November 23, 1888 – Harpo Marx:
“The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs.“
For much of my life I have been noted as a man of few words. In the summer of 2007, after a particularly difficult and uncharacteristically strong fight with The Husband, he spun around and announced: “For three decades you have hardly uttered a word and now you won’t shut up!“
The Marx Brothers were a very successful act in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in films from 1905 to 1949. Five of the Marx Brothers’ 13 films are listed in the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Top 100 Comedy Films, with two of them, Duck Soup (1933) and A Night At The Opera (1935) in the Top Ten. They are considered by critics, scholars, and fans to be the greatest and most influential comedians of the 20th century. The brothers were included in AFI’s list of the 25 Greatest Male Stars of Classic Hollywood cinema, the only performers to be inducted collectively.
Harpo Marx, whose given name was Arthur, was a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table, a celebrated circle for who I have held a lifelong enthusiasm. I have loved his work beyond all measure, but Harpo Marx has a special place in my heart because I played him twice in my acting career. The first time in a slightly fictionalized version, as the character “Banjo” in George Kaufman and Moss Hart‘s brilliant satire The Man Who Came To Dinner in 1973, and as the man himself in the terminally neglected musical, Minnie’s Boys, about the early life of the Marx Brothers, in summer stock in 1973. No surprise, as a young man, I bore an uncanny likeness him.
Marx later played the role of himself in that Kaufman and Hart play, in an Los Angeles production opposite his friend Alexander Woolcott who had inspired the lead character of Sheridan Whiteside. How meta is that?
A honking horn, facial expressions and gestures were Marx’s only mode of communication as a performer on the stage and in films. He maintained professional silence until the end of his career.
A battered hat on his frizzled mop hair, a pervy grimace on his innocent face, and his baggy pants and oversize raincoat filled with everything from ax handles to zebra skins, Marx kept audiences laughing for 50 years.
His trademark was his harp, which he played well, and his silence, which was funnier, sweeter and more eloquent than most comedian’s noise. The cigar‐wielding Groucho was the star of the team, but it was Harpo, tooting his horn while in pursuit of a pretty girl, who always seemed to draw the most laughs.
He was a great pantomimist who specialized in direct action. In a moment of peril, he could be relied upon to produce from those huge coat pockets some device or tool with which to save the day, sometimes scissors to straighten the hem of a woman’s skirt or to cut phone lines.
Marx appeared as himself in a sketch on I Love Lucy in which he and Lucille Ball reprised the mirror routine from Duck Soup, with Lucy dressed up as Harpo. Ball had worked with the Marx Brothers when she appeared in a supporting role in the Marx Brothers film, Room Service (1938).
The Marx Brothers’ wild chaotic world of improvisational humor was distinctly their own. The team came up the hard way, starting as a musical act called the Six Musical Mascots (their mother was the sixth) in Vaudeville, until they reached a vaudevillian’s peak playing the Palace Theatre in 1918.
The brothers were the sons of an Alsatian tailor, Sam Marx, and Minnie Marx, whose brother, Al Shean, was a member of the well‐known vaudville act of Gallagher and Shean.
After their success in the Palace, Gummo dropped out of the act. But the brother team continued, traveling the vaudeville circuit for the next six years and gaining popularity with every appearance.
In 1924, the Marx Brothers made their Broadway debut with I’ll Say She Is, a revue that brought them praise from Woollcott, who wrote:
“Harpo is the funniest man I have even seen on the stage.“
The critic took a liking to Marx, and introduced him to the writers, wits and wags that frequented the Algonquin Hotel. An ideal listener, Marx became their favorite.
The Cocoanuts is a satire that was written for the brothers by Kaufman with songs by Irving Berlin, and it was a big hit on Broadway. So was Animal Crackers in 1928. After The Cocoanuts ran for almost three years, the anarchic Animal Crackers became the third and last Broadway show for the Marx Brothers. It would be their last stage show. Vaudeville’s peak was over and talking pictures had become popular. While the Marx Brothers performed on Broadway in Animal Crackers in the evenings, they were busy during the day filming The Cocoanuts, one of the first talkies, at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in Queens. It was a smashing success.
The film contains the great Chico-Harpo scene where Chico keeps asking Harpo for “a flash” (meaning a flashlight), and Harpo, not understanding, produces from his bottomless coat and baggy pants: a fish, a flask, a flute, a flit, and a “flush”.
Besides working in films, Harpo also did concert tours. His act consisted of clowning combined with his excellent musicianship on the harp, backed by the best symphony orchestras.
The Marx Brother’s final film is Love Happy (1949). Groucho then turned to radio as a quiz show host; Chico and Harpo both had nightclub acts.
Most of Marx’s time, however, was spent on his spacious ranch with his family assorted pets. In 1936, he married Susan Fleming, a Ziegfeld Girl who had the lead in the film Million Dollar Legs (1932). They had four adopted children. In a 1948 interview on radio, he was asked by George Burns how many children he planned to adopt. Marx:
“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.“
A savvy investor, Marx had been financially secure since the early 1940s.
Marx’s final performance was in early 1964, when he appeared on stage with singer/comedian Allan Sherman. Sherman burst into tears when Marx, speaking aloud for the first time to an audience, announced his retirement from showbiz. Steve Allen, who was in the audience, remembered that Harpo kept talking for several minutes to the theater audience about his career and how he would miss it all. He kept cutting Sherman off when he tried to speak. Allen said that everyone found it charmingly ironic that Harpo Marx, having been mute on stage and screen for decades: “Wouldn’t shut up!“