Early life and career
In January 1910, Harpo joined two of his brothers, Julius (later
"Groucho") and Milton, 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 got 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. He had
taught himself to play because he could not sing, or dance, and
did not talk very well, so he needed something to do. Al Shean sent
him a harp (In Harpo's autobiography, he says that
mother Minnie Marx sent him the harp.) Harpo learned how to hold
it properly by going to a five-and-dime store where he found a picture
of a girl playing a harp. 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 tune it properly because
if he had, the strings would have broken each night. His way 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,
however, spent their time listening to him, fascinated by the way
he played. In the movies he is actually playing the harp with his
own alternate tuning.
In his autobiography Harpo Speaks (1961), Harpo
recounts how Chico got him jobs playing piano to accompany silent
movies. Unlike Chico, Harpo could only play 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 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
Harpo 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 to the effect that the name change came about during
World War I -- due to anti-German sentiment in the US -- or during
World War II -- due to the stigma that Adolf Hitler imposed on the
name -- are groundless.
He appeared without his brothers in Too Many Kisses (1925) 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.
In the Marx Brothers' movie At the Circus (1939),
however, Harpo spoke in a movie with the brothers for the one and
only time. In the scene in which he visits the room of Little Professor
Atom (Jerry Marenghi), Harpo sneezes--clearly saying "At-choo!"
In the opening scene of Monkey Business (1931), where the four brothers
are in barrels marked "Kippered Herring", "Sweet
Adeline" is clearly being sung by all four.
Harpo gained notoriety for prop-laden sight gags.
In Horse Feathers (1932), Groucho tells him that Harpo cannot "burn
the candle at both ends". He immediately produces, from within
his coat, a lit candle burning at both ends. (As author Joe Adamson
put it his book, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, "The
president of the college has been shouted down by a mute.")
His non-speaking in films was occasionally referenced
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: 'At's-a my partner, but he no speak.
Groucho: Oh, that's your silent partner!
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. Over time, he darkened the pink to more of
a reddish color, again alluded to in films with names such as "Rusty".
In other media
In 1933, following U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union,
he spent six weeks in Moscow as a performer and goodwill ambassador.
His tour was a huge success.
In 1936 he was one of a number of performers and
celebrities to appear as caricatures in the Walt Disney Production
of Mickey's Polo Team. Harpo was part of a team of polo-playing
movie stars which included Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.
His mount was an ostrich.
Harpo was also caricatured in "Sock-A-Bye Baby"
(1934), an early episode of the Popeye cartoon series created by
Fleischer Studios. Harpo is playing the harp, and wakes up Popeye's
baby, and then Popeye beats him up and supposedly kills him. (After
Popeye hits him, a halo appears over his head and he floats to the
Harpo also took an interest in painting, and a few
of his works can be seen in his autobiography. In the book, Marx
tells a story about how he tried to paint a nude female model, but
froze up because he simply didn't know how to paint properly. The
model took pity on him, however, showing him a few basic strokes
with a brush, until finally Harpo (fully clothed) took the model's
place as the subject and the naked woman painted his portrait.
In 1955, Harpo made an appearance on Lucille Ball's
sitcom I Love Lucy, in which they re-enacted the famous mirror scene
from the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup (1933).
Harpo recorded an album of harp music for RCA Victor
(Harp by Harpo, 1952) and two for Mercury Records (Harpo in Hi-Fi,
1957; Harpo at Work, 1958).
Marx made a number of notable television appearances
in the 1960s. In 1960 he appeared in an episode of The DuPont Show
with June Allyson entitled "A Silent Panic". Marx plays
a deaf-mute who works as a "mechanical man" in a department
store window who witnesses a gangland murder. In 1961, he made guest
appearances on The Today Show, Play Your Hunch, Candid Camera, I've
Got a Secret, Here's Hollywood, Art Linkletter's House Party, Groucho's
quiz show You Bet Your Life, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Your Surprise
In 1962 he guest-starred with Carol Burnett in an
installment of the DuPont Show of the Week entitled "The Wonderful
World of Toys". The show was filmed in Central Park and featured
Marx playing "Autumn Leaves" on the harp. A visit to the
set inspired poet Robert Lowell to compose a poem about Marx. 1962
saw Marx appearing on Red Skelton's CBS series as its first guest
and in his final television appearance played himself in an episode
of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington based on the Frank Capra film, and
starring Fess Parker.
He married actress Susan Fleming on September 28, 1936. Unlike most
of his brothers, who were unlucky in love (Groucho was divorced
three times, Chico and Zeppo were divorced once each), Harpo's marriage
to Susan was lifelong. The couple adopted four children: Bill, Alex,
Jimmy and Minnie. Harpo often said that he wanted to see one child
in each window of his home when he returned from work each day.