Book Review

Harpo Speaks! (1961) Review


It’s rare to find an actor who can connect with an audience without speaking a single word. I’m not referring to actors from the “silent era,” though I’m sure people would scream for Charlie Chaplin. It’s always Chaplin, and I don’t get him. I don’t understand his appeal. The actor I’m talking about I do get, I love, and was himself a huge Chaplin fan. It’s his autobiography I’m reviewing. He said Chaplin was a comic genius. I say this man is a comic genius. The silent star of the “talking era.” Ladies and gentlemen, Adolph, later Arthur Marx. You know him better as Harpo. I do at least. It isn’t because I’ve watched every Marx Brothers film, or attempted to watch. I read his autobiography. The aptly titled, Harpo Speaks!

In these pages you’ll find an overabundance of the two key things all autobiographies need. The author must be, above all else, honest. It’s also a huge added plus if he’s humble, especially if he came from nothing to get everything out of life. Nobody wants to listen to a lying braggart. Well, perhaps you do, but I don’t. Honest and humble are two great words to define Harpo Marx, and Harpo Speaks! The third word and following close behind is funny. This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, fiction or non-fiction. He tells some hilarious stories. Coming from someone else, told in a different voice, they might not carry the same tone. I don’t think you can become a comic genius without being able to laugh at yourself, or find the laughter in all things. That’s genuine Harpo Marx, and Harpo Marx is genuine. He’s done things and met people others of his era, or any era, only dream about doing. Movie star, famed harpist, and comic genius, he comes across as a regular guy. He doesn’t put on any airs. A red wig, beat up top hat, and an old trench coat are his trappings.

Rowland Barber deserves a lot of credit for how this reads, and my overall enjoyment. He’s the ghost writer, who’s more than a ghost writer. He’s the actual writer. On the cover his name is in the same font and size as the star. Harpo Marx never finished second grade. Barber took the stories, notes, whatever Harpo had to give, and turned it into a stellar autobiography. An autobiography is “an account of a person’s life written by that person.” A biography is “an account of someone’s life written by someone else.” Harpo Speaks! combines the two in the truest sense. An autobiographical biography.

This is the autobiography of one man, Harpo Marx. His story, and no one else. This isn’t the definitive account of the Marx Brothers. Sure, he tells how they all got started in show business. Then became a touring vaudeville act, went to Broadway, and made it to the bright lights of Hollywood. He talks about his early days, about his family. There’s no behind-the-scenes stories or anything mentioned about their films. If that’s what you want and expect to get, go find another book. You won’t get that here. That’s my lone complaint. Having read this entire, near 500-page book, it doesn’t seem like much of one. If this was just about the Marx Brothers, I wouldn’t get to know my favorite brother as well as I do now. He lived an interesting life off the stage and screen, but on the stage and screen he lived just as much. There he never said a word. He let a harp and a horn do his talking. Between these pages he finally speaks, and he’s got a lot to say.

Copyright © Drew Martin 2016


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