Don't turn to Stefan Kanfer's Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx (Knopf; 465 pages; $30) if you're looking for laughs. Kanfer, a former TIME critic, deserves no censure for failing to amuse with his large, serious and occasionally logy biography. For one thing, no writer could possibly explain what made Groucho Marx so funny. The printed page cannot show what he could do with a quick leap of his eyebrows, much less with his preposterous body, its upper half canted illogically forward from those scurrying legs. His voice? Let's not even try.
But the other, more imposing force working against Kanfer is the familiar truism: he who is funniest while performing is rarely appealing when the camera stops. In Groucho's case, his wit didn't abandon him off the set, but the man Kanfer discovers behind the joker is no fun at all. By the time he breaks up with Chico and Harpo, Groucho has become a crabby miser, shamefully manipulative of his wives and children. You wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have this guy as a member.
The best part of Kanfer's book is devoted to these later years, from You Bet Your Life through the great man's canonization in the '60s and finally into the horrifying battle over his property and his person waged between Groucho's children and the confused old man's last inamorata, Erin Fleming (he was 80; she was roughly 30). Kanfer excels in these saddest decades not because he's engaged in the black art of what Joyce Carol Oates calls "pathography," but because this is the period he can document most intimately through interviews with surviving witnesses. Necessarily, earlier sections of the book are largely built upon the unreliable memoirs of the Marx brothers and painstaking analyses of the brothers' movies.
Right--the movies. They are the reason we care about Groucho in the first place. You can get the films at your local video shop, and they won't make you dislike the guy.
--By Daniel Okrent