Adolph "Harpo" Marx (later Arthur "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 blonde wig, and never spoke during performances (he blew a horn or whistled to communicate). Marx frequently used props such as a horn cane, made up of a lead pipe, tape, and a bulbhorn, and he played the harp in most of his films.
Harpo was born 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. Marx's family was Jewish. His mother was from Dornum in East Frisia; and his father was a native of Alsace, and worked as a tailor.
Harpo received little formal education, and left grade school at age eight, during his second attempt to pass the second grade. He began to work, gaining employment in numerous odd jobs alongside his brother Chico to contribute to the family income, including selling newspapers, working in a butcher shop, and as an errand office boy.
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 gained 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 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 found him jobs playing piano to accompany silent movies. Unlike Chico, Harpo could play only 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 A Day at the Races 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 due to anti-German sentiment in the US, or during World War II because of 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.
Harpo was often cast as Chico's partner, whom he would often help by playing charades to tell of Groucho's problem, and/or annoy by giving Chico his leg.
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) and 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 (baritone) 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 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. Earlier in the film a man on the street asks him for money for a cup of coffee, and he subsequently produces a steaming cup complete with saucer, from inside his coat. 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.