Matinee Monday: Harpo Marx


Alright!  Harpo!! Arthur Marx, the youngest of the family, joined his brothers in the family singing act, in vaudeville. In one of his memoirs, Groucho says that Harpo became the “silent one” because he wasn’t very good at learning dialog. However, you have to consider the source; after all, Groucho is also the source for the obviously false story that Margaret Dumont was so staid that she never got any of the jokes.

In the Marx Brothers movies, Harpo was silent, never saying a word. His character, with baggy trench coat, battered top hat and curly wig, was a perfect translation of the vaudeville clown. Majoring in pantomime and great sight gags, accompanying his attempts at communication with whistles and charade, Harpo delighted audiences with his child-like behavior and outrageous antics. And always, he was able to bedevil Groucho, and sometimes, even his partner in crime, Chico.

Away from the studio, Harpo, who was a second-grade dropout, liked to spend his time sitting in on the Algonquin Round Table, America’s answer to Britain’s Inklings. Harpo says that his main contribution to the Round Table was providing an audience.

Like his brother Chico, Harpo was musical, playing the harp in every Marx Brothers movie. The fascinating fact about Harpo is that he is self-taught! He saw a picture of an angel holding a harp at a five-and-dime store, but couldn’t find anyone in vaudeville who could teach him how to play. The story is that he learned to tune and play it himself, and it was years later that he learned that he had done it wrong. When he hired teachers to learn the correct way, they were fascinated by how he played, and spent more time watching him than teaching.

Here is an example of Harpo’s skill, from the 1939 film, At the Circus. Enjoy:

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