The Marx Brothers as Guardian Angels—Part 3:

Harpo’s Magical Turn in Love Happy

Harpo himself wrote the storyline for the final Marx Brothers film, Love Happy, which features Groucho as narrating detective Sam Grunion and characterizes Harpo and Chico (a.k.a. Faustino the Great) as nearly supernatural figures. While neither Harpo nor Chico is presented as an angel per se, the two are, at this point, only a step away from becoming the angelic characters featured in The Deputy Seraph. For the first time, the skill that Chico displayed at interpreting Haipo’s miming of information in A Day at the Races has been transformed into a sort of superpower. Chico is no longer just good at playing charades; he is a mind reader whose mental might goes as far as enabling him to understand the mute Harpo over the telephone. Meanwhile, hobo Harpo is presented as an even more magical figure than usual. While he has always had some control over the laws of physics, he demonstrates an even more impressive array of abilities than usual, including teleportation and the ability to breathe smoke and shoot fire from his lapel flower. He also makes frequent use of his trademark bottomless coat pockets. Most importantly, Harpo’s home is shown for the first time, and it turns out to be a whimsical cave hidden in the brush in the middle of Central Park. With big wooden doors as an entrance, Harpo’s home is decorated with impish artifacts, and features a penguin dressed like Harpo, candelabras, and a harp with a mattress over it that doubles as a bed.

The young lovers in Love Happy include Mike Johnson (Paul Valentine), the producer of a musical review whose main financial backer has disappeared, and Maggie (Vera Ellen), the production’ s lovely ingénue. Along with the rest of the troupe, Mike and Maggie are working without pay until the ticket sales provide profits to live on. At the beginning of the film, Faustino joins the production, agreeing to work without pay like the rest of them, because he’s ”no ham.”

Unfortunately, the man responsible for the sets and costumes, Mr. Lyons, is tired of waiting for his fees and sends men to strip the stage bare. He suggests that he might be persuaded to leave the sets where they are if one of the showgirls has sex with him, but Faustino gallantly intervenes, protesting that the young woman is engaged. Knowing that this will enrage Lyons, Faustino tries to win the disgruntled investor over by appealing to his sense of showmanship. The piano-playing Faustino discovers that Lyons can play the violin and convinces Lyons to join him in a gypsy-music duet. Lyons is moved to tears while they are playing together, and it seems as if Faustino has succeeded in granting the production a stay of execution. Sadly, Lyons is resolute, and the stage is stripped bare, leaving the production out in the cold.

While Faustino fails, Harpo still has a chance of succeeding in saving the show. Harpo has been stealing food for the actors throughout their rehearsal

schedule, inspiring the beautiful Maggie to begin calling him “my Robin Hood!” On one of Harpo’s food-gathering expeditions, he unknowingly steals a can of sardines that the villainous Madame Egelichi has used to smuggle the priceless Romanov diamonds into the country. Despite Egelichi’s feminine wiles and menacing henchman (Raymond Burr), Harpo runs rings around the villains throughout the film. In fact, Harpo uses his magic powers to orchestrate a highly improbable happy ending in which Egelichi ends up financing the play and marrying detective Grunion. Harpo gets to keep the jewels, and the young lovers celebrate the successful staging of their musical revue. If that isn’t the work of an angel, I’m not sure what is.

Since angels serve God, the ultimate patriarch and source of universal order, it would be reasonable to propose that angels are best understood as agents of the law and the establishment. Therefore, it would appear that, by exploring a view of the Marx Brothers as pseudo-angelic matchmakers, I am arguing against the interpretation of them as anarchic, subversive comedians and am presenting them as champions of the status quo. And yet, I am suggesting quite the opposite. I believe that the Marx Brothers represent a revolutionary form of guardian angel that protects young lovers because they are agents of change who will shake up the status quo.

When one considers the Marx Brothers as guardian angels, it is not important so much that they have halos or work for God—or that they appear to be ”pro-marriage.” These are the two most significant questions: 1) What kind of people have they sided with? And 2) What forces do they stand against? When the characters played by Groucho, Harpo, and Chico deign to help young couples in trouble, it is because the funnymen feel a kinship to the lovers. That kinship may be because the lovers come from a similarly humble urban background, like Chico’s character, or because they are iconoclasts or unappreciated artists, like Harpo, or because they represent a lost innocence that Groucho’s character wishes he still possessed. Although individual examples may differ, the young lovers matter to the Marx Brothers’ characters because they see themselves in the people they are helping.

To put it another way, the young couples are slightly more respectable doubles of the brothers themselves, and that is why they are interesting, even if they are sometimes awkwardly characterized or inelegantly shoehorned into the plot. Like the brothers, these broke lovers are taken for granted by the rich, abused by the neighborhood bullies, and closed out of job opportunities because they don’t have the “right” pedigree. They’re mutts, no matter how pretty they are. That is why it doesn’t matter how well Baroni can sing or how talented an architect Bob Adams is—they are not socially acceptable because they don’t have the breeding, the money, or the connections, just like, in certain circles, the Marx Brothers themselves would always be in danger of persecution for being Jewish. And the villains and hypocrites whom the Marx Brothers humiliate are the very same entrenched establishment racists and buffoons who are invested in keeping a stuffy and unjust social order intact, and who find themselves threatened by the new blood and the possibility of a better future that the young couples represent. So the Marx Brothers’ characters strive to wrench control of the arts from snobs, put an end to marriages of convenience, and expose hypocrisy and pomposity wherever they find it, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of the young lovers they relate to.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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