is an interesting way to view the films made in the late 30s.

The chapter on I'll Say She Is provides a look at Trav S.D.;s participation in Noah Diamond's revival of the Marx Brothers' first Broadway show and offers an interesting coda to Diamond's own book, Give Me a Thrill, which detailed the work her did on that play. The following chapter gives the readers hope for a similar recreation of the lost Marx Brothers' film Humor Risk, even while admitting that so little is known about it that anything Trav S.D. did would essentially be a new work.

Despite Trav S.D.'s contention that the book is not meant as an introduction to the Marx Brothers, it serves that purpose quite well. After introducing the brothers and their films, it takes a deeper dive into their history, influence, and mythology, providing a course in context for their humor, ranging from the people who influenced them as well as a look at their humor as a reflection of the times in which they performed. While reading the book straight through may lend itself to a case of repetitive information, it isn't a major issue and the various articles stand well on their own, although occasionally they show signs of having been taken directly from his website and referring to links that don't exist in a physical book.

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