”I’m a straight lady, the best in Hollywood.”
I am just going to admit it to you youngins; The Marx Brothers are a major thing for me. I have played one of them in two different stage productions. I have seen all their films, 13 with the brothers and 13 with Groucho Marx on his own. I have three volumes of memoirs by Groucho, plus Harpo Speaks (1963), a most delightful autobiography.
So, considering Margaret Dumont, I realize that we think of The Marx Brothers as Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. I offer Zeppo as being sort of dispensable, something he proved when he stopped appearing in Marx Brothers films altogether and it didn’t matter. Yet, there is a fifth Marx Brother, one more consequential than Zeppo. And I don’t mean Gummo.
Margaret Dumont was a crucial part of most classic Marx Brothers films. She appeared in The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Duck Soup (1933), A Night At The Opera (1935), A Day At The Races (1937), At The Circus (1939), and The Big Store (1941). She was in more Marx Brothers films than Zeppo.
Dumont played a very specific, specialized role: Groucho’s straight man. Tall, regal, and aristocratic, nearly cartoonish, Dumont offered Groucho a figure from high society for him to romance for her money. Groucho’s affronts to her characters are one thing; his frequently cruel jokes regarding her age and physical characteristics would never go over today:
“I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove!”
“Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself! You’d better beat it; I hear they’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing!”
Dumont: “Why, that reminds me of my youth!!”
Groucho: “He must be a pretty big boy by now.”
Dumont took it all with dignity and grace and continued setting him up for more perfectly timed jokes at her expense.
It’s not easy being the straight man. The role requires a particular talent and isn’t a part meant for everyone. The great straight roles seldom get much credit. Fans and professionals certainly tried giving Dumont hers. Groucho himself referred to her as ”the fifth Marx Brother”. She even won a Screen Actors Guild Award for A Day At The Races.
Because her Marx Brothers roles so frequently put her in direct opposition to Groucho, one gets the sense that something special existed between the two actors. It wasn’t a romance, but there was a lot of mutual respect between them. You can tell by her return appearances in their films.
When I think of Groucho, I inevitably think of Dumont too, even though she doesn’t appear in my second favorite Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers (1932), where she is missed. The two actors are forever linked because so many of Groucho’s quips are aimed at her. It seems wrong to love Groucho’s comedy without giving proper due to Dumont. She was one of film’s first and best straight men. In deriding Dumont as dumb and haughty, even pathetic, Groucho made it seem that he was the brains behind their comic chemistry. In comedy, timing and rhythm are everything, and if you don’t get the gags, you flounder.
Why would the Marx Brothers use someone who was so clueless in seven films? And why would just about every other comic actor in Hollywood snap her up too? Because, Dumont knew exactly what she was doing. If her character had appeared to get the jokes, if they hit her smack in the face rather than gliding over her perfectly coiffed head, they wouldn’t work at all; they would just seem cruel.
Dumont was born Daisy Juliette Baker in Brooklyn. She trained as an opera singer and began performing on stage in USA and in Europe as a teenager, first under the name Daisy Dumont and later Marguerite Dumont. A theatre reviewer wrote that she was a “statuesque beauty”, and she appeared in stage musicals for the first decade of the 20th century where she was noted for her vocal and comedic talents.
In 1910, she smartly married a millionaire and retired from stage work, and who can blame her? Her husband died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. They had no children. Dumont returned reluctantly to the Broadway stage, and was soon in demand for comedies and musical productions.
George S. Kaufman hired her to play the dowager Mrs. Potter opposite The Marx Brothers in their Broadway production of The Cocoanuts in 1925. Their next Broadway show, Animal Crackers (1928) opened with Dumont again playing The Marx Brothers’ foil and Groucho’s straight man, Mrs. Rittenhouse, another of her wealthy society dowager creations. When the Marx Brothers went to Hollywood, Dumont went with them. In 1929, the whole gang filmed the screen version of The Cocoanuts. She was the haughty, high-handed, wholly immovable object against which they threw every unstoppable force, including, in Duck Soup, tomatoes. She was the solid center around which every plot, such as it was, revolved.
Yes, some of the jokes seem mean-spirited now in the 21st century, but most are still real zingers. From Duck Soup:
Groucho: ”I suppose you’ll think me a sentimental old fluff, but would you mind giving me a lock of your hair?”
Dumont (smitten): ”A lock of my hair? Why, I had no idea you…”
Groucho: ‘‘I’m letting you off easy. I was going to ask for the whole wig.”
Dumont’s presumed innocence was the perfect contrast to Groucho’s perpetual leer. Groucho (to the other brothers):
”Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did.”
In her interviews, Dumont perpetuated the idea of her film characters: the rich, regal woman who never quite understood the joke. Dumont’s acting style harkened back to the old-fashioned theatrical style of projecting to the back row, trilling her “r” for emphasis.
Groucho simultaneously courted Dumont’s characters out of greed and opportunity and genuine attraction. The audience came to expect a romantic setup followed by a swift insult. From Duck Soup:
Groucho: “Not that I care, but where is your husband?”
Dumont: “Why, he’s dead.”
Groucho: “I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.”
Dumont: “I was with him to the very end.”
Groucho: “No wonder he passed away.”
Dumont: “I held him in my arms and kissed him.”
Groucho: “Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”
It wasn’t true that Dumont never broke character or cracked a smile at Groucho’s quips. She knew the gags were funny indeed, but as a professional, she mostly kept that straight face. When Groucho throws an insult at her, you can see Dumont giving a fleeting shocked response in character.
In a 1940 interview, Dumont said:
“Scriptwriters build up to a laugh, but they don’t allow any pause for it. That’s where I come in. I ad lib, it doesn’t matter what I say, just to kill a few seconds so audiences can enjoy the gag. I have to sense when the big laughs will come and fill in, or the audience will drown out the next gag with its own laughter. There’s an art to playing straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.”
Groucho continued to alternately call Dumont ”a great lady” and to denigrate her in interviews. But he seemed, at the end, to realize how important she had always been to his career. When accepting his 1974 Lifetime Achievement Academy Award, the ailing Groucho told the audience:
”I only wish Harpo and Chico could have been here—and Margaret Dumont.”
Besides her work with The Marx Brothers, Dumont made 60 films and several television appearances, playing similar stuffy dowager role alongside other great comic actors like W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy and Jack Benny.
In 1965, a week before her final credits rolled for good, she made an appearance on the television variety program The Hollywood Palace, where she was reunited with Groucho one final time. They performed material adapted from Captain Spaulding’s first scene in Animal Crackers.
I think she is just terrific, but her greatest legacy is that she is most certainly my doppelgänger.