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Harpo's technique

  • Kay
    Kay Lister

    Realizing that Harpo Marx never had harp lessons, I have read that Masters of the harp of that time requested that he play for them so as to study his technique. This being said; is there a "Harpo Technique" so to speek out there some where?  When watching him play in old films and such, he seems sooooo relaxed and graceful and totally consumed in his instrument. I just wandered if anyone ever really picked up on his style.

    Kay

    replies to "Harpo's technique"
    • Tony
      Tony Morosco

      According to his autobiography he never took actual lessons, but he did know Mildred Dilling and often got advice from her. Sometimes calling her in the middle of the night to play records for her and asking her how to do what ever it was on the record he wanted to learn. Mildred Dilling is often cited as being Harpo's teacher, but she never actually taught him in formal lessons. She simply gave him tips and advice now and then.

      He did try to take lessons once, and that is probably the story you are referring to. The teacher spent a lot of time just having him play to "evaluate his technique". In the end he realized the guy was taking notes trying to learn his technique rather than teach him so he gave up and never tried to take lessons again.

      As far as I know no one ever actually studied with him and learned his unique playing technique. And honestly, while he was an inventive performer I don't  think he technique was all that brilliant. Compare him to some of the more traditionally trained harpists of today in terms of technique and he really doesn't hold a candle to them.

      His brilliance was in his approach to music in general rather than his technique. His arrangements and his use of effects and such was creative and for the time fairly unique. But honestly I think he would have been much better if he had tried again with a good teacher who was actually interested in teaching him.

       

       

    • Kreig
      Kreig Kitts

      There was a Harpo Technique, but he never talked about it.  (joke)

      A part of me does wonder if he would have been as creative in his use of effects if he had started with a teacher who showed him an "official" way to do things.  Not recommended for everybody, but perhaps in his case it was a good thing that he did it his own way.

       

    • bob
      bob miller

      Tony,

      Do you know who the guy was that tried to teach him?

    • Tony
      Tony Morosco

      I don't recall off hand, and I don't think he actually named him in the book. I will check later when I have access to my copy, but I don't think he used his name.

       

    • Rod
      Rod C.

      Hi Kay:

      I, too, am a Harpo fan. I went to www.harpomarx.net and bought the DVD from that site. It shows Harpo playing about 15 different solos, including his "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on the I Love Lucy Show.  I saw this as a rerun as a boy and am sure it is what inspired me to (eventually) play the harp.

      He was truly talented. My harp teacher told me she has heard stories about him not being able to find anyone to teach him lessons, and that at one point he placed his harp on his left shoulder rather than his right.

      I love his glisses.

      Best,

      rod c.

       

       

       

    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      What's curious about the whole Harpo issue is that in 5 of the 6 films that the Marx Brothers made, the harp playing that you hear in the harp solo scene is not Harpo. It's Gail Laughton. Both Jack Nebergal and John Escosa told me that. It's perfectly obvious too to a harpist because Harpo's hands are not in the right place for what you are hearing. I had originally thought that he had recorded the harp soundtrack first and that the scene was just badly syncronized. But it's not even the same arrangement. I don't know, and have never heard an explanation, why Harpo didn't play those scenes himself. He apparently did play in one of the movies, and I'm sure he played on I love Lucy and other TV appearances. Of course, Gail Laughton never got any official credit for this. But he was a well known Hollywood studio harpist and jazz harpist of the day, and maybe the sound editor just wanted something much more virtuoso than Harpo could do. I don't know.

    • bob
      bob miller

      Hey Carl,

      I am by no way an expert like you but when I look at the videos of Harpo playing the Harp on the web site listed above it sure looks like he's playing the harp and in the correct octave to me. Maybe the Gail Laughton guy played on the ones when Harpo isn't actually playing the harp but rather some prop acting like a harp. I think you should take a look at those videos and reconsider what you heard. Although I may be wrong but when you watch him play "Why am I So Romantic", "When My Dreams Come True" and "Im Daffy Over You" he sure is in the correct spots and definitely playing.

      Bob

    • Tony
      Tony Morosco

      I am with Bob on this one Carl. I have seen every Marx Brother's movie and while the syncing may be off on one or two for the most part there is no doubt in my mind that Harpo is, indeed, playing the parts. The hands and the arrangements do match up most of the time.

      In fact they match up even when we know that it is dubbed and not really playing live. For instance the one where he plays on the Indian Loom, or the one where he smashes the piano and plays the frame with the piano strings. In both cases he clearly isn't actually playing, but his hands match the music very well.

      It is possible that on one or two occasions the sound needed to be recorded for some reason after the initial filming and Harpo wasn't available, but for the most part I am convinced it was Harpo playing.

      Besides, while there may be some justification for one or two instances due to scheduling for someone to redo the harp parts, there is no rational reason for anyone but Harpo to have regularly played the parts himself. There is no doubt he really did play the harp, and played in a unique style that wasn't necessarily easy for others to copy. Why would the studio's hire someone to imitate his playing when they had him to play it in the first place?

      He makes no mention of anyone else playing for him in his autobiography, and in all other areas is is very candid about his life and what went on during his career in both vaudeville and the movies.

      I am satisfied that with possibly one or two exceptions, when we see a Marx Brothers' performance it is Harpo playing the harp.

       

    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      I agree that Harpo certainly played the harp and played it well in a unique style. That's why I don't understand why Gail Laughton would have been used some of the time. I'm not a huge Marx Brothers fan(not my kind of humor) so I can't say I've seen any of their movies recently or that I've seen all of them. I do remember seeing one or two movies though where it seemed clear that Harpo was really playing, but it didn't match what I was hearing on the soundtrack. It could have been a ligistics thing, where sound recording on the set was so difficult that they decided to re-record Harpo under better conditions, and it may be that he never played the same thing twice in the same way. They may have timed his playing on the set, then told him(or Gail Laughton) to play for exactly that same amount of time in a sound booth, so that Harpo or Gail(whoever was playing in the booth) couldn't even see what the movie footage showed. I'm just guessing here.

    • Evangeline
      Evangeline Williams

      The one film I saw with him playing, and a photograph from another, shows him playing a non-harp...one is a weaving loom, the other, he takes out the insides of a piano I think.  So I knew those were definately not him playing. 

      I imagine it was the sound editor.  I think of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady....she could sing, but didn't have a high soprano or powerful voice (she does great with Moon River, but Liza's songs aren't for her voice), so Marni Nixon ("the voice of Hollywood") sang it.  Marni is a fabulous woman, I studied with her for awhile. 

      Speaking of Harpo not speaking....I just finished a production of Annie, and there's a line that "harpo marx called....what did he want?....he didn't say"....I cracked up laughing at that line every time during rehearsals. 

    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      HAHAHAH, HAHAHAHA,HAHAHAH. Now THAT'S funny!

    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      I know we went over this before. It is only in "The Big Store" that Gail Laughton is visibly dubbing Harpo's playing, and the two men have completely different sounds. One thing Harpo did to be so relaxed is to lower the tension on his strings. Notice how he can pull them out of position and then play on them? He either used thinner strings, or a different weight, or tuned much lower. He had one or some lessons with Salzedo, who declined to try to change his approach. After all, Harpo made far more money than he did. Harpo was also known to take lessons over the telephone, probably with Mildred Dilling. I never cared for his musicianship so much as his personality and humor. I have two lps he made, one kind of stinks, and the other is terrific jazz/pop playing.

    • David
      David Ice

      I knew Gail Laughton the last few years of his life.  He told me about recording for Harpo....which was a deep dark secret at the time.  He told me because 1) I was a harpist and 2) I was a sound and music editor in Hollywood at the time.

      What he said was:  for the MGM films (note--this does not apply to the Paramount films, nor to "live" performances such as I LOVE LUCY, THE MILTON BERLE SHOW, etc!!!) Gail would go in and pre-record the harp solos for Harpo.  The reason was:  Harpo could not read music.  The MGM musical numbers were fully orchestrated, and Harpo could not learn a number fast enough AND follow a conductor and sight-read the part.  So Gail would pre-score the number, then teach Harpo the part note-by-note.  By the time they got to actually shooting the number, Harpo could actually play the part....but this accounts for the small synchronization errors.  Take a critical look at A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.  This is Harpo's first experience with a pre-score and playing to a playback.  He looks slightly confused at times and frequently seems hesitant as to which octave he should be in. 

      Playing to a playback is disorienting, especially if you did not record it.  But eventually he got the hang of it.

      I trust Gail's version of things if for no other reason than this:  I have a recording of Gail playing TEA FOR TWO.  It's brilliant.  And I have heard Harpo's recording of TEA FOR TWO.  It is ABSOLUTELY IDENTICAL....except it's at about half Gail's tempo.  It's clear to me that Gail taught it to him.  It's note-for-note identical.

      This is NOT in any way to denigrate Harpo's talent.  Yes, he could play the harp, and brilliantly and in a most entertaining way!  It's just that the MGM films (and their obsession with perfection and "gloss") demanded pre-scoring instead of "live set recording" and this is how Gail got involved with pre-scoring for him.

      David Ice

    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      David- Thank you so much for explaining that. It makes perfect sense.

    • bob
      bob miller

      David,

      do you know if any of Gail Laughton's arrangements are available?

      Also, how does one get a copy of the Tea for Two recordings?

      Are there any recordings of Gail Laughton?

      And you are right in regard to Night at the Opera, he is way off.

      Thanks and sorry for so many ?'s,

      Bob

    • David
      David Ice

      I have a cassette recording of TEA FOR TWO (from Armed Forces Radio) of Gail playing, as well as a couple of other odd recordings.  The best example of his playing is his HARPS OF THE ANCIENT TEMPLES, which has just been re-issued on CD.  Google it.

      As far as I know Gail never published any arrangements. 

      And I can't seem to find the Harpo recording....I had it on cassette tape also, but it was a commercial recording from the 50's so it is out there.

      After meeting Gail, I certainly wish I could have met Harpo.  He would have been fascinating!

      Dave Ice

    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      Well that explains how Harpo's strings could be so loose, they weren't even tuned up. That is also how musical numbers were filmed, the singing was prerecorded, and the stars would lip-synch to the vocals, whoever was doing the singing.

    • David
      David Ice

      For an extreme example of harp "lip syncing" check out Cary Grant in THE BISHOP'S WIFE.  Gail told me he only had about an hour to coach Grant (and what can you teach somebody in an hour) and the resulting film is hysterical.  Cary Grant does try....but he's in the bass when the music is in treble, etc.  He really doesn't stand a chance.

      On the other hand, Clifton Web worked with Robert Maxwell for two whole days before filming FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE and the finger-sync is remarkable.  Also, bear in mind that they do de-tune strings so that they won't interfere as much during filming.  Obviously Harpo (or any other actor) has to pull the strings, but you don't want a cacaphony on the set of wrong notes while trying to hear the playback.  Similarly, they mute pianos and string players have no rosin on their bows.  They may have the actual music on their stands and they are "playing" it, but no real sound is being produced.

      One gloriously awful exception is the film AT LONG LAST LOVE, which is perhaps the one and only Hollywood musical where they tried to do it all live--at least in the modern era, with sound and color.  It was done in the 70's and was so expensive and out of control that the studios said "Never again!"  They did try live recording for the concert sequences of THE ROSE, but I can attest (as I was working at Fox at the time) that the mixing of that film took months and months and months, and eventually they went back to conventional techniques and hardly used the "live" 24 track tapes.

      Dave Ice

    • Evangeline
      Evangeline Williams

      David,

      From what I remember reading/seeing, Rex Harrison said he had to do all his tracks 'live' for My Fair Lady, as his performance was slightly different every time and there was no way it would sync up.  This posed a problem since Audrey was being dubbed by Marni.  Have you heard that one before? 

      Somewhere I read something cool about how they did the playback and syncing and everything for Phantom a few years ago. 

    • David
      David Ice

      Hi Evangeline,

      Yes, you are right.  Rex Harrison was using one of the very first wireless mikes in Hollywood--and it was unlicensed!  The studio only turned it on at the last second and hoped and prayed the FCC didn't swoop down and put them all in jail for having an unauthorized radio transmitter!

      You can tell they hid the wireless mike (it was huge, like a pipe) inside his tie.  All of a sudden his tie seems fuller, and is utterly immovable.  And yes, they did record him live because he was not a trained singer or musician, and would not have been able to lip sync his own dialogue.  Lip syncing dialogue is called "looping" or ADR (automated dialogue replacement) and it's NOT easy.  Some actors never, ever can "get" it...others are brilliant at it.

      On the other hand, Robert Preston pre-recorded everything in THE MUSIC MAN (including the dialogue for "Trouble in River City" because, as he said, "I've done the same dialogue night after night on Broadway, so I should be able to do it here!"  All of his spoken dialogue was pre-recorded, including the classic "Does he re-button his knickerbockers BELOW the knee?"  His own internal sense of rhythm was such that he could nail it time after time.

      I had heard that for the film version of Phantom they kept the vocal tracks separate from the orchestra tracks, and in some cases they were re-recording just hours before filming.  In this way they could keep better continuity with the emotion and acting by being able to re-record their vocals while they were in their own emotional spaces.

      This would not have worked in the MGM days.  (Recording was done on 35mm soundtrack film, which had to be processed and then printed--a 24 hour process for labwork alone.)  Recording digitally means that within moments of recording, a CD can be burned and the music editor can start making his cues up almost immediately without waiting for the lab.

      Still, pre-scoring is an expensive and time consuming process.  I once saw the script for the Judy Garland A STAR IS BORN and the poor studio typists had to type in the lyrics, then underneath them type, on the red ribbon, the measure numbers for each measure.  Such was the level of detail and precision:  i.e

      I was  /born  / in a  / trunk / at the / 

          1        2         3       4        5          

       

      You get the ideal.  Even the script was broken down into bars!

      Dave Ice