Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Anatomy of Harpo Marx

The Anatomy of Harpo Marx

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 336
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Anatomy of Harpo Marx
    Book Description:

    The Anatomy of Harpo Marxis a luxuriant, detailed play-by-play account of Harpo Marx's physical movements as captured on screen. Wayne Koestenbaum guides us through the thirteen Marx Brothers films, fromThe Cocoanutsin 1929 toLove Happyin 1950, to focus on Harpo's chief and yet heretofore unexplored attribute-his profound and contradictory corporeality. Koestenbaum celebrates the astonishing range of Harpo's body-its kinks, sexual multiplicities, somnolence, Jewishness, "cute" pathos, and more. In a virtuosic performance, Koestenbaum's text moves gracefully from insightful analysis to cultural critique to autobiographical musing, and provides Harpo with a host of odd bedfellows, including Walter Benjamin and Barbra Streisand.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95198-3
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)

    • The Holy Fool Flees Language’s Stink Bomb: THE COCOANUTS (1929)
      (pp. 3-26)

      ENTRANCE At the studios of Paramount Pictures in Astoria, Long Island, in his first scene, his first major film, 1929, six years before the Third Reich passed the Nuremberg Laws, Harpo enters honking. Honk honk. Pause. Honk honk. Lemming-like, he pursues a woman who doesn’t realize that a kook is shadowing her. What does Harpo want? He wants to honk, copy, play, irritate, smash, point, lean, and rest. He wants to find a double, to be useless, to recognize, and to be recognized. He wants to greet the void. He wants to go blank. Or maybe he wants nothing.


    • Pinky, the Pointing Scapegoat, Lags Behind: DUCK SOUP (1933)
      (pp. 27-48)

      MAX UND MORITZAs a child with an appetite for abjection, I gobbled up Wilhelm Busch’sMax und Moritz, an illustrated German tale (1865) about a pair of rotten mischief-making boys who end up shoved into a grain mill that pulverizes their bodies. Had my father, as a boy in Berlin, read that book? He bought me its English translation at Meyberg’s Delicatessen, which also sold miniature cheese triangles. The bodies of Max and Moritz repulsed me (they looked like lard), but I knew where they were coming from: I understood their distaste for compartmentalization.

      PINKY Harpo’s name inDuck...

    • The Mad Mohel’s Goo-Goo Eyes of Monomaniacal Attunement: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935)
      (pp. 49-73)

      MONOMANIA: TRAGEDY IS CUTE Monotheistic, I stick to Harpo. My sentences bear a grudge against development: at one star, they statically stare. If Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are the Trinity, I ignore Father and Son, and put all my eggs in the Holy Ghost’s basket.

      Harpo, a tenor’s valet, puts on his boss’s costume (Madama Butterfly’s Captain Pinkerton) and salutes. ► Harpo’s eyes bulge with pleasure at fitting into a category (“obedience”) while betraying it. Hand raised at military attention, he looks like John-John saluting JFK’s coffin. We call such an image “cute” because it makes tragedy diminutive and comestible....

    • Poppy Power; or, The Thick-Enough Art of Zombie Dumbfoundment: ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930)
      (pp. 74-96)

      WHY DREAMS MUST BE PART OF SERIOUS THINKING I dreamt that Barbra Streisand, whose Jewfro inA Star Is Bornlooks like Harpo’s wig, dictated her memoirs while riding in a limo.

      Honk, honk. Harpo’s horn-honks take a detour around speech—as dreams, in writing, replace exposition. Dreams, inserted into discursive prose, demonstrate an incremental, patchwork aesthetics:bit by bit.

      Harpo, named “The Professor” inAnimal Crackers, spoofs intellectual matters. Mentioning my dreams, I deplete vocal credibility: pleasurable, to smudge an authority I only half-hold.

      Animal Crackerspremiered in New York on August 29, 1930, two weeks before my mother’s...


    • Fake Dead Jew as Cute Zoo-Idiot: ROOM SERVICE (1938)
      (pp. 99-119)

      THE MOMENT BEFORE THE FIT BEGINS In the instant before the epileptic fit begins, Dostoevsky’s idiot experiences sacrosanct concentration. Harpo communicates a similarly exalted self-consciousness: simplicity mixed with excitement. The difference: Dostoevsky’s idiot undergoes concentration andthenstupefaction, while Harpo’s gestures reflect concentration and stupefaction at the same time.

      Harpo epitomizes the easily likable. Why pollute him with the foam of commentary?

      TIE BEHAVIOR: DUCK-MOUTH Let’s change the subject to nudism, and Harpo’s tropism toward it. I refuse to stop paying attention to Harpo’s body. ► Harpo, playing Faker Englund, enters topless—but wearing a tie. Much about the Marx...

    • Passé Punchy’s Humiliated Buddy Huddle: AT THE CIRCUS (1939)
      (pp. 120-140)

      PLURAL BADGES: PARANOID OVERPACKING You can’t emigrate, or escape pogrom, without a badge. Harpo opens his jacket to show at least eight: his daffy expression implies,I won a sweepstakes I can’t understand. ◄ He belongs to many trade unions; populism is his coat’s secret lining. Multiple badges assert comic defense against lack. Resourcefulness-unto-sleaziness: witness Harpo’s pawnshop plurality, the more the merrier, too much food on the table. Abundance revolts against absence: when we see the presence of many things, we may understand that at bottom there lies nothing. When I travel, I overpack: what if I run out of...

    • Freeze Rusty’s Anal Rage in a Cozy Void: GO WEST (1940)
      (pp. 141-163)

      UNSPEAKABLE COZINESS OF BEING LED BY CHICO: INTERPELLATION Why make such a big deal out of the Jewish penis? That’s a question I’ll answer later. Meanwhile, this chapter will avail itself of several theoretical allusions, but don’t be alarmed. We’re going west; we’re fleeing ratiocination and, while we’re at it, extermination; we’re in the middle of Harpo’s film career; the films, though more elaborate, permit Harpo fewer innovative lunacies. Nonetheless, every Harpo gesture is sacred and equal: each bears witness to his actuality, even if theactualseems to take a backseat, in this book, to theimagined. We could...

    • Lonely Wacky’s Incremental Lines of Flight: THE BIG STORE (1941)
      (pp. 164-181)

      MATRILINEAGE: SCHOENBERG, SHORTNESS Harpo’s mother’s maiden name was MinnieSchoenberg. “Mere” coincidence? Harpo and the composer Arnold Schoenberg, in Hollywood, were friends; I sense an underground affinity between Harpo’s entertaining performances and Schoenberg’s lonely craft. When Harpo asked the composer why he always carried around a violin case, he opened it to reveal “four Ping-pong paddles and a collection of Ping-pong balls.” Arnold liked games; his twelve-tone system, a ritualistic (kabbalistic?) method, achieved order and beauty through careful arrangements. Harpo’s work, too, relied on games and on the coordination of separate parts; both men paid attention to a composition’s increments...

    • The Bubble-Blowing Demarcator Tickles Totality: A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946)
      (pp. 182-201)

      DON’T “FUZZIFY” HARPO yesterday at lunch with intellectuals I said that I don’t believe in God but that I’m not an atheist: maybe one day I’ll drop acid and hallucinate Him. I hold on to “God” (synonym for extreme consciousness) as an ace I might later play. Meanwhile, I’ll use Harpo as a Thou. But I’ll try not to make him a fuzzy child. That would be an act of reterritorialization. It’s easy to divvy up critical theory’s terms into valorized and denigrated items. To avoid fuzzifying Harpo, I won’t make him the prince of subversion and misrule.

      BIOGRAPHEMES Harpo’s...

    • Bulge, Glaze, Pause, Shock; or, The Bushy-Haired Ragpicker’s Burnt Offering: LOVE HAPPY (1949)
      (pp. 202-224)

      THE PILLOW BOOK OF HARPO MARX You are now holding the pillow book of Harpo Marx. ThePillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, from eleventh-century Japan, was composed in notebooks that the empress had given her lady-in-waiting. Of these notebooks, said Sei Shōnagon, “Let me make them into a pillow.” She filled them “with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid.” On the whole she concentrated on trivia, on the inanimate, on people-as-objects, on objects-as-people....


    • The Undeliverable Ice of Pinky’s Mom-Mouth: HORSE FEATHERS (1932)
      (pp. 227-251)

      SYNTAX Destroying chronology, now I slide backward, from 1949 to 1932—from the end of Harpo’s film career to nearly its inception. My aim is retrograde—remedial, unrealistic, chthonic.

      In the bathroom, when I was a teenager, I smacked my little brother with a towel. Wet towels hurt. What’s the point of a book if it can’t undo a random act of cruelty?

      With an exegetical towel’s smack, I enjoy breaking films up, interrupting seamlessness, creating modules of Harpo-resuscitation, chambers in a growing mausoleum, like the Winchester Mystery House, my hometown’s major tourist attraction: mad widow Winchester imagines that she’ll...

    • The Kippering, Bopping, Shushing, Bear-Hugging, Beard-Pulling Bustle: MONKEY BUSINESS (1931)
      (pp. 252-272)

      ARTY CHOKE Dream: Harpo starred in a Yiddish film, a talkie. He spoke! His voice was soft and gravelly. Also dreamt I steamed an artichoke. Moral: I choke on art. Have you met Arthur Choke, a quiet klutz his friends call Arty?

      KIPPERED HERRING Food is my subject. I eat Harpo. He stands in a barrel, labeled “Kippered Herring,” and uses its top as a primping mirror. ◄ (Hollywood openly portrayed effeminacy before the decency code clamped down.) The barrel’s top reflects nothing; Harpo recognizes himself in voids.

      Kippered Herring: my mother’s father, who looked like Groucho, and whose verbal...

    • The Pretzel Glimmer-Eye of Stuffy’s Stuttering Surge: A DAY AT THE RACES (1937)
      (pp. 273-299)

      JEWISH WEIRDO DREAM Dream: I met Barbra Streisand at her home. Blonde, preoccupied, she confused me with another acolyte, a hack writing a book calledBarbra in Motion.

      Harpo and Barbra are two Jewish weirdos who made it big. I’m amnesiac about what I’ve already included in this book, and what I haven’t. Have I already told you about the time I saw Jason Gould walking up Eighth Avenue? Did I use the phrase “spawn of vibrato and egocentricity” to describe him? Or did I cut that phrase, because I worried that “egocentricity” was an unkind way to describe Barbra?...

  7. Back Matter
    (pp. 300-300)