Harpo Marx Overview:

Legendary actor, Harpo Marx, was born Adolph Marx on Nov 23, 1888 in New York City, NY. Marx died at the age of 75 on Sep 28, 1964 in Los Angeles, CA and was cremated and his ashes scattered (allegedly) in sand trap at 7th hole of Rancho M.

Early Life

Harpo Marx was born Adolph Marx on November 23rd, 1888 in New York City's Upper East Side. His father, Sam, meeked out a living by working as a tailor and his mother, Millie, came from a family of performers. Although intelligent in his own right, scholastics were not the young Harpo's strong point. When the family was in need of financial help, Harpo dropped out of school at just eight years old to help his brother, Chico, work on any odd job they would find. The two contributed by selling newspapers, working in butcher shops, and as errands boys.

As a child, Harpo and his brothers grew very to close to their uncle, the noted vaudevillian star Al Shean. Although his mother, Minnie, was not a performer herself, she did see in them the same natural talent for performance her brother possessed. Realizing her children's potential, Minnie began to push her children towards the performing arts. The family soon bought a piano. As young boy infatuated with music, Harpo was ecstatic to have the instrument in his house. His happiness, however, soon dissolved into disappointment when the family revealed they could only afford lessons for Chico, who didn't take them seriously in the first place. Chico was then supposed then supposed to teach Harpo but only taught him to songs: Waltz Me Around Again, Willie and Love me and the World Is Mine. When he found work as the piano accompaniment to silent movies, he would simply adjust the tempo to fit the tone of the movie. During this time the Marx Matriarch also gave Harpo is first harp. Because the family could not afford to give him lessons, Harpo was completely self taught and learned how to hold a harp by looking at a picture of a cherub at a local drug store. Although he technically played the instrument wrong for years, when he grew famous many Harp players would go to Harpo to learn his technique.

Early Vaudeville Career

Although primarily known for their rapid-fire comedy, the Marx Brothers originally entered the vaudeville circuit as a musical act. In 1909 Minnie formed the vaudeville troupe "The Nightingales." The group consisted of Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and singer Mabel O' Donnell. Although the grouped toured for years they were met with very little success. One night, however, Groucho grew tired of their indifferent audiences and along with his brothers decided to crack a few impromptu jokes aimed directly at the audiences. Much to their surprise, the audience loved it and The Marx brothers began to explore their comedic potential.

Soon the Marx Brothers began to work on developing their comedic acts. In 1912, the brothers put together the classroom musical comedy Fun in Hi Skule. In the act, Groucho played a German-accented teacher in charge his students, Harpo, Chico and Gummo. In 1915, youngest brother, Zeppo, joined the troupe after Gummo left to serve in the WWI. It was also that year the brother's public persona began to take shape. Chico developed his fast-talking, Italian accent in hopes of covering his Jewish heritage while Groucho manifested the fast-talking, wise-guy comedian persona that would become his legacy. Zeppo, despite often being the funniest Marx brother, was tasked with the role of straight man. Due to Harpo's hatred of public speaking, Uncle Al specifically wrote his character as a mute, relying on his excellent pantomime to communicate to an audience.

By 1920 The Marx Brothers were one of the most popular vaudevillian acts in American. Under the shrewd business dealings of Chico, the brothers had made the unprecedented jump from vaudeville stars to the Broadway stage, starring in three Broadway plays. No comedic routine had ever taken Broadway by such a storm.


In 1924, the brother made their Broadway debut with the revenuen I'll Say She Is. Although very successful, the play was merely a rehashing of their previous successful acts and offered no new material. The next year that would change. In 1925 the brothers starred in the Broadway musical comedy The Cocoanuts with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. The play was written specifically for the Marx brothers by famed playwright George S. Kaufman and helped create the manic tone of a Marx Brother comedy. Kaufman would go to author the brother's next hit, Animal Crackers, working to further developed the already strong characters of Grouch, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. All three plays were smash hits, creating something of phenomena around the Marx Brothers. Of course it did not take long before Hollywood came running.

Motion Pictures

In 1929 the Marx Brothers signed a five-picture contract with Paramount Studios. The first film they began work on was an adaptation of their Broadway hit The Cocoanuts. The shoot proved to be particularly exhausting, as the brother's were still obligated to finish their run of Animal Crackers on Broadway. So, during the day the brother shot at Paramount's New York Astoria Studios and at night continued with Animal Crackers. The film was box-office smash and soon the brothers were working on their next film, once again another adaption from the stage, 1930's Animal Crackers. Because the sound technology for film had greatly improved since their last release, the Marx Brothers had more freedom and creative control with their performance.


Upon arriving to the west coast, the brothers immediately began working. Their first Hollywood film was 1931's Monkey Business. The film offer little in terms of plot but that only to make way for the brothers zany antics. Although not a direct adaption of their Broadway work, the film did contain many routines and antics seen in their stage material. The film was a hit and immediately solidified the brothers as Hollywood stars. Their next film was the college-set Horse Feathers. In the film Groucho plays sarcastic Professor Wagstaff, while his brothers play students. Once again, the Marx Brother although the film did make money, it was not as successful as the brothers previous releases.

In 1933 the brothers released absurdist politician satire Duck Soup. Although the film is now considered a classic and one of the Marx Brothers best efforts, it was not very well received upon its release. The film garnered mixed reviews at best, and although not a box-office flop, the film still made a significantly less amount than their previous releases and failed to meet the studios lofty expectations. Having fulfilled their five-picture contract with Paramount, the brothers parted ways with the studio.

With no obligation to the film studios, Harpo spend six weeks in the USSR performing as a good will ambassador. The tour was big success, with Harpo becoming good friends with the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvino. During this time Harpo also demonstrated his bravery by acting a secret message courier and delivered messages to and from US Embassy in Moscow.


After their departure from Paramount, the brothers were immediately picked up MGM. Under MGM's tenor, the brothers were given softer edge to their comedy. The anarchic and free form comedy so emblematic of the Marx Brothers was replaced with more conventional narrative storytelling.  In their first MGM film, 1935's A Night at the Opera, Groucho played businessman Otis B. Driftwood, who along with is friends played by Chico and Harpo, was helping two singers make it big by sabotaging their snobby opposition. Now more helpful and sympathetic than their absurdist rebel rousing past, their comic foils were not aimed at staunch dowagers, but rather at the snobby and elite. Of the three brothers, it was Harpo's on-screen person that would change the most, going from a silent and subtle girl-chasing troublemaker to sweetly dispositional man-child. Although not everyone was in love with the change, the film was a smash hit.

The Brothers next film, 1937's A Day at the Races was equally as successful. That same year he also wrote the Warner Brothers screenplay The King and the Chorus Girl. He with his brothers and a young Lucile Ball for the RKO film Room Service. The film was the only one in their catalog not written especially for them. The brothers returned to MGM for three more films 1939's At The Circus, 1940's Go West, and finally, 1941's The Big Store. Unhappy with formulaic nature of a MGM production, the brothers left the studio once their contractual obligations were up.

Later Career and Life

After leaving MGM, Harpo mainly concentrated on his music and hobbies. He continued to entertain those in Hollywood with his Harp and took up painting to pass the time. He returned to the screen in 1943 playing himself in The Hollywood Canteen. He would reunite with his brothers in 1946 for A Night in Casablanca mainly to help his brother Chico, who had gone into bankruptcy. They would reunite three years under similar conditions for the film Love Happy.

In the 1950s Harpo was largely absent from the big screen and became a regular fixture on the growing medium of television, appearing on shows such as The Colgate Comedy Hour, Playhouse: 90 and General Electric Theater. During this time toured the nightclub circuit while alternating from zany comedian to serious harp player. His final television appearance was in the 1962 TV series Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as himself. His final stage appearance would be two years when he appeared on comedian Allan Sherman to announce his retirement from the business. Harpo Marx died on September 28th 1964. He was 75 years old. 

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



Marx was never nominated for an Academy Award.

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Harpo Marx Facts

One of only two Marx Brothers to play a recurring role in their films (not counting when they used their own names). He played the role of "Pinky" in both Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).

Legally changed his given name to Arthur around 1911 because he much preferred it to the very German Adolph.

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