Harpo (Adolph) Marx - biography
Arthur Adolph "Harpo" Marx (November 23, 1888 – September 28, 1964) was an American comedian and film star. He was the second oldest of the Marx Brothers. His comic style was influenced by clown and pantomime traditions. He wore a curly reddish wig, and never spoke during performances (he blew a horn or whistled to communicate). Marx frequently used props such as a walking stick with a built-in bulb horn, and he played the harp in most of his films.
Early life and career
"Harpo" was born Adolph Marx in New York City. He grew up in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side (E 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue) of Manhattan. The turn-of-the-century building that Harpo called "the first real home they ever knew" (in his memoir Harpo Speaks), was populated with European immigrants, mostly artisans - which even included a glass blower. Just across the street were the oldest brownstones in the area, owned by people like the well-connected Loew Brothers and William Orth.
Harpo's parents were Sam Marx (called "Frenchie" throughout his life) and his wife Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie's brother was Al Schoenberg, who changed his name to Al Shean when he went into show business. He was half of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century.
Harpo had little formal education, quitting during his second attempt to pass the second grade. According to Harpo's autobiography, he was thrown out of the window of his classroom (from the first floor) by two big Irish kids, as he was the only Jew in the class and was very small for his age. Upon returning to the classroom, Harpo would lie to his teacher, saying he had gone to the restroom to avoid worse bullying. This happened about three or four times a day until Harpo finally left New York Public School 86 for good. He started working odd jobs alongside his brother Chico to contribute to the family income.
In January 1910, Harpo joined two of his brothers, Julius (later "Groucho") and Milton (later "Gummo"), to form "The Three Nightingales". Harpo was inspired to develop his "silent" routine after reading a review of one of their performances which had been largely ad-libbed. The theater critic wrote, "Adolph Marx performed beautiful pantomime which was ruined whenever he spoke."
Harpo got his stage name during a card game at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg, Illinois. The dealer (Art Fisher) called him "Harpo" because he played the harp.(In Harpo's autobiography, he says that mother Minnie Marx sent him the harp.) Harpo learned how to hold it properly from a picture of an angel playing a harp that he saw in a five-and-dime. No one in town knew how to play the harp, so Harpo tuned it as best he could, starting with one basic note and tuning it from there. Three years later he found out he had tuned it incorrectly, but he could not have tuned it properly; if he had, the strings would have broken each night. Harpo's method placed much less tension on the strings. Although he played this way for the rest of his life, he did try to learn how to play correctly, and he spent considerable money hiring the best teachers. They, however, spent their time listening to him, fascinated by the way he played. In his movie performances he played the harp with his own tuning.
In his autobiography Harpo Speaks (1961), Harpo recounts how Chico got him jobs playing piano to accompany silent movies. Unlike Chico, Harpo could only play two songs on the piano, "Waltz Me Around Again, Willie" and "Love Me and the World Is Mine", but he adapted this small repertoire in different tempos to suit the action on the screen. He was also seen playing a portion of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C# minor" in Animal Crackers and chords on the piano in A Night at the Opera, in such a way that the piano sounded much like a harp, as a prelude to actually playing the harp in that scene.
Harpo had changed his name from Adolph to Arthur by 1911. This was due primarily to his dislike for the name Adolph (as a child, he was routinely called "Ahdie" instead). Urban legends stating that the name change came about during World War I—owing to anti-German sentiment in the US and during World War II—owing to the stigma that Adolf Hitler imposed on the name—are groundless.
His first appearance was in the 1921 film Humor Risk, with his brothers, although according to Groucho, it was only screened once and then lost. Four years later, Harpo appeared without his brothers in Too Many Kisses, four years before the brothers' first widely-released film, The Cocoanuts (1929). In Too Many Kisses, Harpo spoke the only line he would ever speak on-camera in a movie: "You sure you can't move?" Fittingly, it was a silent movie, and the audience only saw his lips move and saw the line on a title card.
In the Marx Brothers' movie At the Circus (1939), however, Harpo speaks in a movie with the brothers in the scene in which he visits the room of Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren), Harpo sneezes, clearly saying "At-choo!". In A Night in Casablanca, Harpo also "speaks" in the scene where he is taste-testing Groucho's food by acting like a seal and vocalizing seal sounds. It is also implied that Harpo is singing in the opening scene of Monkey Business (1931), where the four Marx Brothers, stowed away in barrels aboard a cruise liner, sing a four-part harmony of "Sweet Adeline." Harpo became famous for prop-laden sight gags. In the film Horse Feathers (1932), Groucho, refering to an impossible situation, tells Harpo that he cannot "burn the candle at both ends." Harpo immediately produces from within his coat pocket a lit candle burning at both ends. As author Joe Adamson put in his book, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, "The president of the college has been shouted down by a mute."
Harpo often used facial expressions and mime to get his point across. One of his facial expressions, which he used in every Marx Brothers film and stage play, beginning with Fun in Hi Skule, was known as "the Gookie." Harpo created it by mimicking the expression of Mr. Gehrke, a New York tobacconist who would make a similar face while concentrating on rolling cigars.
Harpo further distinguished his character by wearing a "fright wig". Early in his career it was dyed pink, as evidenced by color film posters of the time and by allusions to it in films, with character names such as "Pinky." It tended to show as blonde on-screen due to the black-and-white film stock at the time. Over time, he darkened the pink to more of a reddish color, again alluded to in films with names such as "Rusty."
His non-speaking in his early films was occasionally referred to by the other Marx Brothers, who were careful to imply that his character's not speaking was a choice rather than a disability. They would make joking reference to this part of his act. For example, in Animal Crackers his character was ironically dubbed "The Professor." In The Cocoanuts, this exchange occurred:
Groucho: Who is this? Chico: Dat's-a my partner, but he no speak. Groucho: Oh, that's your silent partner! In later films Harpo was put into situations where he would repeatedly attempt to convey a vital message to another person, but only did so through nonverbal means. These scenes reinforced the idea that the character was unable to speak.
In other media
In 1933, following U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, he spent six weeks in Moscow as a performer and goodwill ambassador. His tour was a huge success. He served as a secret courier during this time, delivering communiques to and from the US embassy in Moscow at the request of Ambassador William Christian Bullitt, Jr., smuggling the messages in and out of Russia by taping a sealed envelope to his leg beneath his trousers, an event described in David Fromkin's 1995 book In the Time of the Americans. In Harpo Speaks, Marx describes his relief at making it out of the Soviet Union, recalling how "I pulled up my pants, ripped off the tape, unwound the straps, handed over the dispatches from Ambassador Bullitt, and gave my leg its first scratch in ten days."
In 1936, he was one of a number of performers and celebrities to appear as caricatures in the Walt Disney Production of Mickey's Polo Team. Harpo was part of a team of polo-playing movie stars which included Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. His mount was an ostrich. Walt Disney would later have Harpo ( with Groucho & Chico ), appear as one of King Cole's "Fiddlers Three" in the Silly Symphony ; "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood".
Harpo was also caricatured in "Sock-A-Bye Baby" (1934), an early episode of the Popeye cartoon series created by Fleischer Studios. Harpo is playing the harp, and wakes up Popeye's baby, and then Popeye beats him up and supposedly kills him. (After Popeye hits him, a halo appears over his head and he floats to the sky.)
Friz Freleng's 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon The Coo-Coo Nut Grove caricatures Harpo and gives him a red beak. When he first appears, he is chasing a woman, but the woman later turns out to be Groucho.
Harpo also took an interest in painting, and a few of his works can be seen in his autobiography. In the book, Marx tells a story about how he tried to paint a nude female model, but froze up because he simply did not know how to paint properly. The model took pity on him, however, showing him a few basic strokes with a brush, until finally Harpo (fully clothed) took the model's place as the subject and the naked woman painted his portrait.
In 1955, Harpo made an appearance on Lucille Ball's sitcom I Love Lucy, in which they re-enacted the famous mirror scene from the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup (1933). In this scene, they are both supposed to be Harpo, not Groucho. So he stays the same and Lucille Ball dresses up as him.
Harpo recorded an album of harp music for RCA Victor (Harp by Harpo, 1952) and two for Mercury Records (Harpo in Hi-Fi, 1957; Harpo at Work, 1958).
Marx made a number of notable television appearances in the 1960s. In 1960, he appeared with Ernest Truex in an episode of The DuPont Show with June Allyson entitled "A Silent Panic". Marx plays a deaf-mute who, as a "mechanical man" in a department store window, witnesses a gangland murder. In 1961, he made guest appearances on The Today Show, Play Your Hunch, Candid Camera, I've Got a Secret, Here's Hollywood, Art Linkletter's House Party, Groucho's quiz show You Bet Your Life, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Your Surprise Package.
In 1962 he guest-starred with Carol Burnett in an installment of the DuPont Show of the Week entitled "The Wonderful World of Toys". The show was filmed in Central Park and featured Marx playing "Autumn Leaves" on the harp. A visit to the set inspired poet Robert Lowell to compose a poem about Marx.
Marx's two final television appearances came less than a month apart in the fall of 1962. He portrayed a guardian angel on CBS's The Red Skelton Show on September 25. He guest starred as himself on October 20 in the episode "Musicale" of ABC's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a sitcom starring Fess Parker, based on the 1939 Frank Capra film.
He married actress Susan Fleming on September 28, 1936. Fleming's wedding to Marx was announced to the public when President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the couple a telegram of congratulations that November. Marx had sent a thank you letter to Roosevelt in appreciation for a signed photograph of the President, in which Marx had stated that he was "in line for congratulations, too, having been married since September" in a ceremony that took place in an unspecified "little town up North". Unlike most of his brothers, who were unlucky with love (Groucho was divorced three times, Chico once, and Zeppo twice), Harpo's marriage to Susan was lifelong. The couple adopted four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy, and Minnie. When asked by George Burns how many children he planned to adopt, he answered "I’d like to adopt as many children as I have windows. So when I leave, I want a kid in every window, waving goodbye."
Harpo was good friends with theater critic Alexander Woollcott and because of this became a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table. Harpo, who was quiet in his personal life, said his main contribution was to be the audience in that group of wits. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart based the character of "Banjo" in their play The Man Who Came to Dinner on Harpo. Harpo later played the role in Los Angeles opposite Alexander Woolcott who had inspired the character of Sheridan Whiteside. In 1961, Harpo published his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. In it, he tells one story of a man who did not believe that Harpo could actually talk. Because Harpo never spoke a word in all of his movies and TV appearances, many fans and other people believed he really was mute. In fact, radio and TV news recordings of his voice can be found on the Internet, documentaries, and on bonus materials of Marx Brothers DVDs. In relating one story to a reporter who interviewed him in the early 1930s, the reporter said that Harpo had a deep and distinguished voice like a professional announcer, and like his brothers he spoke with a New York accent his entire life (for example: "girls" he would pronounce "giles", turkey would be "tike-ee", etc); hear, for instance, these audio recordings.) In private, Harpo actually had a much deeper and more resonant speaking voice than Groucho, which some suspect may be the real reason he was dissuaded from ever speaking in the act. For reference, his voice was fairly similar to Chico's, perhaps too similar, which would be another reason he developed his unique silent stage persona. It is also possible that his rich voice was completely at odds with his puckish character.
Harpo's final presence before the public came in early 1964, when he appeared on stage with singer/comedian Allan Sherman. Sherman burst into tears when Harpo, speaking for the first time to the audience, announced his retirement from the entertainment business. Comedian Steve Allen, who was in the audience, remembered that Harpo — in announcing his retirement from the stage — kept talking for several minutes. After a while, the sorowfull audience started tittering and giggling. Allen said that everyone found it charmingly ironic that the comedian, mute for several decades, "wouldn't shut up!"
Harpo Marx died on September 28, 1964, at age 75 after undergoing open heart surgery following a heart attack, barely six months after his retirement. Harpo's death was said to have hit the surviving Marx brothers very hard. Groucho's son Arthur Marx, who attended the funeral with most of the Marx family, later said that Harpo's funeral was the only time in his life that he ever saw his father cry.
Harpo was cremated and his ashes were reportedly sprinkled into the sand trap at the seventh hole of the Rancho Mirage golf course which he occasionally played on. In his will, he donated his trademark harp to the State of Israel.