Why Monkey Business?

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The pages under www.marx-brothers.org/whyaduck/ were originally created by Frank Bland for his site www.whyaduck.com.

An Interview With Simon Louvish

by Kathy Biehl

After so many biographies and autobiographies and memoirs, is there anything new to be said about the Marx Brothers? Simon Louvish's Monkey Business shows that there is. Louvish has crafted the most documented account yet of the brothers' lives and careers, which pursues the conflicting versions of old familiar stories with an unprecedented curiosity, enthusiasism and tenacity. To the fan versed in Marxian lore, Louvish's attention to detail (which is not dry and pedantic, but ever so conversational) is eyeopening and gripping. Even to the general reader, the book is a fascinating chronicle of uncommonly bonded siblings, who rose from an immigrant household through vaudeville and into the pantheon of Hollywood. (Note: Book-title links on this page point to selections from Simon Louvish available through the Marx Brothers Bookstore in affiliation with Amazon.com.)

Before entertaining questions on behalf of Why A Duck? Mr. Louvish provided the following biography:

The Days of Miracles and Wonders Simon Louvish is engaged on a trilogy on the great clowns of 1930's comedy which began with W.C. Fields - Man on the Flying Trapeze, and continued with Monkey Business, the Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers. The third book, on Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, will follow next year.

In his other persona he is a past documentary film maker, part time teacher at the London International Film School, and author of ten novels, including the "BLOK" trilogy, a satire on Middle East mayhem. His latest novel is The Days Of Miracles And Wonders, published in 1999 by Interlink Books. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and lived in Jerusalem, Israel, from the age of 2 till 20. He is currently in London.

Monkey Business The Man On The Flying TrapezeKB: Why did you decide to follow your biography of W.C. Fields (Man on the Flying Trapeze) with a work about the Marx Brothers?

SL: Writing the Fields book was a kind of detective work following and discovering the vanished vaudeville trail which turned out to be crucial to the story of the 1930's Talkie comedians. From the earliest stage it looked as if a trilogy on the classic `30's comics might be the long term result, and the Marx Brothers were the obvious second step. In fact, I was more connected to the Brothers than to Fields, as I'd seen all the Marx Brothers films since teenage years in a faraway country (the Marx Brothers films seem to take place in a faraway country anyway, and not just Freedonia!), whereas chasing all of Fields' 40-odd films was not an easy task. Once in the blood stream, the Marx Brothers circulate, as Groucho says in Horse Feathers, down to the feet, takes a look at those feet, and then rushes back up again.

The point of chasing up all five Marx Brothers was crucial to the central idea behind the trilogy - which wraps up with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the work now in progress - was the realisation of how much the film clowns owed to the stage. In the current hoo-hah and bloodletting concerning my book and other recent stuff on the Brothers, a great deal of huffing and puffing takes place defining the Brothers only in relation to Groucho. The historical record shows that, while Groucho was definitely the Brother most keen to go on the stage - and the first to do so, it was the Brothers as a team which wowed the audiences in vaudeville and then on Broadway. As everyone knows, when Alexander Woollcott "discovered" the Brothers on stage in "I'll Say She Is," it was Harpo he rhapsodized about. My own take on the movie Marx Brothers is that their unique charm lies in the way the brothers spark off each other, not just as partners in the professional sense, but in the kind of mental telepathy in which each knows what the other is thinking even before he thinks it. While Groucho was indeed the brother who became most prominent, due to his continued success on radio and TV, the movies he made as a solo comedian after the Brothers' break-up are pretty poor stuff - certainly but a shadow of what went on before.

I also was curious myself as to the part Gummo had played in the stage act and what became of him later. His son, Robert, was very helpful in tracking that down. Oddly enough, it proved to be Zeppo who was the most difficult to track down in terms of his post-team life. Perhaps if I had more time and money I might have been able to unravel his business deals during World War II and after, though I expect that would have had a pretty minority appeal. At the end of the day, I was interested, as I was with Fields, in the lives as they affected the art. I'm not keen on biographies of artists which are more interested in the bodily fluids than the greasepaint or the actor's masks. In any case, tales of the bedroom rely so heavily on hearsay that reliable conclusions can rarely be achieved.

KB: The first chapter alone suggests that you did significant time in New York City public archives. Please tell us something about your research methods. How did you devise a plan of attack? What cities did you visit, and what types of records did you examine? Did you interview surviving family members? How did you locate the various drafts of the movie scripts? How long did the research process take?

SL: What I discovered while writing on Bill Fields was the real discrepancy between oral history and archival findings. Until quite recently, most showbiz biographies have been essentially anecdotal - you track down family members, old friends, enemies, and get their stories. Certainly they provide a fascinating picture of a period, of a time in people's lives, of attitudes, of opinions. But facts??? Now that's another story. The case was blatant with Fields, as he had made up his life, and through his tales to Gene Fowler, this had become "fact" through the 1948 book by Robert Lewis Taylor. When getting to the Marx Brothers, I was well aware there were quite a few books done before. The oddball Kyle Crichton affair of 1950 ("The Marx Brothers") was a dog-eared paperback on my shelf. I knew about Joe Adamson's "Groucho, Harpo, Chico etc", and Anobile's "Scrapbook." I caught up with Hector Arce's two books and other available sources. They seem to have wrapped things up pretty thoroughly. But still - not enough archive work. Having some prior knowledge of tales of Jewish immigration to America it seemed to me there was a lot of "foileh-shtik" (or unreliable tales) floating about. One thing led to another and eventually, as is inevitable with the Brothers, to Paul Wesolowski's doorstep.

As I wrote in the book, "Wesso's" archive is invaluable, and voluminous, but there were other sources too. The Fields book taught me how to use Washington's Library of Congress, whose card-index room is one of the wonders of the modern world, a real challenge to the sleuth. It did not yield as much as it had for Fields, but two early Groucho and Gummo texts turned up. I chased up hill and down dale for the Holy Grail of Marx Brothers studies - the texts of the vaudeville acts: the School Act, Mr Green's Reception, and Home Again. No dice. New York's Lincoln Center filled in some of the blanks of that period, not least through Ned Wayburn's dossier, which is one of the period's most comprehensive records. Philadelphia's Free Library Theatre collection, run by the ever zealous Geraldine Duclow, was another important filler. Being based in London, I couldn't go everywhere, so Chicago got neglected.

Getting the family on board is another challenge in these matters. As is known, certain rivalries and old traumas sometimes get in the way of research, and sons and daughters can't be expected to have infinite patience with the sometime silly questions of strangers. Bill Marx, Miriam Marx Allen and Maxine Marx helped out as far as they could, given that I was mainly digging away at events that happened before they were born. Arthur Marx, who has written several books on the old pater, felt he had said enough, and so we passed there. Robert Marx, as I mentioned above, was extremely helpful.

The early stuff, as recounted in my first chapter, was heavily reliant on the help of a zealous friend whose passion is genealogy, and whom I met at the Mormon Church's Family History centre in Los Angeles. This Mecca of genealogy was revealed to me by Armond Fields, the researcher's researcher, biographer of vaudevillians Weber and Fields, Eddie Foy and others. My genealogist friend, David Rothman, worked the magic of the archive to dig up as much as possible about the Marx and Schoenberg family tree. This led to a familiar problem one has in confronting archive evidence: It is like a jigsaw puzzle. Often there is a great deal that contradicts oral evidence and family stories, but not enough to properly construct a viable alternative tale. You constantly feel that there is another story here, but you just have the ragged end of the tale. This is the case not just in personal stories (the census form's insistence on the elder Marx sister Pauline), but more importantly in general revelations about the historical period. Having the raw details of a Marx Brothers appearance in a vaud act somewhere in the mid-west in 1912 is one thing - looking at what is going on around the act, beyond the theatre, has many more aspects. Old stage magazines - The Clipper, Variety, etc, are not just lists of acts, they are a social history too.

KB: You take care to tell and track down, when possible, conflicting versions of the same story. Did you set out intending to do this, or was there a point during the research or writing at which it became clear that this would be your approach? Were there stories that turned out to be particularly difficult to sort out? Did you come across anything that surprised you?

SL: In writing the book, I decided to let the reader in on the quest itself, and the uncertainties thereof. I know this is at odds with the mainstream of narrative biography, which involves setting down the yarn as pithily as possible, and ironing out the internal contradictions. What my reader might not know is that I also write fiction, in a completely different vein, and totally different department (Middle East, Israel, political madness etc), and therefore I get my fictional rocks off in other texts. And so I try, in the biographies, to chase the facts, slippery and slithery as they are, and admit that I don't know when I don't know.

This research process usually takes about a year, and can take longer, if you want to chase down every "t", and dot every "i." At the end of the day, though, we should realise we're dealing with comedians and not historians, and stop somewhere, when we're ahead. It can be maddening to go to press knowing there are annoying holes in one's knowledge, but the alternative is not to go to press at all.

Did I come across anything that surprised me? Not any more, after the Fields research had shown me that nothing anybody says can be believed. I've developed researcher's paranoia: I don't believe oral stories. Groucho says he first had sex with a hooker in so and so and got the clap - O.K., Grouch, prove it! Was there a seventh Marx Brother? And was he Sam Marx of MGM? Had I been more unscrupulous (or more commercially astute) I would have made much more of this archival glitch. But it didn't make sense, so I reported it as a big question mark. This approach may not satisfy everyone, but I think we should be skeptical about what comes down to us as the real McCoy from the long-vanished past.

KB: What would you want a reader to come away from Monkey Business with (besides the desire to tell other people about it)?

SL: At the end of the day, the Marx Brothers are only part of a story - the story of American movie comedy, and its tangled theatre roots. We often think we live in a particularly smart age, a time of intense change, with technology which answers every possible question. It helps to look back a hundred years and see how rapidly things were changing then as well. Why are the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy funny, and fresh, seventy years after their movies, when TV comedians who were funny last week become stale overnight? Naturally, they were talented, but talent is not rare. Something in their style of comedy, and its content, tickles not only the funny bone but the mind, our realisation that life has eternal absurdities. These clowns were able to express this, in my view, because they built on solid foundations, because they were schooled in a tradition that revived old jokes in new formats: In a very real sense, they made nothing up, but what they had was perfect memories. They built their acts by trial and error, before live audiences. The Marx Brothers, Fields, Stan and Ollie are carrying onto the screen the ghosts of many other performers known only to showbiz archivists and diehard fans: Weber and Fields, Bert Williams, Dan Leno, going even further back to Grimaldi. It was a historical fluke that talking pictures came in just in time to record the veterans who carried this old battered baggage, and baggy pants and red wigs and greasepaint mustaches, before they were too old to be seen.

If I've sparked some interest in this, I'll be happy. But we can also celebrate the movie clowns for what they were, as themselves, on the surface, without too much soul searching or academic degrees. Professor Wagstaff has seen to all that. Monkey business continues forever.

Pip pip!

Simon Louvish
(Somewhere East of Freedonia.)

©2000, Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.

Kathy Biehl is a long-time Marx Brothers fan who writes frequently about the arts, food, travel and legal issues. She is the co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press 2000).


©1995-2006, Frank M. Bland

The pages under www.marx-brothers.org/whyaduck were originally created by Frank Bland for his site www.whyaduck.com. Frank did kindly give me permission to use the contents of his site.

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