“He looked like something that had gotten loose from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”
Adolph Marx was born on this day in New York City, New York, USA in 1888. Today is the 124th anniversary of his birth.
The second of five brothers in the Marx family, Adolph didn’t make it past second grade in school. He was small for his age and he was picked on by the bigger boys because he was Jewish. Two boys literally threw him out of the (first floor) classroom window on several occasions before he gave up and left school. He joined his brother Chico in doing odd jobs to help the family.
His uncle Al Schoenberg (stage name Al Shean) was in a Vaudeville act. His older brother Chico played piano, and his younger bother Julius (Groucho) was a boy soprano. Adolph joined Julius and Milton (Gummo) to form “the Three Nightingales” in 1910. Lou Levy joined them to make the group “The Four Nightingales.” When their mother, Minnie, and Aunt Hannah joined the act they changed the name to “The Six Mascots.”
In 1911 he changed his name to Arthur because he didn’t like the sound of Adolph. He adopted the stage name of Harpo when his mother sent him a harp. He didn’t know how to tune it or play it. He didn’t even know how to hold it until he found an image of an angel holding a harp at the 5&10 store. He tuned it the best he could and taught himself to play.
At that point Harpo’s two-fold schtick — he “couldn’t talk” so he blew his horn or whistled to communicate; and he played the harp — was in place. (He could, in fact, talk. And he did so — a lot — off stage/scene. His “speaking career” stopped after he received a bad review for a largely ad-libbed performance in the play Home Again.)
A critic in the local newspaper described the show by saying, in part, “Adolph Marx performed beautiful pantomime which was ruined whenever he spoke.” Harpo then decided he could do a better job of stealing focus by not speaking. [The Marx Brothers; Harpo Marx from an article in Theatre Arts Monthly, October 1939]
From the Vaudeville stage the Marx Brothers moved on to Hollywood. They made the short, Humor Risk, in 1921. (The film has since been lost.) Harpo was then in Too Many Kisses as the character “The Village Peter Pan.” He actually has a line in this movie, but, as it’s a silent film, you don’t actually hear him speak it. His brothers did not appear in the film.
In 1929 the brothers put out The Cocoanuts.The film was based on their Broadway play of the same name. In it…
the Marx Brothers run a hotel, auction off some land, thwart a jewel robbery, and generally act like themselves. [IMDB]
They shot during the day and performed in the stage show of Animal Crackers at night. It was an exhausting schedule and the Brothers were not happy with the result. They were “so appalled … that they offered to buy the negative from Paramount so that they could burn it.” [Ibid]
The Brothers made Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers , Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Room Service, At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store, A Night in Casablanca, and Love Happy in quick succession.
Starting in 1952 Harpo started doing guest spots on Television, most notably on the I Love Lucy Show.
His last film was The Story of Mankind in 1957. He played Sir Isaac Newton.
Off screen Harpo, the elementary school drop out, rubbed shoulders with some pretty high level literary types. In the 1920’s he held his own at the Algonquin Round Table with writers such as George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker. In 1928 he spent the summer on the French Riviera with George Bernard Shaw.
He attributes his welcome hanging out with the fast literary crowd at the Algonquin Round Table in New York in the 1920s to his ability to listen — in fact, to being the one real listener in that set. [Robert Wilfred Franson’s review of Harpo Speaks]
In 1933 Harpo did a 6-week goodwill mission in the Soviet Union. He was the “first American to perform in the Soviet Union after the United States government officially recognized it.” [Harpo’s Place] According to his autobiography, Harpo Speaks, the trip was part performance and part spy caper. He smuggled papers out of the USSR by taping them to his leg.
Marx died while having open-heart surgery on September 28, 1964.
Here’s a clip of Harpo actually speaking (and honking):