Harpo Speaks

This review of Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Anatomy of Harpo Marx appeared in Sight & Sound.

‘What is the matter with you?’ Thus long-suffering Margaret Dumont in Animal Crackers (1930) when, not for the first time, she finds that Harpo’s thigh is in her left hand. The more pressing question, even after many viewings, is how the thing got there: one moment you’re a well apportioned dowager trying to rise above Groucho’s leery limbo-dancing wit, the next you’re being treated like the furniture by a curiously muscular child-loon in a ginger wig. The ‘leg trick’, as Wayne Koestenbaum calls it in his charming and rigorous study, is one of Harpo’s more speedy, surreptitious turns: it seems to come from nowhere, its comedic mechanics skilfully elided till audience and on-screen dupe realise he’s done it. Again.

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On the face of it, speed was his thing: Harpo’s and his brothers’s theatrical roots may have been obvious in the films, but his dumb kinetics seem to spin off the centrifuge of silent comedy’s energy. As Koestenbaum puts it: ‘Who knows what Harpo wants? We only see evidence of his momentum.’ But just as the best of early cinematic slapstick is actually all about slowness, so Harpo’s velocity tends to a paradoxical stasis, whether it’s the blankness of repetition (all those circular chase scenes) or, more engagingly, oases of intense concentration in the midst of chaos. Time and again, says Koestenbaum, his face is ‘waxen with stopped thought.’ Never mind such privileged moments as the Harpo-Groucho mirror scene in Duck Soup (1933) – whether scissoring off every necktie in sight or fingering his weird arsenal of car horns and other improbable props (was a comic character ever so physically encumbered and transfixed by things?), the whole texture of Harpo’s performance has to do with intense absorption.

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What better subject, then, for a critical study that is practically all concentration or interpretation, and almost nothing in terms of dutiful biography, film history or theoretical armature? Or so The Anatomy of Harpo Marx presents itself, at least. Koestenbaum is in truth too smart a critic – author of books on humiliation, opera, Warhol and Jackie Kennedy; also an acclaimed poet – not to be aware of the scholarship he apparently brackets in favour of a rapt, ecstatic and frequently hilarious adherence to Harpo’s on-screen presence itself. His Anatomy treats of all Harpo’s appearances, one film at a time but with no respect to the chronology of their production. Here, then, are actor and character reduced (or expanded) to a frieze of gestures, tricks and contemplative interludes: Harpo proffers a punning succession of objects in answer to Chico’s request for a flashlight, Harpo shoots the hats off young ladies’ heads, Harpo leaps into the arms of various women, Harpo leaps into the arms of various men.

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‘Harpo loses himself in the practice of being Harpo, and I lose myself in contemplating Harpo.’ As a critical method, Koestenbaum acknowledges, this ‘might be madness’. At one level, it allows him to engage some staples of comic theory: repetition, duration, literalism, a laconic refusal of all types of authority. But the essence of Harpo is a mode of acceleration or escalation (even if it’s in the direction of entropy or emptiness), and Koestenbaum is unafraid of seeming to have too much invested in Harpo’s cute, saintly, buffed and often bare body. It’s no shock to be told that a lot of comic stage or screen business seems to be about castration, but it is a surprise to read that the critic ‘think[s] of Harpo’s harp solos while watching a solo porn video of a guy named Dave’, or that Harpo’s blank stare reminds him of those who had lost all hope in the Nazi death camps. But the point, or one point, of Koestenbaum’s experiment is to test the limits of what we find critically embarrassing: ‘We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death.’

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