Tinseltown Talk column: Harpo, the silent star of the ‘talkies’

Nick Thomas
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Harpo Marx in "Animal Crackers," 1930.

Originally opening on the New York stage in 1928 and running for over 190 performances, “Animal Crackers” the movie premiered 90 years ago and was a box office hit in 1930. It made the Marx Brothers movie stars.

Harpo Marx was born on Nov. 23, 1888, and was, of course, the silent Marx Brother known for his outrageous on-screen mimes and pranks (see www.harposplace.com). He is as madcap as ever in “Animal Crackers” with his honking cane, blonde chasing and signature sight gags.

Softly spoken with a distinctive New York accent in real life, according to son Bill Marx, he was largely mute in public, too.

“He would rarely speak for any sort of public relations event or on TV to pitch something,” Bill told me in 2009. “Very rarely did he ever speak on stage.”

Naturally, at home with his wife and four children, Harpo didn’t give his family the silent treatment. He was, daughter Minnie Marx told me, a devoted dad.

“He never raised his voice to us, ever,” she said. “We were each treated with respect and love. In the early days when he had to travel a lot for his work, the time with the kids became very special.”

She said Harpo was also a man of simple tastes. “He never drove a fancy car, didn’t wear expensive clothes from France or Italy, or live an extravagant lifestyle. Simple things made him happy.”

Minnie said Harpo raised her well.

“My dad taught me that you always have to look for the good in people. He never had a negative thing to say about a person, at least that I ever heard. He also taught me to think before you speak, especially when you are mad.”

Harpo wasn’t entirely silent on-screen and is also recognized for his harp playing - on display in “Animal Crackers” and most Marx Brothers movies.

“He loved to practice,” recalled Bill. “He’d do it for 2-3 hours a day whether he was working or not. He just loved the harp - its feeling, its sensuality, the vibrations, and the harmony and sounds of the chords. The harps you see in the films were his personal instruments.”

Harpo died in 1964, but his harps did not remain silent.

“When he passed away, my mother and I went to Israel and donated them to the Rubin Academy of Music, now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance,” said Bill.

Students would play them for many years, he said, “which is wonderful.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 850 magazines and newspapers. See www.getnickt.org.