Saturday, November 23, 2013

Harpo's 125th Birthday

In the realm of wordless comedy, no one may have been better at it than Harpo Marx, a clown/mime.

When I was a teenager, a group of young people from the Methodist church in my hometown went to Little Rock one night to see Marcel Marceau in a one–man show. My memory is that it was a bitterly cold night, and Marceau was good.

But Harpo was the best. Marceau was Harpo's spiritual descendant.

Harpo was so good that people actually believed he couldn't speak, which wasn't true, of course. In some Marx Brothers movies, Harpo's brothers mentioned the fact that he didn't speak — but not that he couldn't. They were careful to imply that it was a choice, not a condition.

On the other hand, there were times in some of those movies when Harpo tried to communicate something urgent to someone else, but he could only do so in his silent charades–like way. It isn't hard to see how that would convince people that he was mute.

Harpo's silent shtick was inspired early in his career when a reviewer of the brothers' stage performance wrote glowingly of his "beautiful pantomime""which was ruined whenever he spoke." So he almost never spoke.

His nickname was simply a reference to the fact that he played the harp.

That was something he did in just about every Marx Brothers movie.

Harpo was a self–taught harp player, and the fact was that he tuned and played his harp incorrectly. Nevertheless, he played beautifully. I have heard that he spent a small fortune hiring music teachers to show him how to do it correctly, but they were more interested in watching him play his way than teaching him how to play correctly.

If he wasn't recognizable enough in his frilly wig that looked blond in black–and–white film (turned out it was really red), he was always dressed the same — in a trench coat with oversized pockets and a top hat.

I have often wondered if Harpo's usual dress inspired Blake Edwards or Peter Sellers to use it for Inspector Clouseau. Perhaps it was Harpo who was inspired — by the inspectors of his day.

Doesn't really matter, I guess. As a young journalist — and before, for that matter — I always regarded anything that wasn't original to be plagiarism. As I have gotten older, though, I have learned that isn't a hard and fast rule. It is plagiarism if one lifts, word for word, what someone else has written and claims it as his/her own.

But being inspired to use part of what someone else has utilized, like clothing, and adapting it to a new creation is another matter.

Besides, no one could duplicate Harpo.