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Who is Harpo Marx?
Who is Harpo? How does one describe him? What is his role in the Marx Brothers' films? What is his role in the universe? Sometimes he is a hero; sometimes an anti-hero. He is always unique, on par with the greats: Chaplin, Red Skelton, Emmet Kelly. He is spontaneous, in continuous action, even when he freezes or stares (which are actions in themselves). He's a part of a group, but sometimes stands alone. Is he everyman, or the product of a long line of clowns?
Harpo can't read, so he takes pleasure in burning books. Perhaps he can read and it's all a pretense. He doesn't speak, but his eyes say volumes. He stares, he puckers his lips, he freezes, his smile slight, sometimes broad, sometimes innocent, saying what? It's hard to know. Is Harpo's mis-use of objects intentional, a comment on the absurdity of the universe? Dali drew him, fascinated by his otherness. Is Harpo the ultimate surrealist? Is this all fun and laughs for comedy's sake? Or is it something else? Something higher? Let the viewer interpret.
My first ever Marx Brothers' film was Duck Soup; I saw it on late night television and laughed so hard and loud I woke up my entire family. Depending on how you see the world, you can either love the Marx Brothers or think them silly and inconsequential. To me, they're not just hilarious, they're brilliant. I love Groucho and Chico for many reasons but Harpo is my favorite, perhaps because he doesn't speak and must rely on movement and gestures. I especially enjoy the scenes where Harpo, looking heavenward before playing his harp, intimates his real role as poet/saint. It's quite difficult for me to analyze Harpo—I'd prefer to sit back and let his brilliance give me goosebumps.
Those of you who haven't seen any Marx Brothers films might like to start with these clips:
Marx Brothers in the NYPL Catalog
Anobile, Richard J. Why A Duck? This is a compilation of the funniest scenes, with pictures and dialogue, from the Marx Brothers' films.
Mitchell, Glenn. The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia. The 1996 edition and the revised 2012 edition offer everything on the Marx Brothers from their early years growing up in New York to their stage careers, films, television appearances, the leading actors and actresses in their films, and loads of other information.
Inside The NBC Vault. This DVD offers interviews with Harpo and Groucho and Harpo's adopted son William. If you're hoping that Harpo will talk in this interview, well, let's just say that the interview is orally somewhat one-sided!
Louvish, Simon. Monkey Business: The lives and legends of the Marx Brothers. A complete and comprehensive telling of the Marx Brothers--their works, all the people in their lives, and little-known facts and anecdotes omitted in other biographies.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Anatomy of Harpo Marx. A highly scholarly and important work, the author analyzes Harpo's movements, non-movements and gestures in the Marx Brothers' thirteen films.
Johnson, Paul. Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward. Chapter 12, p. 165-172, discusses the concept of chaos in the films of the Marx Brothers.
Artaud, Antonin. Selected Writings. p. 240-42 discusses chaos and anarchy in Animal Crackers and Monkey Business.
Some Books by the Brothers Themselves
(or by their relatives), but sometimes, though, with a little help from others:
Marx, Groucho. Essential Groucho. Presents a little bit of everything from movie scripts, correspondence, his magazine articles, quips from Groucho's television and radio show "You Bet Your Life" and many other yummies.
Marx, Groucho. Groucho and Me. The history of the Marx Brothers, told with Groucho's typical humor.
Marx, Maxine. Growing Up With Chico. Chico's daughter writes an honest biography of her father whom she loves despite his many faults.
Marx, Harpo. Harpo Speaks! This Harpo bible was written by Harpo with assistance from author Rowland Barber. It recounts the history of the brothers, their parents, relatives and friends, of the New York neighborhood of their youth, of their travels on the vaudeville circuit, and of Harpo's later years. There are anecdotes about famous New York and Hollywood friends, and loving descriptions of life with his wife, the actress Susan Fleming, and their adopted children.
Harpo was devoted to the art of mime, and like his brothers, was very spontaneous and inventive. He was a quiet man, a listener, who enjoyed living a child-like existence filled with fun and laughter. He was also an accomplished painter and musician. The idea of fun and laughter, along with a love of the arts, formed the basis of his work on the stage and screen.
Some Thoughts by Allan Sherman
from his A Gift of Laughter (Atheneum, 1965):
"There was something in the way he touched that harp—it was an act of love..."
"...the almost unbearable beauty of this man and his love for music. And you could feel his love for every other creature on earth..."
"...the simplicity of the man—the beauty inside..."
"To see, and to laugh, and to give joy to others in a way so special..."
"Harpo was a child who never grew up. He was the best part of a human being—the innocent part that can see things with wonder."
"He could see... inside all of us... fancy and laughter and music and playfulness and love. Harpo could feel all those things inside himself and inside every human being."
"Harpo Marx had the good sense and the great gift never to grow up. And that was the soul of his comedy."