Having long since done dedicated posts on his brothers, you may think it odd that I have not yet written one here on Harpo Marx (Adolph Marx, 1888-1964). It’s not an intentional lapse. It’s far from the case that Harpo is my least favorite Marx Brother, although it’s true that I relate more to the more verbal comedy of Groucho and Chico. Still, Harpo is frequently my favorite Marx . Indeed, because their later scripts are so bad, starting around the time of Room Service (1938), in their later films Harpo is the only member of the team who remains unbesmirched throughout their film career. His gags are often the only saving grace in their later films. In actuality, I have done more posts about Harpo (or rather around Harpo) than his brothers, nearly enough for his own section. I’ve written posts about comedians who resemble him, about his wife, and about a silent movie he made without his brothers. So one reason I didn’t do one yet is because I had kind of done some. But he deserves a better one.
Harpo is the favorite Marx Brother of many, on account of his being the most overtly clownish member of the team. In the early vaudeville years, his character had been more like those of his brothers. He spoke dialogue, and for a time his character was Irish (hence the red curly wig). But much like his brother Gummo he was self-conscious about speaking lines, and felt that he often botched them. He decided to go with silence as a strength — there was an entire void to be filled there. And so he became the most magical and the most uncanny of the brothers. His grandfather had been a magician; I believe Harpo took a lot of inspiration from him. Harpo could take an endless amount of things out of his coat, sometimes unbelievable things like a burning candle or a steaming cup of coffee. He could make a statue come to life, or produce a barking dog from a tattoo on his arm. One watched him constantly to see what surprising things he would do. In the early films, he was a bit of a scamp and a thief. At MGM, he became more Chaplinesque, a figure of occasional pathos. He was usually presented as a lunatic, less dumb than crazy. In Animal Crackers, he tells us that he is five years old. In that film he also tells us that he “loves a horse” and in Duck Soup he actually goes to bed with one.
Because of his silence, it was easy for critics to plug Harpo into a comic tradition that included commedia dell’arte and British panto, etc, as opposed to his brothers, who were dismissed as mere vaudeville. He was thus embraced by the intelligentsia and hobknobbed with the likes of Alexander Woolcott and George Bernard Shaw, despite the fact that Groucho was the bookish one. He was also the most musically adept. Like his grandmother, he played the harp (a truly unusual instrument, one we associate with Gods and angels), but he also played the piano like Chico (and often subbed for his brother in his regular gigs in the early days), as well as the clarinet.
Love Happy was initially intended to be a solo vehicle for Harpo, but Chico’s financial woes meant his inclusion as well, and a part for Groucho was grafted in to aid in raising money for the venture. In the television era, Harpo was frequently seen with and without his brothers. My first exposure to him was in a rerun of I Love Lucy. He did the Colgate Comedy Hour with Chico and their co-star from The Big Store, Tony Martin. An episode of General Electric Theatre contains the last appearance of all three Marx Brothers. Harpo also went on the All Star Revue, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Martha Raye Show, etc, making up for those years when he was unable to appear on radio with his brothers.
If you’re dying to hear Harpo’s real voice, there were a couple of occasions when he let it slip, which you can hear in this terrific clip. You can also “hear” his authorial voice in his indispensible memoir Harpo Speaks.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.