Son of Harpo Speaks!
by Bill Marx
Reviewed by Jef Burnham
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I’ll start with a confession so it’s out in the open: I adore the Marx Brothers. And my adoration is not limited to the Marx Brothers of the silver screen. No, I am equally, if not more, infatuated with the Marx Brothers as people, the Marx Brothers that so many have written fondly about in their memoirs, the Marx Brothers that appeared on television in interviews and game shows (especially Groucho on You Bet Your Life and The Dick Cavett Show). I absorb anything Marx Brothers-related that I can get my hands on. As you’d expect, Marx Brothers writings, biographies, and memoirs account for a large part of this. And two recent Applause Books have significantly enriched my obsessive Marx Brothers library. These titles include Son of Harpo Speaks! by Bill Marx in addition to the Updated and Expanded Edition of Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx.
As anyone thoroughly familiar with the Marx Brothers is well aware, much has been written about the family over the years, and not solely in the books specifically about them. The stories of their personal and professional interactions are the stuff of legend. These stories have been told and retold time and again, often by the brothers themselves in writing and interviews. And with so many texts reiterating and expanding on the same stories and information, it seems unlikely, after oh so many years, that we’d actually get entirely new tales of the Marx Brothers’ exploits. Then Bill Marx comes along with Son of Harpo Speaks! From his unique vantage point as Harpo’s adopted son, props supervisor, and musical composer/arranger, not to mention the last living person to have worked professionally with The Three Marx Brothers, he has some truly incredible stories to tell. So much so that one of the most priceless passages of Marx Brothers lore in his book, to my mind, is honestly one of the simplest, consisting merely of a transcript of Harpo’s hand-written list of the props of which Bill was in charge. With the stories of the Brothers predominantly focusing on Harpo (for obvious reasons), Bill Marx’s book is the perfect companion/sequel to his father’s autobiography, Harpo Speaks.
Yet, this is not to say that Marx focuses exclusively on the Brothers. In fact, the tales of these beloved Vaudevillians surface somewhat incidentally throughout, for this is first and foremost Bill Marx’s story. And with a life story every bit as remarkable as you’d expect that of a Marx Brother’s child to be, Marx would become a composer of orchestral material, as well as soundtracks for film and television, after working with the Brothers. Among the most fascinating stories in this memoir relates how Marx (who was, again, adopted) learned of his biological mother after becoming the godfather of a child who turned out to be his biological second cousin. Son of Harpo Speaks! is a surprisingly quick and unsurprisingly engaging read that you’ll easily pour through in a day if you’re a Marx Brothers fanatic like me. Despite his declarations early on in the book regarding his literary limitations, Marx proves himself quite the capable storyteller. In fact, I found that his occasional comic wordplay throughout highlights how reminiscent his writing can be of the prose stylings of Uncle Groucho.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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