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Provocative Harpo Marx bio demands some heavy academic lifting

Dennis King Published: June 14, 2012

If you’re the kind of reader who shies away from heavy-duty academic noodling and psychologically complex examinations of cinema icons, then the scholar, critic, essayist, novelist Wayne Koestenbaum’s dense, abstract love letter to the most enigmatic silent comedian of the early talkies era is one to avoid.

But cinema buffs with a taste for quirky, exotic and highly personalized theorizing on pop culture will find a challenging, if occasionally daunting, read in “The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (University of California Press, $29.95).

Koestenbuam’s lavish, 336-page paperback – packed with thumbnail photos – is essentially a wordy effort to analyze every move and gesture the voiceless Harpo Marx made on screen in 13 Marx Brothers comedies. To some, the author’s minute attention to obscure detail and his decidedly peculiar psychosexual focus on Harpo’s physical attributes might seem more than a little obsessive, odd and off-putting.

Readers with patience to wade through Koestenbaum’s far-flung literary and cultural asides (ranging from Dostoevsky to Emily Dickinson and beyond) or his naked tangents on personal childhood memories (including, literally, musing on the shape of his own navel), the biography delivers some pure moments of zestful literary acrobatics.

Ranging non-chronologically through 13 Marx Brothers movies – from 1929’s “The Cocoanuts” to 1950’s “Love Happy” – the author takes a scattershot approach to assessing the genius of Harpo’s work and the brilliance of his prowess as a pioneering physical comedian. Deeply interspersed with this academic analysis are frequent forays into the author’s own psyche (having much to do with his sexual preferences, his Jewishness, his odd family history and his endless penchant for wordplay).

Koestenbaum is Distinguished Professor of Literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of thirteen books of criticism, poetry and fiction, including – not surprisingly – a biography of Andy Warhol.

In the end, while containing encyclopedic details of its subject’s work and life, “The Anatomy of Harpo Marx” is as much an anatomy of Wayne Koestenbaum’s obsessive, highly personal form of academic inquiry (which no doubt will set off some fierce debate among film scholars). It’s not light reading for casual movie fans. In fact, it’s often a slow slog for even the most dedicated film buff. But it’s provocative, original scholarship that lights a fire under the typically stodgy studies that we usually get from university press star biographies.

- Dennis King