On a Silent Clown

Arthur and his brothers grew up in a family that sang together, and all of them played self-taught instruments. Because one of their uncles was already in the business, the trio of the siblings tried their hands at the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, their act, The Three Nightingales, never quite made it in the crowded vaudeville business, and the brothers parted ways (they even tried a name change to no avail). Arthur then tried to make money by playing piano accompaniment to silent films in the late teens. His brother, Leonard, got Arthur the job as basically an assistant pianist. The problem for Arthur was that he knew how to play only two songs on the piano—and he merely adjusted the tempo of these two songs when the action either sped up or slowed.

Poor Arthur. Even in school, he had been bullied to the point that he dropped out before even starting high school. He was seen by many who knew him as being the least bright, the least promising of the brothers. He had even flunked second grade. Second grade! How does one fail to pass elementary school? Yet, Arthur managed to do it. He managed to sell newspapers and work in a butcher shop after leaving school and before his experience with the Nightingales.

Finally, and again because of his brothers, Arthur got a break. He found work in a film in 1921, a silent picture named Humor Risk. Being in a silent film suited Arthur just fine; in fact, he had so much trouble memorizing his lines when the boys had the vaudeville act that he eventually remained silent throughout most of the skits and only served to fill out the stage with his siblings. The film was quickly forgotten, but soon, other film jobs came open, and the brothers included Arthur in their work.

Throughout the Silent Era, Arthur continued to work with his brothers. When talkies came in, he came to dread the day that he would have to speak on camera. But that day never came. Arthur’s brothers soon realized that Arthur was more valuable actually not speaking at all. You see, Arthur brought a natural silent comedy sensibility to his roles, and that innate talent was exploited in sight gags, mime work, and props that he used extensively. The joke that was made often was that he was the act’s silent partner.

And Arthur was funny.

The films that he and the brothers produced became huge hits. They were soon international stars. When Arthur married in 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent him a congratulatory telegram (That’s Arthur with his wife in the photo above). Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood wanted to work with Arthur and his family. Arthur even appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

Additionally, Arthur did continue to fiddle with music throughout his film roles, and even became quite an accomplished musician despite not being able to read music. In fact, today, one of his instruments is a treasured part of a professional orchestra in Israel. The instrument? A harp. And Israel fell heir to the instrument because Arthur and his brothers were Jewish.

You probably realize now that Arthur—better known to the world as Harpo—was one of the Marx Brothers.

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