November 23, 2009
ARTHUR ADOLPH “HARPO” MARX (1888-1964) was a philosopher of silence. Though it started as a way to distinguish him from his voluble brothers, especially front man Groucho, his assumed muteness became a career-long existential conundrum played out in sights gags, horn toots, and even the occasional harp performance that gave this brilliant comedian his vaudeville nickname. How do you tell jokes when there is nothing to tell? Well, when Groucho says you can’t “burn the candle at both ends,” you produce a candle from your overcoat pocket — and light both ends (Horsefeathers, 1932). Or, clad like Groucho in nightgown and cap, you mimic his every move as if you are an image in a mirror (Duck Soup, 1933). This celebrated doubling is a set-piece, of course — repeated in Harpo’s last television appearance, with Carol Burnett. But it is also a Platonic mediation on twinning, reflections, illusion and reality. If Groucho is the sly schemer of cinematic Marxism, Harpo is its anarchic muse, forever hovering around the action in walking, but not talking, metacommentary. His silence, no sort of handicap, elevates him above the mundane sphere. Floating in a cloud of pantomime bliss, a clown’s clown, he transcends the pursuit of happiness because he is happiness itself, a smiling enigmatic angel with a harp. And a crazy orange wig.
On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes.
READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).