Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber – ‘Harpo Speaks!’

Susan Marx’s illustration for chapter 14, ‘Croquemaniacs of the World, Unite!’
On page 89 of his autobiography, while still in his teens, Harpo Marx finds himself in the middle of a murder ballad:
A week later Mrs. Schang finally sobered up. She had absorbed so much gin it stopped having any effect, and this seemed to make her madder than ever before. She came in the back room and grabbed me off the piano stool. ‘Get in the buggy, out front,’ she said. ‘You’re driving tonight.’
        By the time I got my derby and got in the buggy she was already there, waiting for me. Then she told me to run to the kitchen and get a meat knife. When I did, she slit her pocketbook and stuck a pistol and a pint of gin between the cover and the lining. She said to get going, and fast.
        I asked where we were going. Mrs. Schang said, ‘Keep driving east until we get to the Pot O’Gold. I’m going to kill Louie Neidorf.’
        I didn’t know who Louie Neidorf was, and I didn’t care. I had never seen anybody fire a gun before. The prospect was so thrilling I could hardly hold the reins.’
There is a clip of a newspaper story included in the photo section, reporting the arrest of the gang, which Harpo suspects was enabled by a tip-off from Louie Neidorf, who in the event (possibly tipped off himself) kept clear of the Pot O’Gold that evening (it even sounds like the Bucket of Blood from Nick Cave’s ‘Stagger Lee’). This is the most brutal, low-life anecdote in the book, but not the only one which makes you wonder ‘can this possibly be true?’ The other is the story of how Harpo undertook a tour of the U.S.S.R. in 1933, and was asked by the U.S. ambassador to smuggle some papers taped to his leg when he returned home, which he did. This story is even more gripping, set up with a tricky entrance to the country, when he is suspected of bringing in roubles from an unofficial source, so when he leaves, this time with something genuinely to worry about, it is almost unbearably tense. Both of these stories are somewhat at odds with what I thought I knew about Harpo, so I checked in Joe Adamson’s book on the Marx Brothers, and the Russian episode doesn’t feature (at least, it’s not in the index or between Horse Feathers and Duck Soup), but he does say this about his early years:
To hear Harpo tell his life story in the book by Rowland Barber, you would think he wandered through his salty boyhood of gang fights, hostile police, meatless meals, irate landlords, roughhouse saloons, painted women, murderous madams, fast-moving swindlers, killers and thieves in the same serene state of semi-delight he later lavished on the Algonquin Hotel and his grapefruit ranch. (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo, p. 23)
That’s a great book too. Motor-mouthed in a way Harpo Speaks! is not, more in the spirit of Groucho. When it gets to the bad Marx Brothers films at the turn of the 1940s, it becomes hilariously indignant: Adamson’s response to The Big Store is to spend the best part of a page listing other films around the same time with the word ‘big’ in the title. Harpo doesn’t mention The Big Store at all in his book, and doesn’t even talk about the good films very much. He says The Cocoanuts was simply a filmed show, with ad-libs discouraged because they made the crew laugh (a sound-proof booth was installed to get around this*), and the brothers had to be locked up so they didn’t wander off; after that, the next time he mentions a film it’s to say that they were getting into a rut by the time of Duck Soup (what a rut!), from which Irving Thalberg rescued them with A Night at the Opera. That might be it for film mentions. I’d thought he might bring up Love Happy, which was very much his project, or the LPs he made with his son in the 1950s (these are mentioned in an afterword by that son, William Marx). But no, the focus is on the years of touring (powered by his mother, Minnie, who got him a harp to add class to the act), on his great friendship with the critic Alexander Woollcott, and on his marriage to Susan Fleming, at the grand old age of 48. In a way, he’s right: the twenty years in vaudeville before The Cocoanuts came out in 1929 (when Harpo was 40) were what made The Marx Brothers: their characters were already a fait accompli by then.

As well as the Algonquin crowd with whom Harpo spent most of his time towards the end of the 1920s (Woollcott, Herbert Ross, Dorothy Parker et al.), he also visited the Randolph Hearsts, at Sam Simeon, which is interesting for the glimpse it gives of what became Xanadu in Citizen Kane (a better 1941 film than The Big Store):
The dining hall in the San Simeon castle was grand enough to have suited King Arthur and all his knights and all their ladies. When you came into dinner, ten-foot logs were blazing in the fireplace and hundreds of candles were burning giant silver candelabras. Candlelight flickered against the historic battle flags that flew from the beams, against the gleaming top of the seventy-foot-long banquet table, and on the little islands of glassware that dotted the length of the table. Each of these little islands was composed of a bottle of ketchup, a bottle of horseradish, a diner-type sugar dispenser, a water glass full of paper napkins, and pepper shakers in the shapes of Mickey and Minnie mouse. (p. 293)
All of which is barely to scratch the surface of this expansive, warm-hearted book. Harpo often alludes to himself as the listener of the Algonquin set, and his book is full of interest in the people around him (he attributes the same quality to Woollcott), and full of the practical jokes he played on them too. He seems to have been someone people liked to have around, who could lighten any situation. He’s such a joy to watch on screen, but this book only adds to his charm: it’s a relief to discover he didn’t have his head in the clouds all the time, and that his persona was a way of dealing with (and improving) the world, rather than a way of avoiding it.

* A myth, according to Wikipedia, which points out that all talkies used sound-proof booths.

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