Today we look at the most beloved of the Marx Brothers, Harpo Marx. We must also pause for an unpleasant confession: when we here at The Jade Sphinx first became enamored of the Marx Brothers, we not only disliked Harpo, we loathed him.
Strong words, we know, but let us explain. While growing up, comedy was for me a verbal exercise – a concentration of wit and wordplay. Comedy came down to the written word and its skillful delivery. Comedy was something said. Slapstick, pantomime and clowning did not possess the elements of wit and intelligence, to our minds, and were simply degraded … funniness.
Fortunately, with age comes wisdom (or a distant relative of it, in my case), and now Harpo is perhaps my favorite of the team. Not simply because I have been able to overcome my linguistic prejudices and finally recognize his comic genius, but, more importantly, because I see the real and elemental sweetness of the man shining through his work.
Of all of the Brothers Marx, Harpo had much the happiest life. Groucho said Harpo had a talent for happiness, and that comes through in everything he does.
Harpo was born Adolph Marx in 1888. He supplemented the family income with piano and harp playing, and joined the act as a comic. Though he originally spoke in his onstage appearances, reviewers were quick to praise his skills as a pantomime and physical comic. Knowing a strength when it was pointed out to him, he became a mute act and comedy history was made.
If the Marx Brothers movies are studies in surrealism, then Harpo is the most surreal of them all. It is no surprise that he was loved by Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and other absurdists. Like a character from a Looney Tunes cartoon, the rules of time, space and dimension that rule all of us do not seem to apply to Harpo. He is able to pull lit cigarettes, candles or steaming cups of coffee from the pockets of his pendulous jacket. Dogs lean out of tattoos and bark at the audience; he can make a payphone payoff a jackpot. He is virtually indestructible, and though he can be hurt, it seems as if his corporeal self is made of stronger stuff than are we.
But for all of the invincibility – he is the only Marx Brother who is vulnerable. Harpo is capable of great acts of kindness, self-sacrifice and sweetness that are impossible to the more self-absorbed Groucho and Chico. In more ways than one, Harpo was the soul of the act – the most outlandish of them all was also the most human.
If Harpo was undisguised ID, it was the ID of a basically good child. He was ruled by lust, hunger and enthusiasm, but never self-interest, enmity nor malice. We may wish for Chico’s wiliness, or Groucho’s Olympian wit, but we long for Harpo’s soul.
Harpo married Susan Fleming in 1936. He was the only one of the performing brothers who married once and married happily. They adopted four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy and Minnie. He is recorded as having told fellow comedian George Burns: I would 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.
Though Harpo received very little formal schooling, he was good friends with most of the Algonquin Round Table, including critic Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943), who may have had a homosexual passion for the comic. Groucho thought spending time with the Round Table was “like swimming in a shark pool,” but Harpo seemed to hold his own, mostly by being such a good audience. When Woolcott was parodied in the 1939 comedy The Man Who Came Dinner, by George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) and Moss Hart (1904-1961), Harpo was transformed into the character Banjo, memorably played by Jimmy Durante (1893-1980) in the film version. Harpo and Woolcott, however, both played their fictional selves on the Los Angeles stage – and what your correspondent wouldn’t have given to have seen that!
Later in life, Harpo published his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. And did he ever, at long last. His final public appearance was in 1964, when he appeared onstage with comedian Allan Sherman (1924-1973) to announce his retirement. Once he started talking, it seemed as if he would never shut up.
Harpo died just six months later from a heart attack following open heart surgery. Many people have recorded that it was the only time they saw brother Groucho cry.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Harpo was not mute and spoke with an old, New York accent. If it does not destroy too much of the illusion, you can hear him here:
Watch any of the Marx Brothers films, but especially those from Coconuts (1929) to A Night at the Opera (1935). It’s enough to make you a Marxist, too.
Harpo With His Real-Life Children