In addition to the pantheon of holidays my family observes—Thanksgiving, Passover, three New Years’ (Western, Chinese, and Jewish)—I celebrate two more. April 1 is Ronnie Lane’s Birthday, which involves listening to as many of his CDs as I can during the course of the day. And on Nov. 23 I’m celebrating Harpo Marx’s Birthday.
I’m a latecomer to the delights of the Marx Brothers. For years my husband did his best to convert me, but the kvetching tones of Groucho put me off. This past year, though, while trying once again to interest me in Duck Soup, he mentioned that Harpo had been a member of the Algonquin Round Table. The obvious disconnect between the fast-talking, faster-quipping literary wits and the goggle-eyed, fright-wigged mime led me on a search for Harpo Speaks!, Harpo’s autobiography.
After just a few chapters, I was in love. I’ve always been a sucker for the poetry of plainspoken prose (which is why The Basketball Diaries and Bloodbrothers are among my favorite books). And Harpo Speaks! is a plain-talking autobiography, not an overly composed memoir. Yet Harpo's depictions of turn-of-the-century New York and the lowest levels of vaudeville (depictions aided and abetted by his cowriter, Rowland Barber) were easily as evocative as those of more “literary” books I’ve read. He didn’t romanticize what it felt like to be hungry, to be beaten up for being Jewish, scrawny, or poor. At the same time, his glass was always half-full, even when it contained little more than a drop.
Then I began watching the movies, and fell in love some more.
Well, I fell in love some more with the Harpo of the first five Marx Brothers films (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup). My ardor abated a wee bit with A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, then a bit more with each subsequent movie, until I refused to even watch a few of their final flicks.
The first five movies are chaotic, if not anarchic. Yes, each has a plot, but it serves simply as a set of monkey bars on which the persona of each brother was allowed to scamper, climb, swing, and cavort. And freed from the necessity to speak, and thereby explain—or at least rationalize—his actions and his logic, Harpo cavorted even more freely than Groucho and Chico.
But for all of Harpo’s childlike and childish hijinks in those first five films, there’s a darkness to his character too. Take the scene in Monkey Business where, as the passengers are in line presenting their passports so that they can disembark, Harpo begins throwing the officials’ files and papers in the air and across the table, stamping and crumbling those that haven’t been tossed aside. It’s not merely a gleeful abandon that abounds; there’s a touch of the old “screw you” in there as well.
There’s also a lack of cause for his effects. Why does he brush glue to the seat of Ambassador Trentino’s trousers in Duck Soup? Why does fire a rifle at the statues in Animal Crackers? There’s absolutely no reason, and those films feel no need to provide us with one.
But in the movies that followed, the producers felt the need to explain, to make the world of the Marxes a more logical one. Many argue that A Night at the Opera and even A Day at the Races are better movies than the earlier ones because of that. But it’s tough to deny that forcing Harpo to belong to a logical world lessened his, well, Harpo-ness.
Oh, he was still funny. But he was no longer indescribable. He was now a mute, put-upon, none-too-bright dresser to an opera star, or a mute, put-upon, none-too-bright jockey. In the later films he was as much an object of pathos as he was a source of mayhem. But in the first five movies he was neither put-upon nor none-too-bright. In fact, you weren’t even sure if he was mute or simply preferred honking his horn to talking. He just was.
All of which is to explain why my celebration of Harpo Marx’s Birthday will entail watching my favorite clips from the first five films to the exclusion of the subsequent movies (well, except for the “Mama Yo Quiero” number from The Big Store. So I’m inconsistent—sue me). When I’m awake at three in the morning with another bout of insomnia or ready to scream in response to one more impossible deadline, I don’t want pathos. Watching another poor sap get beaten down isn’t going to relax me or cheer me up. But watching a nimble little scrapper, equal parts angelic and devilish, offer his leg to shake in lieu of a hand, for no discernable reason whatsoever, will.
So thank you for that, Harpo. And let the celebration begin.