His first appearance was in the 1921 film Humor Risk, with his brothers, although according to Groucho, it was only screened once and then lost. Four years later, Harpo appeared without his brothers in Too Many Kisses, four years before the brothers' first widely-released film, The Cocoanuts (1929). In Too Many Kisses, Harpo spoke the only line he would ever speak on-camera in a movie: "You sure you can't move?" Fittingly, it was a silent movie, and the audience only saw his lips move and saw the line on a title card.
In the Marx Brothers' movie At the Circus (1939), however, Harpo "speaks" in a movie with the brothers in the scene in which he visits the room of Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren) and sneezes, clearly saying "At-choo!". In A Night in Casablanca, Harpo also "speaks" in the scene where he is taste-testing Groucho's food by acting like a seal and vocalizing seal sounds. It is also implied that Harpo is singing (baritone) in the opening scene of Monkey Business (1931), where the four Marx Brothers, stowed away in barrels aboard a cruise liner, sing a four-part harmony of "Sweet Adeline."
Harpo became famous for prop-laden sight gags, in particular the seemingly infinite number of odd things stored in his topcoat's oversized pockets. In the film Horse Feathers (1932), Groucho, referring to an impossible situation, tells Harpo that he cannot "burn the candle at both ends." Harpo immediately produces from within his coat pocket a lit candle burning at both ends. Earlier in the film a man on the street asks him for money for a cup of coffee, and he subsequently produces a steaming cup complete with saucer, from inside his coat. As author Joe Adamson put in his book, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, "The president of the college has been shouted down by a mute."
Harpo often used facial expressions and mime to get his point across. One of his facial expressions, which he used in every Marx Brothers film and stage play, beginning with Fun in Hi Skule, was known as "the Gookie." Harpo created it by mimicking the expression of Mr. Gehrke, a New York tobacconist who would make a similar face while concentrating on rolling cigars.
Harpo further distinguished his character by wearing a "fright wig". Early in his career it was dyed pink, as evidenced by color film posters of the time and by allusions to it in films, with character names such as "Pinky." It tended to show as blonde on-screen due to the black-and-white film stock at the time. Over time, he darkened the pink to more of a reddish color, again alluded to in films with names such as "Rusty."
His non-speaking in his early films was occasionally referred to by the other Marx Brothers, who were careful to imply that his character's not speaking was a choice rather than a disability. They would make joking reference to this part of his act. For example, in Animal Crackers his character was ironically dubbed "The Professor." In The Cocoanuts, this exchange occurred:
- Groucho: "Who is this?"
- Chico: "Dat's-a my partner, but he no speak."
- Groucho: Oh, that's your silent partner!
In later films, Harpo was put into situations where he would repeatedly attempt to convey a vital message to another person, but only did so through nonverbal means. These scenes reinforced the idea that the character was unable to speak.
Read more about this topic: Harpo Marx
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