By Robert Gluck/JNS.org
The sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany and France, the Marx
Brothers became zany masters of stage and screen who continue to captivate
audiences. But in addition to providing comic relief, their films captured
the drama of the entry of their marginalized religion into the U.S.
Click photo to download. Caption: The Marx Brothers, from left to right: Chico, Harpo, and Groucho (sitting). Credit: Yousuf Karsh via Wikimedia Commons.
Wayne Koestenbaum, author of the 2012 book The Anatomy
of Harpo Marx, explains that the Marx Brothers’ Jewishness as a family “was
evident, marked, thoroughly legible.”
“Within a family already marked as Jewish within cinema culture
of the ’20s and ’30s, Harpo, as the one who experiences shame most vividly in
the films, became the scapegoat,” Koestenbaum tells JNS.org. “To the extent, then, that Jews have always been
scapegoated–and certainly in the ’30s most tragically and demonstrably
scapegoated–it seems to me no coincidence that the Marx Brothers made their
films exactly during the time of the rise of Nazism.”
Koestenbaum’s book is a detailed account of Harpo’s physical
movements as captured on screen. He guides readers through the 13 Marx Brothers
films, from “The Cocoanuts” in 1929 to “Love Happy” in 1950, focusing on
Harpo’s body language—its kinks, sexual multiplicities, somnolence, pathos, and
In his appraisal of Harpo’s antics in “A Night in Casablanca,”
Koestenbaum writes, “I will lean on the Nazi theme; Harpo leans on it, too.
Harpo was a comic genius before the Third Reich came along, but the Third Reich
gave Harpo’s anarchy extra pointedness.”
Born in New York City, the Marx Brothers’ mother, Minnie
Schonberg, was from Dornum in East Frisia, Germany, and their father, Simon
Marx, was a native of Alsace, France, and worked as a tailor. The Marx family
lived in the then-poor Yorkville section of New York’s Upper East Side, between
the Irish, German, and Italian quarters.
Often imitated, the Marx Brothers first mastered the stage but
went on to conquer almost every medium, creating memorable sketches and classic
movies. Many think of Groucho, with his familiar, now iconic mask—greasepaint
mustache, eyebrows, glasses, cigar and hair—as a symbol of the Marx Brothers.
But Koestenbaum makes the case for Harpo, who the author says belongs in the
same conversation as Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau, the world’s greatest
“Harpo is a vestige of an earlier moment in cinema, the silent
era, so he’s sort of out of place. He is literally the one who gets shamed or
shunted aside in a lot of the family dynamics on screen. To the extent that
cinema became a sound art, he’s an exile,” Koestenbaum tells JNS.org.
Koestenbaum says the Marx Brothers’ films “are haunted by a
sense of the Jews as outsiders and endangered.”
“Obviously the Marx Brothers always get the last laugh so that
they triumph,” he says. “They win the war; they win the battle against the
persecutors. The other people in their movies are always bigger, more
upper-class bullies and fools. They are bigger than Groucho and Chico but you
notice it more with Harpo.”
Click photo to download. Caption: Frank Ferrante as Groucho Marx. Credit: Drew Altizer.