Born Adolf Marx on the 23rd of November, 1888 to Minnie Schönberg and Sam Marx, Harpo (as he became known) was the second oldest Marx Brother. He began his stage career with his brothers as a regular Vaudevillian actor with speaking roles quite different from the horn-honking, trenchcoated animal he became known for.
Adolf's well-known silent act had beginnings in disappointment. In 1914, during the tour of Home Again, his performance was universally panned. He made the decision to ad-lib the role from that point on, with slightly better results. A critic in the Champiagn, IL paper said, "Adolph Marx performed beautiful pantomime, which was ruined whenever he spoke."
From that point on, Adolf rarely spoke on stage. When he did, it was totally unscripted: on the opening night of their show Animal Crackers (which later became a film), he tackled actress Margaret Irving and proceeded to tell her a long and dirty joke. His brothers played along like true Thespians, joining him onstage to provide a running commentary.
During World War I, he decided that his name was "too German", and Adolf became Arthur Marx. It's by this name that most Marxists know him today.
Arthur was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table, an intellectual and social club of sorts that met in the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan during the 1920's. He was invited in by Alexander Woollcott the theater critic, who was responsible for the Marx Brothers' first big success in New York.
Arthur married actress Susan Fleming in 1936, eventually adopting four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy and Minnie.
Like his brother Chico, Harpo had a musical gift. Predictably, it was for the harp, which he took the opportunity to play in nearly every movie, with a few twists. In Go West, the 'harp' is actually a loom; in At the Races, it is the dismantled frame of a grand piano; and in Duck Soup, Harpo reaches inside a still-standing grand piano and plucks at the strings. Suprisingly, he gets a lovely sound out of them, a testament to his musical ingenuity, or perhaps to the foley artist. Arthur also played the piano, though not as well as his brother.
His physical style of playing was often more entrancing than the actual music. He turned every performance into a comedy routine and a dance all at once, often using peculiar strokes to get un-harplike sounds.
Usually, the harps used in the movies were his own. He changed models frequently, especially during the early years. Eventually he ended up with two Lyon & Healy Gold-Gilt Concert Grands, model #24. They became his favorites. Shortly after his death, his wife Susan was asked to judge a harp competition in Israel. She brought their son Bill along, since she knew nothing of the mechanics of harpistry. Their intent was to donate the two concert grands to two Israeli university harp departments, on the condition that the harps were not to be put on display, but used by the students. According to some sources, their wishes were carried out, but a small plaque with Arthur's name was affixed to each intrument. Hopefully they are still in use today.
The source of Harpo's name is, at first glance, obvious. His shtick was the harp, his name was Harpo. And yet Chico is not called Piano, Groucho is not Cigaro. I put forth the following hypothesis: When early Greek scholars first made inroads to Egypt, they saw statues depicting the mother goddess Isis. She dandles the baby Horus on her lap, and he sucks on his finger as babies are wont to do. This pose was universal in Egypt (as it became a universal image for the Virgin Mary to dandle baby Jesus on her lap), and the Greeks encountered it so much they began to hypothesize about its meaning. They interpreted the child as a symbol of secrecy concerning godly mysteries and enjoining silence. They called the child Horus Harpocrates, God of Silence, and invoked him by the finger-to-mouth gesture. Harpocrates is not often talked of today, but he became a semi-prominent Greek and eventually Roman godling.
The character of Harpo is one of the most influential comedic acts in the history of film. His endless props, mimicry and twisted facial expressions are imitated again and again in modern cinema, and they always get laughs. He was the most charismatic Marx Brother, though not the most handsome by a long shot. It was said that when Arthur walked in a room filled with people, all of the children and animals would flock to him; his sweetness and joy was palpable on screen and off.
This is the secret of his appeal. Like Bettie Page, he was able to get into potentially dangerous or unsettling scenarios without ever making the audience doubt his good intentions or feel uneasy. This sweetness was what made his animalistic behavior so appealing. Eyes crossed, panting with rage, teeth bared: we are reminded of a hyperactive child instead of a dangerous psychopath. A fine example of the continuance of the Harpo legacy would be the character of Stitch from Disney's newest feature.
Arthur "Harpo" appeared in the following films:
Harpo also appeared on television a few times, his most notable showing was in an I Love Lucy episode where the two comedians rehash the famous Mirror Scene from Duck Soup. Lucille Ball was a great fan of Harpo, and the two got along swimmingly. Every actor has a favorite Marx Brother.
In 1961, Arthur (with help) published a biography entitled Harpo Speaks! under Limelight Editions. It's still in print.
Sources include: www.marx-brothers.org, www.whyaduck.com, Internet Movie Database and The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects.
/msgs with information I left out are always appreciated. (thanks to sid for the tips)