Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Book Review: "The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy" by Allen Eyles

I was first introduced to Allen Eyles' writing on the Marx Bros. with his book "The Complete Films of the Marx Bros.", one of the late entries in Citadel's "Films of" series. His book was more involved than most in that series, providing in-depth analysis of each of the Marx Bros. films (rather than just the customary credits, synopses, and reviews as so many others did). I was delighted to learn that Eyles had written an earlier book on the team, which I finally tracked down a copy of a couple months ago at my local used bookstore.

"The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy" takes a quite similar approach as "The Complete Films of the Marx Bros." in providing critical analyses of each of their movies from THE COCOANUTS (1929) through LOVE HAPPY (1949), and indeed some of the sections of this book seem to have been adapted into the entries on the films in the later book. However, the level of analysis is, overall, deeper here, as Eyles thoughtfully examines the routines and gags of each film, providing real insight into the team's humor and how it works without getting lost in the mire of trying to explain why it's funny.

Eyles deserves much credit for giving equal attention to all of the films, not just the acclaimed classics like DUCK SOUP and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, but also such lesser efforts as ROOM SERVICE and LOVE HAPPY. In his analysis of the former, Eyles is especially interested in detailing the differences between the film and the stage play on which it was based, as well as examining where the film falls short as a Marx Bros. vehicle. And in writing on the latter film, he offers a nice appreciation of how the film serves as a showcase for Harpo's talents, despite its other shortcomings.

Even when I found myself disagreeing with Eyles (for example, he really likes THE COCOANUTS, and considers its comedy scenes, when taken as a whole, superior to those in ANIMAL CRACKERS, which I consider to be one of the very strongest comdies), I am still drawn in by his superb writing and commentary that allow me to look at these old favorite films, which I've seen countless times, in a fresh light.

Some readers may find Eyles' writing style a bit dry or clinical in talking about this madcap comedy team, but the seriousness of his approach is certainly warranted given the brilliant insights he reveals about their work. He avoids a straightforward research approach, which may disappoint readers looking for facts about the performers or production histories behind the films. However, with his thoughtful and interesting analysis of these rich and delightful comedies, the book stands as one of the essential works on the Marx Bros.

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