The Funny Papers: The Best of Harpo
“If things get too much for you and you feel the whole world’s against you, go stand on your head. If you can think of anything crazier to do, do it.” — Harpo Marx
Laughter from physical comedy has likely been around since the first cave dweller slipped on a banana. But I wager to guess the art of physical comedy was first perfected on the vaudevillian stage. All the true masters of this form of humor based their gags on these origins in vaudeville. It’s no surprise that the most famous comedy brothers of all time, the Marx Brothers, became huge successes thanks to their workings and reworkings of vaudevillian slapstick and routines, which they brought to the Broadway stage, and later to the silver screen.
The Marx brothers were a talented lot: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo. Born Milton Marx on October 23, 1893 in Manhattan, NY, Gummo was the first of the Marx boys to join their uncle on the vaudeville stage, but he disliked his brief nip at showbiz before joining WWI. After working in the raincoat business for a time, Gummo and his brother Zeppo ran a theatrical agency together. Gummo went on to represent talent in Hollywood for the duration of his career.
Zeppo (born Herbert Manfred Marx on February 25, 1901, in Manhattan, NY) was the youngest of the Marx kids and performed in the first five of the Marx Brothers feature films (1929 – 1933). Additionally, he played a bit role in the 1925 silent film, A Kiss in the Dark, starring Adolfe Menjou. Unlike his more famous brothers, Zeppo usually played it straight and often as the love interest. A natural mechanical tinker and inventor, he left acting to become an engineer and theatrical agent. Both Gummo and Zeppo obtained patents for a few of their inventions.[
Undoubtedly, the threesome of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are the most known of the five, as the trio showcased major motion pictures. Groucho is considered the leader (born Julius Henry Marx on October 2, 1890, in NY, NY) with his brilliant wordplay, where no one was safe from his quick, verbal barbs. Chico (born Leonard Joseph Marx on March 22, 1887, in NY, NY) played the street-wise, Italian-accented shyster who played the piano with a uniquely playful flair. Finally, Harpo (born Adolphe Marx on November 23, 1888, in NY, NY, who later changed his name to Arthur) stood out as the pantomime, donning a blond, curly wig and a rumpled trench coat which contained unlimited props. Like his brother Chico, Harpo also possessed musical talents with the harp and piano.
Of the many contributions to the entertainment industry across this extraordinary family, I could extoll on all of their talents at great length. But for the purpose of this month’s article, I want to focus on one particular Marx- the only brother who took on the challenge of physical comedy with hilarious silence… Harpo. Without the benefit of clever dialogue, I will highlight my favorite ‘Harpo moments’ and his unforgettable ‘Harpo-isms’ from his movie characters…
-Unlike Chico and Groucho who either flirt directly with women, or flirt with an agenda of poking fun at them, Harpo acts a bit more aloof in a childish way. He often plays the mischievous, wildly unconventional man-child. He’s briefly coy and shy, then BAM! He slips in a prank. Harpo was always more interested in partnering up with Chico and sometimes Groucho in some scheming plot, rather than catching the pretty girl. If anything, he ultimately chases the ladies away.
-There is no other clown that comes to mind that pulls more unexpected items from a seemingly bottomless pockets than Harpo. While magicians grow stale pulling rabbits and doves from their top hats, Harpo surprises his ‘victims’ and us audience members with absurd objects. Even lit candles and piping hot cups of coffee have managed to pop out of that miraculous trench coat.
Talking through Honks:
-Tasked with his mute communication, Harpo always rose to more creative and innovative ways to express himself. In addition to hand gestures, whistles and props, Harpo would often use his famous horn. This was handy beyond counting. It could also express like a musical instrument with just the right pitch. Two examples immediately come to mind. One, giving count of eggs when Groucho is ordering food in a very tiny, extremely crowded cabin room in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935).
[Another funny bit can be found when Harpo pretends to be ill and his only voice comes via the squeezing Kewpie doll ‘honks’ in ROOM SERVICE (1938). [
Loud Chaos Through Silence:
-Harpo built his career on pantomime and site gags. After his first attempt on stage, the brothers agreed Arthur would do better voiceless and based on his talents as a harpist, “Harpo” stuck. It may be hard to imagine how someone so completely non-verbal can create such havoc. But that’s exactly the intent and main staple of Harpo’s gags. What makes this especially true is the almost innocent, joyous playfulness of his characters, so those caught in the cross-hairs of his destructive path are usually caught off-guard. But this is not run-of-the-mill mayhem. Take for example, the operating room scene with Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho) and his fellow quack docs Steinberg, Chico and Harpo in A DAY AT THE RACES (1937). The results are completely screwy and finishes with Chico and Harpo riding off on a horse.
-One of Harpo’s most iconic bits is a classic scene of mimicry in the ‘Mirror Scene’, expertly carried out by Groucho as Firefly, President of Fredonia and Harpo as Pinky, the spy from Sylvania, in DUCK SOUP (1933). While sneaking about, dressed in disguise as Groucho in a long nightgown and nightcap- even down to the signature Groucho eyebrows, glasses, and mustache- a full-length mirror is broken and thus the mirroring skit begins. The jig is up when the other identical imposter (Chico as Chicolini) comes along. This wasn’t the first time this routine was performed. You can see something similar in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), with Max Linder. But the Marx Brothers perfected it. Being such a crowd pleaser, Harpo joined forces again with Lucille Ball (they were co-stars in ROOM SERVICE, 1933) in the “I Love Lucy Show” (“Lucy and Harpo Marx” season 4, episode 28, May 9, 1955) to reprise this famous skit. To this day, this remains one of the most memorable “I Love Lucy” episodes. [
-Overall, the Marx Brothers comedy stylings are musical. In addition to the musical numbers and songs, even the jokes are lyrical in pace and pattern. Although completely lacking much of a formal education, not only was Arthur “Harpo” Marx very intellectual, he was self-taught in his musical skills and dabbled as a painter. While Chico played the piano in his own, wisecracking, unique style of flicking his index finger with key strokes, Harpo was considered a virtuoso on the harp and could play up to six instruments. As the Marx Brothers films became bigger and had evolved from a string of vaudevillian acts from their Broadway shows to actual plots that followed more of a typical storyline, they always made room for musical numbers from Chico and Harpo. A personal favorite of mine is watching Harpo play the piano with so much vigor, that he pounds it into pieces, and magically turns the piano wires into a harp, of sorts. He continues to play this makeshift harp, while barely skipping a comedic nor a musical beat. It’s jaw-dropping, wondrous, and madcap. Take a look:
[Those Facial Expressions:
-Another Harpoism are the whacky facial expressions he commonly made. A mainstay was what I call his ‘fish face.’ With his cheeks puffed out, his eyes cross-eyed, an open, round mouth with the tongue flat rolled to fill the edges, this is what Harpo called a “Gookie,” originally in namesake from a cigar roller.
Another funny interpretation of his Gookie expression is his “get tough” face. It’s pretty similar but he exaggerates an angry faced version while repeatedly shrugging up his shoulders with arms dangling to his side, all while making a panting, huffing sound. This scene from HORSE FEATHERS (1932) shows Harpo ‘getting tough’ with a couple of football players (including a rather fit and young-looking 37 year-old Nat Pendleton).
-One of the other ways that Harpo would creatively pantomime in order to communicate would be via whistling. Luckily for Harpo, he was one of those rare birds who can two-finger whistle like a whiz. Chico was often his sidekick pal and best interpreter in most of these films. I can think of no better example of this than in a whistling charades scene from A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946). Here’s a clip:
-Lastly, a hilarious running gag that Harpo pitched so well was an insatiable appetite. One cannot forget the time Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Frank Albertson as Leo order ROOM SERVICE (1938), with Harpo swiftly shoveling tiny morsels of food into his mouth like a well-oiled assembly line. Considering Lucille Ball was a co-star in this film, perhaps this was inspiration for her famous “Job Switching” episode in “I Love Lucy” made 14 years later, where she utilizes the same speedy method with chocolate candies. But Harpo’s zany appetite was not always limited to food. In A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946), Harpo offers up his “human guinea pig” services to test Groucho’s lunch by eating everything from a burning candle and a tea cup to a phone! [
In real life, Harpo was a fascinating man with natural-born talents and was considered likely the happiest and most well-adjusted of the brothers. In 1936, he married Susan Fleming. They had 4 children and a happy home life. Not only was he a painter, but he collected art, too. His collections included works from famed artists such as his friend, Salvador Dali. Although self-taught in his own method, he took his harp skills quite seriously, often practicing up to 3 hours a day. He even had a harp in his bathroom, to practice on the toilet. In addition to performing the harp with world-class musicians like singer Mahalia Jackson, he composed his own music. He cut 3 albums in the 1950s- Harp By Harpo (1952), Harpo In Hi-Fi (1957), and Harpo At Work! (1958). Despite his lack of a formal education, he also authored a book, “Harpo Speaks!” (1961).
Like his siblings, he was naturally athletic, which proved essential for the physicality of his comedy. He enjoyed sports like golf and croquet. He even had a ‘cold room’ built to store his mallet at the perfect temperature and zero humidity, and he was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Croquet Hall of Fame. Harpo died at the age of 75 years old on September 28, 1964. His ashes were sprinkled at his favorite spot at the 7th hole sand trap at the Rancho Mirage golf course.
Words of wisdom from a man known for his silence….
“I don’t know whether my life has been a success or a failure. But not having any anxiety about becoming one instead of the other, and just taking things as they come along, I’ve had a lot of extra time to enjoy life.” — Harpo Marx
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing as her day gig, Kellee Pratt teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and more). She’s worked for Turner Classic Movies as a Social Producer and TCM Ambassador (2019). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayhawk66 or her own blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com).