The Anatomy of Harpo Marx

Wayne Koestenbaum. Univ. of California, $70 (336 pages) ISBN 978-0-520-26900-2
"Long ago, someone told Harpo to shut up"—but why did he listen? In this exhaustive critical study, Koestenbaum (Humiliation) looks with a sharp eye at the silent Marx Brother from every angle in an attempt to figure out what Harpo meant to say, and why he wouldn't use his speaking voice to say it. What is the meaning of Harpo's "infantile incomprehensibility?" Is it a rebuke? ("...rebuking himself for failing to speak, rebuking others for speaking, and rebuking the social contract for ignoring his existence"); self-mutilation? ("Afraid that Chico will say ‘shut up' again, Harpo shushes himself (self-mutilation, as if with a razor) in advance…"); rage? ("Harpo's silence contains rage against self and against unresponsive others…") But Koestenbaum doesn't just offer a critique of Harpo's silence, he celebrates it: "Harpo is on top…alone with the totality he has worked to create with pointing and honking and whistling and duck-mouthing…the totality that makes him momentarily king." Through thirteen chapters—one for each of Harpo's films—including dozens of illustrative film stills, Koestenbaum provides an informed, original, and near-obsessive assessment of all things Harpo. And, just as with Harpo himself, while it isn't always clear what Koestenbaum is trying to say—his verbose play-by-play of the silent star is challenging, to say the least—it's always worth trying to figure out. 388 b&w photos. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/30/2012
Release date: 02/01/2012
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