The Anatomy of Harpo Marx

Wayne Koestenbaum,
The Anatomy of Harpo Marx
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
ISBN: 9780520269019
US$29.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

This is an eccentric, or perhaps concentric book, in the best possible sense of both words, an extended meditation on the on-screen persona of Harpo Marx, circling around a framing quote from Roland Barthes which prefaces the text:

“Any classification you read provokes a desire to put yourself into it somewhere: where is your place? At first you think you have found it; but gradually, like a disintegrating statue or an eroding relief, its shape blurs and fades, or better still, like Harpo Marx losing his artificial beard in the glass of water he is drinking out of, you are no longer classifiable.”

This is the essence of Harpo Marx on screen; he is unclassifiable, unknowable, inherently mysterious and endlessly mutable, and of course, also mute as well. Harpo’s occasionally saintly aspect can give way to a ferocious sense of anarchy; he seems harmless, and yet he inflicts a good deal of damage on both himself and others, and most of all, he is unknowable, impossible to divine, a perpetual riddle both onscreen and off. Of all of the Marx Brothers – wisecracking Groucho, perennial cardsharp Chico, stiff straight man Zeppo, to say nothing of the phantom figure of Gummo – Harpo is the most evanescent of the Marxes, the one who can transform himself into anything or anyone, yet still retains not only the traces of his own essence, but also incorporates a vast array of personalities and approaches to being in his constantly mutable being.

Like a blob of mercury, Harpo is impossible to nail down – all attempts will by definition fail – and Koestenbaum’s text reflects this, tracking Harpo from his earliest appearances in The Cocoanuts (USA 1929), which Koestenbaum describes as “early ecstatic emptiness,” through “zombie dumbfoundment” in Animal Crackers (USA 1930), “Pinky, the pointing scapegoat” in Duck Soup (USA 1933), and the “Goo-Goo Eyes of Monomaniacal Attunement” in Night at The Opera (USA 1935), all the way through to the “Bushy-Haired Ragpicker’s Burnt Offering” in the brothers’ final film, Love Happy (USA 1949), before circling back to the start of Harpo’s career – which Koestenbaum aptly describes as “the Idiot Tumbles Back to the Beginning of Time,” with considerations of Harpo’s work in Horse Feathers (USA 1932), Monkey Business (USA 1931) and A Day at The Races (USA 1937).

Throughout his text, which is lovingly illustrated with innumerable frame blowups, Koestenbaum often argues against himself, acknowledging that with Harpo, there is no solid ground to stand on, no “place” where one can confidently – or even uneasily – insert one’s self into Harpo’s ever-changing persona. Describing Harpo’s first appearance in The Cocoanuts, chasing after a young woman who is unaware of his presence, Koestenbaum writes, “what does Harpo want? He wants to honk, copy, play, irritate, smash, point, lean, and rest. He wants to finds a double, to be useless, to recognize, and to be recognized. He wants to greet the void. He wants to go blank. Or maybe he wants nothing” (3).

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Has there ever been a better description of the inherently anarchic, ultimately unknowable, utterly original and unduplicatable persona of Harpo Marx? Koestenbaum succeeds here, brilliantly, because his book tracks Harpo through a seemingly endless series of self-transformations, railway stops on an express train to insanity, or sanity, with an unflinching attention to detail and a humble appreciation of the slippery nature of his subject. Harpo can’t be defined; that is the essence of his allure. He obeys no rules of logic other than his own, and his own “logic” doesn’t exist; it’s a moment by moment response to whatever is happening around him, as if coming into a scene with the intent to immediately undermine all sense of authority and reason within it, and remain a blank slate, a wild card, capable of doing anything at any moment for no discernable reason at all – at least, not a reason we can discern.

Koestenbaum absolutely knows this, and states from the outset of his text that he wants to “commit media-heist, to steal a man from his native silence and transplant him into words, if only for the pleasure of taking illusory possession of a physical self-sureness that can never be mine” (5). For if there is one thing that is consistent about Harpo’s various iterations on film, it is that he is absolutely confident about his on-screen presence, even when he seems momentarily confused.  Despite Groucho’s relentless wordplay, it is ultimately Harpo’s silence that dominates and defines the world of the Marx Brothers, especially in their first, and finest, films at Paramount, before they were watered down by Irving G. Thalberg and his insistence on romantic subplots at MGM.

Koestenbaum’s Harpo remains the center of the Marx universe, and the center of Koestenbaum’s attention, throughout this endlessly inquisitive text, the merest outlines of which can only be suggested here. The text is broken down into brief paragraphs, most illustrated with a frame blowup, delineating the numerous self-transformations and attitudinal approaches Harpo assumes throughout his work, and as Koestenbaum deftly illustrates, just because Harpo does one thing one moment, that doesn’t mean there will be any consistency with what he might do a millisecond later.

Indeed, it is in this element of continual and unrelenting surprise and reinvention which is the hallmark of Harpo’s filmic persona, as a wildcard whose reasons, motivations, or even his next actions, can never be divined. Koestenbaum’s book is thus a paean to Harpo’s anarchic vision, and at the same time, a consideration of the ways in which Harpo remains the ultimate quick change artist of all time, “swing[ing] Toscanini” at one moment, and moments later transforming himself into his signature stance as the holy fool with a harp, which he played with angelic precision.

Violent, childish, brutal, brilliant, stupid, kind, cruel, empty and all-knowing, Harpo Marx remains the ultimate riddle of the cinema, and Koestenbaum’s book brings all these contradictions to light with affectionate accuracy. This is an essential, nutty book, a compendium of approaches that works against itself in the best possible way to produce an endlessly multi-faceted portrait of one of the most idiosyncratic and unknowable clown princes of the cinema; it is an amazing accomplishment on every level.


About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press, 2009).View all posts by Wheeler Winston Dixon →