Harpo Marx in 1931
November 23, 1888
New York, New York, U.S.
|Died||September 28, 1964
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Actor, mime, musician|
Sam "Frenchie" Marx
Arthur Marx (born Adolph Marx; November 23, 1888 – September 28, 1964), known professionally as Harpo Marx, was an American comedian, actor, mime artist, and musician, and the second-oldest of the Marx Brothers. In contrast to the mainly verbal comedy of his brothers Groucho and Chico, Harpo's comic style was visual, being an example of both clown and pantomime traditions. He wore a curly reddish blonde wig, and never spoke during performances (he blew a horn or whistled to communicate). He frequently used props such as a horn cane, made up of a lead pipe, tape, and a bulbhorn, and he played the harp in most of his films.
Early life and career
Harpo was born in New York City. He grew up in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on East 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue. The turn-of-the-century building that Harpo called "the first real home they ever knew" (in his memoir Harpo Speaks) was populated with European immigrants, mostly artisans – which even included a glass blower. Just across the street were the oldest brownstones in the area, owned by people like the well-connected Loew Brothers and William Orth.
Harpo's parents were Sam Marx (called "Frenchie" throughout his life) and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie's brother was Al Shean. Marx's family was Jewish. His mother was from East Frisia in Germany, and his father was a native of Alsace in France and worked as a tailor.
Harpo received little formal education and left grade school at age eight (mainly due to bullying) during his second attempt to pass the second grade. He began to work, gaining employment in numerous odd jobs alongside his brother Chico to contribute to the family income, including selling newspapers, working in a butcher shop, and as an errand office boy.
In January 1910, Harpo joined two of his brothers, Julius (later "Groucho") and Milton (later "Gummo"), to form "The Three Nightingales", later changed to simply "The Marx Brothers". Multiple stories—most unsubstantiated—exist to explain Harpo's evolution as the "silent" character in the brothers' act. In his memoir, Groucho wrote that Harpo simply wasn't very good at memorizing dialogue, and thus was ideal for the role of the "dunce who couldn't speak", a common character in vaudeville acts of the time.
Harpo gained his stage name during a card game at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg, Illinois. The dealer (Art Fisher) called him "Harpo" because he played the harp. He learned how to hold it properly from a picture of an angel playing a harp that he saw in a five-and-dime. No one in town knew how to play the harp, so Harpo tuned it as best he could, starting with one basic note and tuning it from there. Three years later he found out he had tuned it incorrectly, but he could not have tuned it properly; if he had, the strings would have broken each night. Harpo's method placed much less tension on the strings. Although he played this way for the rest of his life, he did try to learn how to play correctly, and he spent considerable money hiring the best teachers. They spent their time listening to him, fascinated by the way he played.
In the autobiography Harpo Speaks (1961), he recounts how Chico found him jobs playing piano to accompany silent movies. Unlike Chico, Harpo could play only two songs on the piano, "Waltz Me Around Again, Willie" and "Love Me and the World Is Mine," but he adapted this small repertoire in different tempos to suit the action on the screen. He was also seen playing a portion of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C# minor" in A Day at the Races and chords on the piano in A Night at the Opera, in such a way that the piano sounded much like a harp, as a prelude to actually playing the harp in that scene.
Harpo had changed his name from Adolph to Arthur by 1911. This was due primarily to his dislike for the name Adolph (as a child, he was routinely called "Ahdie" instead). The name change may have also happened because of the similarity between Harpo's name and Adolph Marks, a prominent show business attorney in Chicago. Urban legends stating that the name change came about during World War I due to anti-German sentiment in the US, or during World War II because of the stigma that Adolf Hitler imposed on the name, are groundless.
His first screen appearance was in the 1921 film Humor Risk, with his brothers, although according to Groucho, it was only screened once and then lost. Four years later, Harpo appeared without his brothers in Too Many Kisses, four years before the brothers' first widely released film, The Cocoanuts (1929). In Too Many Kisses, Harpo spoke the only line he would ever speak on-camera in a movie: "You sure you can't move?" (said to the film's tied-up hero before punching him). Fittingly, it was a silent movie, and the audience saw only his lips move and the line on a title card.
Harpo was often cast as Chico's eccentric partner-in-crime, whom he would often help by playing charades to tell of Groucho's problem, and/or annoy by giving Chico his leg.
Harpo became famous for prop-laden sight gags, in particular the seemingly infinite number of odd things stored in his topcoat's oversized pockets. In the film Horse Feathers (1932), Groucho, referring to an impossible situation, tells Harpo that he cannot "burn the candle at both ends." Harpo immediately produces from within his coat pocket a lit candle burning at both ends. In the same film, a homeless man on the street asks Harpo for money for a cup of coffee, and he subsequently produces a steaming cup, complete with saucer, from inside his coat. In Duck Soup, he produces a lit blowtorch to light a cigar. As author Joe Adamson put in his book, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, "The president of the college has been shouted down by a mute."
Harpo often used facial expressions and mime to get his point across. One of his facial expressions, which he used in every Marx Brothers film and stage play, beginning with Fun in Hi Skule, was known as "the Gookie." Harpo created it by mimicking the expression of Mr. Gehrke, a New York tobacconist who would make a similar face while concentrating on rolling cigars.
Harpo further distinguished his character by wearing a "fright wig". Early in his career it was dyed pink, as evidenced by color film posters of the time and by allusions to it in films, with character names such as "Pinky" in Duck Soup. It tended to show as blonde on-screen due to the black-and-white film stock at the time. Over time, he darkened the pink to more of a reddish color, again alluded to in films with character names such as "Rusty".
His non-speaking in his early films was occasionally referred to by the other Marx Brothers, who were careful to imply that his character's not speaking was a choice rather than a disability. They would make joking reference to this part of his act. For example, in Animal Crackers his character was ironically dubbed "The Professor". In The Cocoanuts, this exchange occurred:
- Groucho: "Who is this?"
- Chico: "Dat's-a my partner, but he no speak."
- Groucho: "Oh, that's your silent partner!"
In later films, Harpo was put into situations where he would repeatedly attempt to convey a vital message to another person, but only did so through nonverbal means, usually by whistling or pantomime. These scenes reinforced the idea that the character was unable to speak.
In other media
In 1933, following U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, he spent six weeks in Moscow as a performer and goodwill ambassador. His tour was a huge success. Harpo's name was transliterated into Russian, using the Cyrillic alphabet, as ХАРПО МАРКС, and was billed as such during his Soviet Union appearances. Harpo, having no knowledge of Russian, pronounced it as 'Exapno Mapcase'. At that time Harpo and the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov became friends and even performed a routine on stage together. During this time he served as a secret courier; delivering communiques to and from the US embassy in Moscow at the request of Ambassador William Christian Bullitt, Jr., smuggling the messages in and out of Russia by taping a sealed envelope to his leg beneath his trousers, an event described in David Fromkin's 1995 book In the Time of the Americans. In Harpo Speaks, Marx describes his relief at making it out of the Soviet Union, recalling how "I pulled up my pants, ripped off the tape, unwound the straps, handed over the dispatches from Ambassador Bullitt, and gave my leg its first scratch in ten days."
The Russia trip was later memorialized in a bizarre science fiction novella, The Foreign Hand Tie by Randall Garrett, a tale of telepathic spies which is full of references to the Marx Brothers and their films.
In 1936, he was one of a number of performers and celebrities to appear as caricatures in the Walt Disney Production of Mickey's Polo Team. Harpo was part of a team of polo-playing movie stars which included Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. His mount was an ostrich. Walt Disney would later have Harpo (with Groucho and Chico) appear as one of King Cole's "Fiddlers Three" in the Silly Symphony Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.
Harpo was also caricatured in Sock-A-Bye Baby (1934), an early episode of the Popeye cartoon series created by Fleischer Studios. Harpo is playing the harp, and wakes up Popeye's baby, and then Popeye kills him. (After Popeye hits him, a halo appears over his head and he floats to the sky.)
Friz Freleng's 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon The Coo-Coo Nut Grove featuring animal versions of assorted celebrities, caricatures Harpo as a bird with a red beak. When he first appears, he is chasing a woman, but the woman later turns out to be Groucho.
Harpo also took an interest in painting, and a few of his works can be seen in his autobiography. In the book, Marx tells a story about how he tried to paint a nude female model, but froze up because he simply did not know how to paint properly. The model took pity on him, however, showing him a few basic strokes with a brush, until finally Harpo (fully clothed) took the model's place as the subject and the naked woman painted his portrait.
In 1955, Harpo made an appearance on the sitcom I Love Lucy, in which they re-enacted the famous mirror scene from the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup (1933). In this scene, they are both supposed to be Harpo, not Groucho; he stays the same and Lucille Ball is dressed as him. About this time, he also appeared on NBC's The Martha Raye Show.
Harpo and Chico played a television anthology episode of General Electric Theater entitled "The Incredible Jewelry Robbery" entirely in pantomime in 1959, with a brief surprise appearance by Groucho at the end.
Harpo made television appearances in the 1960s. In 1960, he appeared with Ernest Truex in an episode of The DuPont Show with June Allyson entitled "A Silent Panic". He played a deaf-mute who, as a "mechanical man" in a department store window, witnessed a gangland murder. In 1961, he made guest appearances on The Today Show, Play Your Hunch, Candid Camera, I've Got a Secret, Here's Hollywood, Art Linkletter's House Party, Groucho's quiz show You Bet Your Life, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Your Surprise Package.
In 1962 he guest-starred with Carol Burnett in an installment of The DuPont Show of the Week entitled "The Wonderful World of Toys". The show was filmed in Central Park and featured Marx playing "Autumn Leaves" on the harp. A visit to the set inspired poet Robert Lowell to compose a poem about Marx.
Harpo's two final television appearances came less than a month apart in late 1962. He portrayed a guardian angel on CBS's The Red Skelton Show on September 25. He guest starred as himself on October 20 in the episode "Musicale" of ABC's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a sitcom starring Fess Parker, based on the 1939 Frank Capra film.
Harpo married actress Susan Fleming on September 28, 1936. The wedding became public knowledge after President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the couple a telegram of congratulations the following month. Harpo's marriage, like Gummo's, was lifelong. (Groucho was divorced three times, Zeppo twice, Chico once.) The couple adopted four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy, and Minnie. When he was asked by George Burns in 1948 how many children he planned to adopt, he answered, "I’d like to adopt as many children as I have windows in my house. So when I leave for work, I want a kid in every window, waving goodbye."
Harpo was good friends with theater critic Alexander Woollcott, and became a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table. He once said his main contribution was to be the audience for the quips of other members. In their play The Man Who Came to Dinner, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart based the character of "Banjo" on Harpo. Harpo later played the role in Los Angeles opposite Woolcott, who had inspired the character of Sheridan Whiteside.
In 1961 Harpo published his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. Because he never spoke a word in character, many believed he actually was mute. In fact, radio and TV news recordings of his voice can be found on the Internet, in documentaries, and on bonus materials of Marx Brothers DVDs. A reporter who interviewed him in the early 1930s wrote that "he [Harpo]... had a deep and distinguished voice, like a professional announcer", and like his brothers, spoke with a New York accent his entire life. According to those who personally knew him, Harpo's voice was much deeper than Groucho's, but it also sounded very similar to Chico's. His son, Bill, recalled that in private Harpo had a very deep and mature soft-spoken voice, but that he was "not verbose" like the other Marx brothers; Harpo preferred listening and learning from others.
Harpo's final public appearance came on January 19, 1963 with singer/comedian Allan Sherman. Sherman burst into tears when Harpo announced his retirement from the entertainment business. Comedian Steve Allen, who was in the audience, remembered that Harpo spoke for several minutes about his career, and how he would miss it all, and repeatedly interrupted Sherman when he tried to speak. The audience found it charmingly ironic, Allen said, that Harpo, who had never before spoken on stage or screen, "wouldn't shut up!" Harpo, an avid croquet player, was inducted into the Croquet Hall of Fame in 1979.
Harpo Marx died on September 28, 1964 (his and his wife, Susan's, 28th wedding anniversary), at age 75 in a West Los Angeles hospital one day after undergoing heart surgery. Harpo's death was said to have hit the surviving Marx brothers very hard. Groucho's son Arthur Marx, who attended the funeral with most of the Marx family, later said that Harpo's funeral was the only time in his life that he ever saw his father cry. In his will, Harpo Marx donated his trademark harp to the State of Israel. His remains were cremated, and his ashes were scattered at a golf course in Rancho Mirage, California.
Harpo is most known for his signature outfit: trench coat with over-large pockets, red wig (he switched to a blonde one for every film after The Cocoanuts), top hat, and a comical horn heard in his movies. He was also well known for playing the harp, though he could not read music. For many moviegoers, Harpo Marx provided their introduction to harp music. Today, thanks to reruns of Marx Brothers films, Harpo continues to entertain audiences old and new. Outside the professional harp community, he remains one of the best "ambassadors for the harp" the world has known. In time, his talent earned him an international reputation as he performed in movies as well as in stage shows around the globe.
- La famille paternelle des Marx Brothers (French)
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- Marx 1961, pp. 17–19
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- Mitchell 1996, p. 169
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- Randall Garrett, The Foreign Hand Tie. Originally appeared in Analog science fiction magazine, December 1961. Entire text available for free downlonad online, page found 2011-01-01.
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- Hear, for instance, these audio recordings.
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- Adamson, Joe (1973). Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A Celebration of the Marx Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-21458-6
- Marx, Harpo (1961). Harpo Speaks. New York: B. Geis Associates; New York: Limelight Editions, 1985. ISBN 0-879-10036-2
- Mitchell, Glenn (1996). The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd. ISBN 0-713-47838-1
- Koestenbaum, Wayne (2012). The Anatomy of Harpo Marx. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26900-2
- Fix, Charlene (2013) Harpo Marx asTrickster. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishers Inc. ISBN 978-0-786-47147-8
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