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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The (D)evolution of Harpo Marx

Nothing kills a joke faster than explaining it. (Of course, explaining a joke stretches it out, so you have the twin experiences of a joke becoming less funny and lasting longer at the same time. But I digress.)

One can make a case that, since a good part of humor is based on surprise, to explain a joke is to rob it of its spontaneity. More generally, most good jokes rely on a certain rhythm, and any explanation is going to louse that up.

Thus, the experience of Harpo Marx—who went from elemental sprite to slightly retarded man-child in the space of a dozen or so movies.

This blog entry proceeds from the assumption that you have at least a passing familiarity with the Marx Brothers. If you don’t, I am not sure I want to associate with you, even via the Internet. Please watch several of their movies immediately.

For the rest of us, a quick review: The Marx Brothers were a comedy team of three – no, four –well, five really—brothers who emerged from Vaudeville to become arguably the funniest comedians of the 20th century. They only made about a dozen movies together—most of them in the late 1920s through early 1940s.

There was Groucho, he of the fake moustache, predatory lope, rapid fire delivery and outrageous puns. There was Chico, with his absurd fake Italian accent, maddening stubbornness and puns that made Groucho’s look good. There was Zeppo, the handsome straight man (who was actually the smartest and funniest one in real life.)

And there was Harpo. Ahhh, Harpo. No words can describe him, because he used no words. In turns manic and cherubic, Harpo was a silent force of nature. Movies started to talk just in time to make his silence golden.

Harpo was—maybe literally—magical. He paid only nodding acknowledgement to the laws of physics. He wore a tattered old overcoat out of which he could pull almost anything he wanted or needed. He was an early progenitor of magical realism.

At least, that’s how he started. But Hollywood, in its infinite drive to pasteurize everything, neutered the poor fellow.

It was done for the best of reasons—at least by Hollywood standards. After a couple of early successes, the Marx Brothers faded in popularity for a while. A very smart producer at MGM realized that very few people could take the Marx Brothers straight….they were TOO crazy, TOO anarchic. Dare I say it? TOO FUNNY. Not a lot of people can take whiskey straight, and not a lot of people can take their comedy straight.

So this very smart producer proceeded to make the Marx Brothers more sympathetic. The Marxes, who once attacked anyone and everyone equally, were suddenly protecting a rather sappy MGM hero and heroine. Where once they’d run roughshod over every authority figure under the son, now were being pushed around by second banana comics in uniforms.

And Harpo? Well, the directors started explaining his tricks. It wasn’t quite the kiss of death, but it was close.

For example: In an early film, a bum approaches Harpo and asks for a dime for a cup of coffee. Harpo, smiling, reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out a steaming cup of coffee which he hands to the puzzled bum.

By contrast, in a later movie, Harpo has to divvy up a large salami. He walks over to a barrel which conveniently has a hatchet on it and hacks off a piece of luncheon meat.

Get the picture? Harpo goes from having whatever he has in his pocket just because to finding what he needs. The joke is explained, and the magic is gone.

(Smiliarly, Harpo changes over the years from a fellow is chooses not to talk to a fellow who cannot talk. Weakening the character, making him more sympathetic. But still….)

This is not to say that the later Marx Brothers movies aren’t worth watching. Even Love Happy has more laughs than, say Hot Tub Time Machine. But there’s no question the Marx Brothers lost something more than Zeppo when they left Paramount.


  1. Is it just a coincidence that the "devolution" (a biologist is devolved?) occurred at essentially the same time as the beginning of enforcement of the "Hays Code"? Evidently MGM and Thalberg in particular were behind the switch to more "sympathetic" (and thus at least less subversive if not necessarily less funny, imho) characters, but could they have gotten away with their 20s-style antics at Paramount anymore either? Just wondering.

    (Word verification: "vicarly" -- (a) in the manner of a person of the cloth. (b) a Nickelodeon kids TV and web show (or TV show about a web show) whose protagonist lives through others' experiences.)

  2. Why MGM insisted on getting rid of Zeppo, and then continuing to have Zeppo clone romantic leads, is something that only Hollywood producers can understand. If "handsome dumb guy" had to be part of the Marx movie formula, they might has well have kept him - he was at least as good an actor as the schlubs that replaced him.

    And let's not forget the honorary Marx sister, Margaret Dumont. Did they do anything good without her?

  3. Monkey Business and Horse Feathers were both made without La Dumont, and they're both pretty good. I don't think she's in Night in Casablanca, either, and I have a fondness for that one, even though it's pretty creaky.

    I felt the same way you did about the Zeppo clones in the early MGM films. But it turns out that Zeppo quit BEFORE the Marxes signed with MGM. He'd never actually wanted to be an actor--he'd been dragged into the act when big brother Gummo got drafted.

    He'd always wanted to be an inventor. And it is Marxian logic in its own way that--despite the fact that he didn't finish high school--he became a successful one. His biggest claim to fame was that he figured out a way to fold cereal boxes that used 40 percent less cardboard than the then-standard method. (An intuitive mathematician, apparently.)


  4. >(Smiliarly, Harpo changes over the years from a fellow is
    >chooses not to talk to a fellow who cannot talk.
    >Weakening the character, making him more sympathetic. But

    Do you mean to imply that in the later movies, Harpo's silence is, well, awkward?

  5. I've never seen Horsefeathers or Monkey Business, so I can't imagine a Marx movie without Margaret. I guess my education is lacking.

    I did spend a couple of hours of my life on "The Big Store", really dreadful despite "Wolf J. Flywheel" being the ultimate Groucho name.