The Anatomy of Harpo Marx

Philip Kemp has qualms about the purpose of an examination of a dumb comedian's physicality

March 29, 2012

When it comes to the Marx Brothers, it's been suggested that men prefer the wisecracking, misanthropic Groucho, while women go for the seraphic dumb insolence of Harpo. (No one, it seems, loves Chico, let alone Zeppo.) If so, Wayne Koestenbaum is an exception. From the start he openly admits to having fallen "in love with Harpo" and his study of the mute comic could be read less as an academic work than as an extended, verbally incontinent love letter - or, as the author puts it, "an exercise in star immersion". Nor should the book's title be taken metaphorically: along the way we're treated to disquisitions on Harpo's eyes, mouth, legs, penis (or penis substitutes, such as his perennial motor-horn) and, repeatedly, his bottom.

Koestenbaum covers 13 of Harpo's Marx Brothers films (he ignores Irwin Allen's rambling 1957 inanity, The Story of Mankind, in which Harpo, improbably enough, plays Sir Isaac Newton), devoting a chapter to each, although not in chronological order. Within those chapters he does nothing so systematic as pursuing an argument, but rather snipes at it from all sides. Each paragraph homes in on a specific Harpo moment in the chosen movie, frequently illustrated with a thumbnail still and always introduced with a subheading in block capitals. A random selection of these will give the flavour of the text: "Excoriation as glory"; "You notice my miraculousness"; "Phallus-lengthening"; "Shame-finger"; "Rebirth from elevator's womb". Chapter headings are similarly quirky: "Passé Punchy's humiliated buddy huddle" introduces At the Circus (1939).

This potshot approach is exacerbated by frequent diversions into Koestenbaum's childhood memories, often with the most tenuous connection with the matter under discussion. Within the space of a few pages we're told of his family's habit of keeping the fridge stocked with herring, his great-aunt's ill-fastened wig and the way his navel changed shape as he grew up. He confides his dreams and erotic fantasies, and even recounts raunchy episodes from his sex life. Writing from an explicitly gay Jewish perspective, he tosses in fragments of Judaic doctrine while remaining ecumenical enough to suggest that, in the Marxian Trinity, Harpo might stand for the Holy Ghost.

Fair enough: as the book's subject is one of cinema's most idiosyncratic clowns, a sober academic analysis would hardly have been appropriate - and would probably have earned one of Harpo's finest raspberries. "Sudden, too, are my quick splices," observes Koestenbaum, emulating his hero. "I'll claim suddenness as a theme." (His italics.) Even so, after a few hundred pages of linguistic curlicues and naughty asides, I couldn't help wishing that, just occasionally, he would calm down and follow through on some of his sharper insights. "I've been reading too much Lacan," he admits at one point. Yes, and wallowing in too much Barthes-foam. The relentless wisecracking, paragraph after paragraph, starts to induce a mild sense of nausea. You might call it the gag reflex.

Where Koestenbaum does conform to academic practice is in his penchant for hauling in a promiscuous shed-load of cultural references. Dostoevsky and Emily Dickinson are frequent visitors, but Keats, Gérard de Nerval, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Benjamin, Melanie Klein, Andy Warhol, Francis Poulenc and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon also flit through the text, often shedding more heat than light. Surprisingly, though, the author misses out on what might seem the most obvious cinematic parallel. True, one was mute and the other garrulous: but that apart, who could doubt that in his love of provocation and mischief, his ambivalent sexuality and habit of gleeful larceny, one of Harpo Marx's most dedicated followers was Bugs Bunny?

The Anatomy of Harpo Marx

By Wayne Koestenbaum

University of California Press

336pp, £48.95 and £19.95

ISBN 9780520269002 and 269019

Published 29 March 2012

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