Euphoria #36: top Marx

As part of our ongoing field study of the most delightful and healthy film moments, film student Zach Rosenau suggested to me, in conversation, “Something from the Marx Brothers…maybe that face that Harpo does, you know, it’s like… I can’t even DO IT.”

Of course, only Harpo can do the Harpo face. The rest of us lack the crucial ability to channel the qualities of papier maché into our cheeks. Above is a whole scene, from MONKEY BUSINESS, showcasing the Harpo physog and its unique subhuman qualities. In the words of Groucho, “The last time I saw a head like that it was floating in a bottle of formaldehyde.”

Harpo Scissorhands


(1) Adolph “Harpo” Marx was not actually mute, nor could he play the harp. Onscreen, he would simply wave his arms about in front of the strings and specially composed music would then be added that approximated to his hand movements. Among the greats who got their musical start composing for Harpo’s hands were LAURA composer David Raksin, and future BeeGee Barry Gibb.

(2) Despite “playing dumb” onscreen, Harpo was in reality a skilled ventriloquist, and would sometimes “voice” his more gabby brothers’ lines while they simply moved their lips in silence. There are persistent rumours that Zeppo was in fact genuinely mute as a result of his First World War aerial combat experience.

Zeppo in action

(3) After he suffered an aneurysm in later life, Harpo’s face really did “stay like that”. He was able to conceal his disability by pretending he was “just mucking about,” and was eventually cured by Professor Eggelhoffer of Vienna’s patented “car horn therapy”.

(4) Harpo’s curly blond locks required three hours of grooming by the make-up department before and after every single “take”. When Harpo had a haircut, the trimmings would be meticulously gathered up and used to make wigs for Shirley Temple (a congenitally hairless dwarf).

Ann Sheridan dreaming of Harpo

(5) Harpo’s great gifts as a sympathetic listener allowed him to bed or wed a multitude of Hollywood lovelies, including Jean Harlow, Constance Bennett, Ann Sheridan and, controversially, Trigger, whom he married in a blasphemous midnight nuptial presided over by Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. This is detailed in chapter 13 of Trigger’s unpublished autobiography, Hooves Across the Table, and resulted in a scandal that ended the celebrity horse’s career in the U.S. Senate.

the Satanic arses

6 Responses to “Euphoria #36: top Marx”

  1. Hapro’s combination of child-like innocent and sex-mad sybarite was unique. I especially love his handing people his leg. His memoir Harpo Speaks is required reading, as is Artaud’s essay about the Marx Bros. Andre Hodier is great about them too.

  2. Haven’t read ANY of that. Keep hoping to find a copy of Harpo Speaks.

    Dali’s treatment for a Marx Bros film is fascinating because it’s so unfunny: it lacks the necessary vestiges of logic. But it does show us what the Marx Bros looked like to Dali. More promising is Billy Wilder’s idea for A Night At The United Nations, which would have moved Freedonia-style international politics into the Cold War…

    I used to hand people my leg, in imitaion of HM, but nobody ever accepted it. just as well, I suppose, I find it useful for getting around on.

  3. Artaud writes about the Marx Brothers in The Theater and its Double. Hodeir can be found in Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Encyclopedia

  4. Thanks! I have the Roud, must refresh my memory of it.

  5. I had a scruffy old car-boot-sale copy of ‘Harpo Speaks’ for some years. In my humble opinion it’s a better book than Groucho’s autobio. I enjoyed it more, largely because you didn’t doubt his sincerity at any point. He explains at some length how he and his wife adopted children and the stories he told them in order for them to feel wanted and part of the family. It’s something that has always stuck in my mind.

  6. I think some part of me has always resisted the book because I didn’t want my delusions shattered. I want Harpo to be the same mute mutant he is in the movies, as he’s portrayed in Mrs Parker and the Vicius Circle. I can just about handle Jimmy Durante in The Man Who Came to Dinner, but that’s as far as it can go.

    GREAT story in a Marx Bros doc about how Groucho (I think)’s daughter skipped a show one night, and the Bros approached afterwards and asked “Did you spot it?” Turned out that they had played each others roles for one night, and it was the night she missed. Of course she couldn’t admit to skipping the show. And they never did it again.

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