Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage

It Came From the Bottom Bookshelf!

Don your reading glasses, classic comedy enthusiasts,

Here’s more recommended reading from the Bottom Bookshelf:

Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage
by Robert S. Bader
©2016 Northwestern University Press
544 pages

There has been no shortage of books written about The Marx Brothers and their film career — the wonderfully anarchic comedies that they made at Paramount Studios from 1929 to 1933, and the gradual decline in the quality of their movies under the administration of MGM (a studio that generally had the worst comedy output of the large studios).  One wouldn’t think there was much more to learn about Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, or even Gummo nearly seventy years after their last film together as a team (if you can even call Love Happy a team film), but Robert S. Bader has done a Herculean amount of research on the act and produced a book that is a gold mine of revelatory information.

A fan of the brothers Marx from childhood, Bader has always been greatly interested in the most under reported period of the team’s career — their years on stage in Vaudeville and on Broadway prior to the production of their first talkie.  When no one else produced the definitive book on the stage years of the team, Bader decided that he had no better option than to write the book himself.  Following the same cross-country path that the Marxes traveled 100 years earlier, the author scoured local records, library microfiche, and the archives of Variety and other trade papers to uncover primary sources of info that had previously escaped notice.  The resulting book, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage, separates the fact from the fiction behind decades old stories that were simply assumed to be true in previous books on the brothers.  The author has also added to the record numerous previously undiscussed anecdotes of success, failure, scandal, and hullabaloo.

No book on the team has done a more thorough job of elucidating how the sons of Minnie Marx–Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Milton, and Herbert–became Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo.  At the same time, Bader’s book provides an invaluable history lesson on the practices of Vaudeville, the handful of men who held a monopoly on the entertainment venue, and the blacklist for actors that tried to buck the system.  Still, the book is no dry historical text.  It is brimming with good humor, and it is a breezy read, despite its length.

Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage did something for me that entertainment biographies rarely do; it made me look at the subjects in a whole new way.  I had always considered the Marx Brothers to be the greatest film comedy team of the 1930s, but they really weren’t a film comedy team at all.  They were a stage act that happened to make a handful of films, and those movies were primarily assembled from material that they had first honed on the stage.  I doubt, I’ll ever view the team in quite the same way again.

If you haven’t read Robert S. Bader’s book, you don’t really know the Marx Brothers.  In short, the tome receives my highest recommendation.

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