Friday, February 6, 2015

Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber

Harpo Speaks
by Harpo Marx
with Rowland Barber
4 stars - delightful
ALR Green

First a bit of background on how I came to be in possession of this book.

As teenagers, my older sister and I were obsessed with the Marx Brothers. So while other teens were reading Teen Beat and getting in a lather over the likes of John Travolta and David Cassidy, we were busy reading and absorbing every bit of information we could find about the Marx brothers. In the age before the Internet, that meant hours at the library, scrolling through old copies of Variety on microfiche and haunting used books stores for out of print copies of the various biographies and autobiographies by and about the Brothers Marx. 

We also made innumerable trips by subway into Boston to watch (repeatedly) the Marx Brothers double features presented at the Park Square Theater.

But the one thing that eluded us was a copy of Harpo Marx's autobiography. Out of print for many years, a copy finally turned up at a used book dealer in our home town in July of 1974. So dear was this volume that after writing my name and address on the inside cover, I added that a reward would be available for the safe return of the book. Luckily, I never needed to provide a reward and the book has remained in my collection.

So how does Harpo Speaks hold up forty years hence when my infatuation has long since passed? Very well, very well indeed. The first half of the book details life in NYC during the early 20th century for the Marx brothers in general, and Harpo in particular. They were a scrappy crew who found their way to gambling, stealing, and other acts of mayhem in order to survive. Harpo doesn't pull any punches on that account. He tells us what he did and why and how he feels looking back on that time in his life.

But their mother, Minnie, had bigger ideas. Specifically, she saw vaudeville as the way to get her family out of poverty. So into vaudeville they went. This is not the glamorous, nostalgic vaudeville one might picture, but ten plus years of grueling performances, skanky hotels, one night stands, and living hand to mouth. But then, finally, they find themselves in the big time with their first hit show, I'll Say She Is. That was in 1924. The show was followed by Coconuts and Monkey Business, and in 1929, Coconuts was made into an all talking all singing movie extravaganza and they were off and running.

Thus begins part two of Harpo's memoirs and in that part, the reader learns less about the professional side of Mr. Marx and more about the personal side. Despite dropping out of school (Harpo after second grade), the brothers were, to a man, well educated, literate, and artistically talented. Harpo's good friend, Alex Wolcott, introduced him to a variety of interesting people who became part of his gang. Artists, literary icons, actors, you name it. 

There were five Marx Brothers. Gummo left the act early on to fight in World War I and never returned. Zeppo also left shortly after their first few movies as he did not enjoy the life in the theater. Chico, Groucho, and Harpo all continued on in show business, both together and separately.

So, yes, I recommend this book (if you can find it). The writing is wonderful, the life of Harpo Marx is fascinating, and it's also a great time capsule of life in the early 20th century.

While reading the book, I spent no small amount of time on YouTube to determine if I still enjoyed watching the performances of the Marx Brothers. Yes I did. I find their comedy to be delightful and nuanced. Then there are the musical performances. Harpo is, of course, best known for his harp playing (all self-taught), but I found the clip below that features Harpo and Chico on the piano. It's a wonderful example of how they were able to use their extraordinary talents to combine great piano playing with well timed gags. 

1 comment:

  1. My husband's grandfather, born in the late 1860s, always claimed he jumped out of the schoolhouse window in 3rd grade and never returned. Yet, the few letters I have which were penned by him are well written, with excellent grammar, punctuation and spelling, and contain delightful recountings of everyday events. I think that way back then, people who could read at all demanded that their children learn more, even out of school, and that newspapers were written to a much higher standard, and everyone benefitted from it. Mrs. Marx pushing her sons to perform in order to lift the family from poverty isn't necessarily uncommon 110 years ago, but it is sad that the children had to forego childhood for the benefit of their parents. Still, it sounds like an uplifting story, even for non Marx Brothers fans. I'm so glad you still have your copy after all these years (and you do have to admit that David Cassidy was once cute, although he hasn't aged well).