Harpo Marx, famous for his pantomimed persona (he was the ‘silent partner’), could speak just fine and can be heard today in a few interviews, but in Marx Brothers films he remained mute. Or so people believe.
This may be just for the fans, but if you have seen the Marx Brothers’ films, you have heard Harpo’s words and you have seen his lips move while saying them, but you may not have realized it.
In their early vaudeville days, the brothers discovered that Harpo was more effective when he did not speak, and since effective meant the difference between a hot meal and going hungry, Harpo kept quiet (as a happy bonus for the other brothers, this left room for them to talk even more).
Groucho Marx had his own version of why Harpo did not speak, recalling a time when the four brothers had an argument with a theater owner named Jack Wells which resulted in the boys being paid $112.50 each—in pennies. They were forced to accept the payment as they were running late for the train to their next show. Groucho recalls:
We barely made the train, and as it pulled out of the depot, we stood on the track platform watching the town and theater recede into the distance. Then Harpo, the pantomimist, raised his voice, and above the clatter of the train, bellowed:
“Good-bye, Mr. Wells. Here’s hoping your lousy theater burns down!”
We thought it was just a gag, till next morning—when we discovered that during the night, Jack Wells’s theater had been reduced to ashes. From then on we decided not to let Harpo talk—his conversation was too dangerous.
Harpo may have had plenty of things to say, but whatever the reason, didn’t say them. Of course, that’s not entirely true…
If you are any kind of Marx Brothers fan (and again, this little bit of trivia really is for the fans) you have heard Harpo’s voice. I’m not talking about sneezing, breathing or grunting. No, in one scene in one classic film Harpo is required to voice intelligible words; in fact, he has a singing role. I’m not talking about pretending to sing with a record player strapped to his back and I’m not even talking about the sound of him singing while in a barrel. Harpo sings, on film, in full view of the camera and does so in one of my favorite Marx Brothers movies—the hilarious Animal Crackers.
Animal Crackers is not considered the best Marx Brothers film but the jokes are simply relentless. The humor outpaces viewers today, I cannot even imagine what it did to audiences in 1930 when it was released.
Leading into the final sequence of the film at about the 1 hour 32 minute mark, the brothers stride into the room singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Something’s a little odd about this. If you listen carefully you will realize that’s four-part harmony. If you are playing along at home, back up and watch again, this time paying careful attention to Harpo in the back. Like a ventriloquist, his mouth moves. Harpo is singing and if you take apart the song in your head you can find his voice loud and clear.
Not good enough? Keep watching. If you aren’t able pick him out of four voices, why not try two? For the song’s finish, Groucho sings the repeat so far a-way, accompanied by a harmony. Interestingly, Chico and Zeppo are both holding their notes from the previous line meaning they cannot be singing along with Groucho. This leaves only one harmonic culprit—the brother in the background staring off at the ceiling, the one who, it would soon be revealed, stole the paintings and all the silverware in the house, the one trying desperately to keep his lips from moving. Harpo is singing.
Now you can say you have heard Harpo’s voice, despite the fact that, really, you could have said that all along.