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Four Thousand, Tops

Michael Wood: Headlong by Michael Frayn, 14 October 1999

by Michael Frayn.
Faber, 395 pp., £16.99, August 1999, 0 571 20051 6
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... Laurence Sterne is full of it, and its most notorious modern instance occurs in Duck Soup, where Groucho Marx, invited to hold out the hand of friendship to an enemy, imagines himself doing it, imagines the enemy’s response, imagines himself responding to the response, imagines a response to that, and by the time the enemy materialises has talked ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘Playtime’, 20 November 2014

directed by Jacques Tati.
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... and too short trousers. He bowed a lot and lifted his hat, he walked like a kangaroo trained by Groucho Marx, everything he touched went wrong or wild, like the shed full of fireworks in the movie. Everything except his tennis serve, that is, which looked like a wind-up toy’s attempt at manslaughter and floored his opponent every time. He wanted to ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: Marlene Dietrich, 17 December 2020

... to be as comic as they are. Louise Dresser, playing the Empress Elizabeth, sounds exactly like Groucho Marx in Duck Soup when she says: ‘That’s the chancellor. Steals more money from me in a week than I collect in taxes in a year.’Title cards tell most of the story, reminding us that 18th-century Russia was a place of ...

Who had the most fun?

David Bromwich: The Marx Brothers, 10 May 2001

GrouchoThe Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx 
by Stefan Kanfer.
Penguin, 480 pp., £7.99, April 2001, 0 14 029426 0
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The Essential Groucho 
by Groucho Marx, edited by Stefan Kanfer.
Penguin, 254 pp., £6.99, September 2000, 0 14 029425 2
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... Julius was the original name, but one may as well call him Groucho, from the ‘grouch bag’ carried by travelling showmen. His parents were Jewish immigrants: Simon Marrix, of a family of tailors from Alsace-Lorraine, and Minna Schoenberg, the daughter of a Dutch magician who emigrated when his work in Germany ran out in the 1870s ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘The Shop around the Corner’, 6 January 2011

The Shop around the Corner 
directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
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... and tell him what he sees. The friend, Felix Bressart, who looks like a longer, leaner version of Groucho Marx, reports. He can see the novel, a young woman, can’t quite see her face. Then she moves and he sees it’s Sullavan. He tells Stewart the woman is good-looking, and resembles Sullavan – that is, Miss Novak from the shop. Stewarts gets ...

Jon Elster’s Brisk Meditations

Bernard Williams, 1 May 1980

Logic and Society 
by Jon Elster.
Wiley, 244 pp., £12.65, March 1978, 0 471 99549 5
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Ulysses and the Sirens 
by Jon Elster.
Cambridge/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 240 pp., £9.75, May 1979, 0 521 22388 1
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... theory. He quotes in an unforced and relevant way from Donne, Stendhal, Emily Dickinson and Groucho Marx, to name a few; about the last he remarks that his famous dictum, ‘I would not dream of belonging to a club which would have me as a member,’ is a reversal of the Master-Slave paradox, and that it was indeed he who stood Hegel on his ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘Lincoln’, 20 December 2012

... the stoop, the hat, the long coat. It’s a bit like putting together a kit for dressing up as Groucho Marx. The voice is pitched a little high, and some people have complained about that. It sounded good to me, though, and as you look at this face, the intelligent eyes, the kindly wrinkles of the makeup, the constant but discreet signs of someone ...

At the Movies

Michael Wood: ‘The Da Vinci Code’, 8 June 2006

The Da Vinci Code 
directed by Ron Howard.
May 2006
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... and it scarcely matters what the murders are about. Whatever it is, Molina might say or sing with Groucho Marx, I’m against ...

History’s Revenges

Peter Clarke, 5 March 1981

The Illustrated Dictionary of British History 
edited by Arthur Marwick.
Thames and Hudson, 319 pp., £8.95, October 1980, 0 500 25072 3
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Who’s Who in Modern History, 1860-1980 
by Alan Palmer.
Weidenfeld, 332 pp., £8.50, October 1980, 0 297 77642 8
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... which must have presented the contributors with an acute challenge. Radical defeatism, à la Groucho Marx, would be one response: the sort of life story that can be properly told in fifty words is not worth including. To invoke a more constructive example, the makers of the Christian creeds showed how pregnant economy – ‘crucified, dead and ...

Swinging it

Mark Ford, 7 July 1988

S.J. Perelman: A Life 
by Dorothy Herrmann.
Simon and Schuster, 337 pp., £14.95, November 1987, 0 671 65460 8
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Don’t tread on me: The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman 
edited by Prudence Crowther.
Viking, 372 pp., £14.95, October 1987, 0 670 81759 7
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... was such a shameless Lardner thief that I should have been arrested.’ His liaison with the Marx Brothers began in 1929, when, during the interval of their Broadway show Animal Crackers, he sent Groucho a note thanking him for the jacket copy he had offered Perelman’s publisher for his first collection Dawn ...

A Kind of Slither

Michael Wood: Woody Allen, 27 April 2000

The Unruly Life of Woody Allen 
by Marion Meade.
Weidenfeld, 384 pp., £20, February 2000, 0 297 81868 6
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... the lack of a sense of humour is defined as believing that Zeppo was the most amusing of the Marx Brothers. When a man tries to rob a bank in Take the Money and Run (1969), he is foiled because he gets into an argument about the handwriting of his stick-up note. In Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) the Diane Keaton character has a wild idea and is advised ...

Not a great decade to be Jewish

Will Self, 11 February 1993

Complete Prose 
by Woody Allen.
Picador, 473 pp., £14.99, November 1992, 0 330 32820 4
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... reaches back to incorporate the styles and modes of Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Perelman and Groucho Marx.For my young self, the crucial juncture occurred when, thanks to Annie Hall, Allen became famous in England. Up until 1976 he was an oddity, a little-known Jewish funny man, a minority-interest comedian. With Annie Hall all this changed, and at ...

‘Mmmmm’ not ‘Hmmm’

Michael Wood: Katharine Hepburn, 11 September 2003

Kate Remembered 
by A. Scott Berg.
Simon and Schuster, 318 pp., £18.99, July 2003, 0 7432 0676 2
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... just a matter of luck. ‘Seven-year-olds play this,’ he says. Hepburn, borrowing a turn from Groucho Marx, quickly replies: ‘Well, clearly you don’t have the brains of a seven-year-old.’ There is the dinner party for Michael Jackson at Hepburn’s New York townhouse, where the singer is silent on all topics except the pleasure he has in ...

A Taste for the Obvious

Brian Dillon: Adam Thirlwell, 22 October 2009

The Escape 
by Adam Thirlwell.
Cape, 322 pp., £16.99, August 2009, 978 0 224 08911 1
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... which suggests (along with certain of the names in the list: Sterne, Kafka, Mallarmé, Brecht, Groucho Marx) that Thirlwell has it in him to become a more rigorously playful novelist than he has so far been. It’s a mystery to me why a writer with such tastes, who has spent a good deal of his time so far arguing (both in the voice of his novels and ...


Michael Rogin, 20 August 1998

Celebrity Caricature in America 
by Wendy Wick Reaves.
Yale, 320 pp., £29.95, April 1998, 0 300 07463 8
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... precipitate a face, itself un-outlined, from out of white space, the unmistakable head of Harpo Marx. Turn a few more pages of Wendy Wick Reaves’s spectacular book Celebrity Caricature in America, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington DC until 23 August, and you will also learn unmistakably to recognise the artist, Miguel ...

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