Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Birthday: As Harpo Marx so often said, " ."

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Arthur Marx (1888-1964)

The Teller of the mid-twentieth century, Harpo Marx didn’t talk on screen for so many decades people thought he was a mute. In fact, he could speak, in a deep voice that carried a lifelong New York accent. BBC Radio 2 unearthed a nice clip of him talking for a series at the turn of the century, in which Harpo describes a bad night in a brothel.

Mostly, even on radio, Harpo relied on his collection of bulb horns and kazoos, and a salacious wolf-whistle, to communicate. Brother Groucho always said Harpo gave up talking because he was no good at memorizing his lines.

Like his fellow mime, Marcel Marceau- who got the only spoken word in Mel Brooks’ comedy, Silent Movie-  Harpo Marx uttered exactly one line on film, in a 1925 movie called Too Many Kisses (Richard Dix and William Powell topped the billing). He appeared without his brothers and, at one point, asked, “You sure you can’t move?”

And that was it. Not talking became another gag:

  • Groucho: "Who is this?"
  • Chico: "Dat's-a my partner, but he no speak."
  • Groucho: "Oh, that's your silent partner!"

He joined Groucho and Gummo to form The Three Nightingales in 1910. The next year he changed his birth name, Adolph, to Arthur, because he didn’t like Adolph. His nickname came from the cumbersome instrument he once used as a prop- he learned how to sit with it from a picture of an angel in a dime store- and grew to like. He tuned it wrong, and had no idea how to play it, inventing his own style as he went.

He tended to do things that way. He learned to play the piano, sort of, and in the early days earned money playing for silent movie houses, even though he only knew two songs, "Waltz Me Around Again, Willie" and "Love Me and the World Is Mine.” He made do by varying the tempo to suit the action on screen, and relying on lots of audience turnover.

Later in life, he decided he wanted to paint, and hired a woman to sit for him. Harpo froze at his easel, since he had no training in painting; the model, quite naked, stepped down from her perch and showed him some brush strokes. In the end, Harpo, still clothed, took her place and she did a portrait of him.

When the brothers got into movies, Harpo became the king of sight gags. (The less-remembered Banana Man (Adolf Proper (1886-1950) carried the genre to its apotheosis, as a clownish character in a baggy tuxedo, producing an amazing and apparently impossible number of props from countless pockets and secret places in his costume. He would then perform various clown routines with the props. These props included (among many other things) a clarinet, a mandolin, a huge magnet, a violin, a music stand, several watermelons, and three hundred bananas. He did not speak in words, but uttered cries of delight, surprise, etc., in a nasal falsetto, and imitated the sounds of the musical instruments he "played." Sam Levine later recreated the act for the Captain Kangaroo TV show in the 1950s and ‘60s).

Marx’s clothing was often his co-star:

Harpo became famous for prop-laden sight gags, in particular the seemingly infinite number of odd things stored in his topcoat's oversized pockets. In the film Horse Feathers (1932), Groucho, referring 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. In the same film, a homeless man on the street asks Harpo for money for a cup of coffee, and he subsequently produces a steaming cup, complete with saucer, from inside his coat. In Duck Soup, he produces a lit blowtorch to light a cigar.

He often played a con artist to brother Chico, but never missed a chance to come on to a woman. Mostly, he terrified them, and mostly, inexplicably, they ended up holding Harpo’s leg as he leered at them.

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Marx was a regular at the Algonquin Round Table, claiming he served audience for everyone else’s jokes. At the peak of the Brothers’ fame, Harpo was dispatched to Moscow as a U.S. Government goodwill ambassador to the newly-recognized Soviet government. His tour was a huge success. Harpo's name was transliterated into Russian, using the Cyrillic alphabet, as ХАРПО МАРКС, and was billed as such during his Soviet Union appearances. Harpo, having no knowledge of Russian, pronounced it as 'Exapno Mapcase'. At that time Harpo and the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov became friends and even performed a routine on stage together. After six weeks of mayhem, he headed home, an envelope of confidential reports strapped to his leg at the request of the spy-manque’ US ambassador, William Bullitt.

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Marx became a regular on television as the Brothers’ movie career faded; in 1955 he ensured a form of immortality when he recreated the mirror scene from 1933’s Duck Soup on I Love Lucy. He made three record albums, despite the jeers of critics and classically-trained harpists, who harped on his technique and use of the instrument as a solo for popular tunes.

Long a confirmed bachelor, Harpo married a woman twenty years his junior in 1938. They adopted four children; he told George Burns he wanted to keep adopting until, when he left for work, there’d be one in every window of their home, waving him goodbye. He was the only one of the brothers who never divorced.

He announced his retirement in 1963, and died the following year of complications following heart surgery. Marx left his harp to the State of Israel; in a tribute to another of his passions, he was posthumously inducted to the Croquet Hall of Fame in 1979.

Harpo Marx published his memoirs in 1961. He called it, Harpo Speaks.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #HarpoMarx

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