Do you have a particularly precious film memory from your childhood? Mine comes from the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera, which my father screened as part of the University of the South’s Cinema Guild offerings in the mid-1950’s. I was five or six and remember laughing so hard that it hurt as Harpo swings from one backstage rope to another, changing the scenery behind the opera singer who, nevertheless, continues to sing. At one moment (as I recall) the backdrop is a seascape, at another an onrushing train. The scene still has for me a special glow.
Now that I think about it, the scene may owe something to one of my favorite Buster Keaton films, Sherlock Jr., where, in a dream, Buster finds himself stepping from one cinema scene into another.
Kids usually like Harpo the best of the brothers. They get Harpo’s famous “gookie” look and relate to how he wears his emotions on his sleeve. He is the uninhibited id of the Marx Brothers, someone who doesn’t need words to communicate as he leaps into lemonade stands, chases after pretty women, and pulls large cutting objects from his long coat. His two instruments come at the two ends of the music spectrum: a horn and a harp. Margaret Dumont may play the straight woman for Groucho, but the whole world is Harpo’s foil.
I came across the following Jack Kerouac homage to Harpo written near the end of his life . It makes sense that the irreverent beat author would appreciate Harpo’s anarchic energies:
To Harpo Marx
By Jack Kerouac
Harpo! When did you seem like an angel
the last time?
and played the gray harp of gold?
When did you steal the silverware
and bug-spray the guests?
When did your brother find rain
in your sunny courtyard?
When did you chase your last blonde
across the Millionairesses’ lawn
with a bait hook on a line
protruding from your bicycle?
Harpo! Who was that Lion
I saw you with?
How did you treat the midget
and Konk the giant?
Harpo, in your recent night-club appearance
in New Orleans were you old?
Were you still chiding with your horn
in the cane at your golden belt?
Was your vow of silence an Indian Harp?