Here’s to Margaret Dumont—Who Always Got the Joke
“I’m not a stooge, I’m a straight lady—the best in Hollywood. There is an art to playing the straight role. You must build up your man but never top him, never steal the laughs.” — Margaret Dumont in 1937, discussing A Day at the Races, her fifth of seven films with the Marx Brothers.
Take that, Groucho.
For some reason known only to him and perhaps his therapist, the middle of the five Marx boys always insisted that Dumont never got the joke—even repeating the slight in his Honorary Oscar acceptance speech. It was cruel, it was self-serving, and it was clearly untrue.
For starters, she was from Brooklyn—where they grow trees, not saps. Born Daisy Juliette Baker in October 1882, Dumont was sent South as a child to be raised by her godfather, writer Joel Chandler Harris of Uncle Remus fame. But while still a teenager, she headed back to New York to take up a life in the theater, first as Daisy Dumont, then as Marguerite, and finally Margaret. As you might have guessed from her booming voice that somehow trilled at the same time, she also trained in opera, touring in America and Europe (as did W.C. Fields’ favorite foil, Kathleen Howard; more on her incredible life here).
Dumont made her stage debut in 1902, in The Beauty and the Beast in Philadelphia’s Chester Theater. She also moonlighted in vaudeville down the road in Atlantic City, quickly gaining notice as a “statuesque beauty” who could also carry off a quip with grace and ease. One reviewer presciently noted her “queenly dignity and hauteur.”
In 1910 she left behind a promising career to marry industrialist John Moller Jr., heir to a sugar fortune, sneaking in just one minor film role (fittingly, as an aristocrat in 1917’s A Tale of Two Cities) during their eight-year marriage. But when Moller died suddenly in 1918, Dumont, who never remarried, turned back to the stage for solace.
The young widow worked steadily on Broadway through the mid-1920s, when playwright George S. Kaufmann fell in love with her portrayal of a flighty matron in The Fourflusher. He tapped her for the role of Mrs. Potter, the perpetually put-upon dowager, in The Cocoanuts—thereby sealing a marriage made in comic heaven. (Dumont: “You must leave my room. We must have regard for conventions.” Groucho: “One guy isn’t enough. She’s gotta have a convention.”) She and the Marx Brothers reteamed on stage for Animal Crackers in 1928, and soon after, the whole troupe headed over the 59th Street Bridge to Astoria, Queens to shoot both plays as films for Paramount.
But most moviemakers were going West, and there was little doubt that when the boys headed to Hollywood, Dumont was going right along with them. Over the next 12 years and five films—Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, At the Circus and The Big Store—she was the haughty, high-handed, wholly immovable object against which they threw every unstoppable force (including, in Duck Soup, tomatoes). She was the too, too solid center around which every plot, such as it was, revolved—her quicksilver features flickering from horror to amusement to affection to bewilderment and back again before you could say “Tuscaloosa.”
And it wasn’t only audiences who took notice. By the 1940s, just about every funnyman in town was lining up to work with Dumont, including W.C. Fields (Tales of Manhattan and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break—where Fields romanced Mrs. Hemogloben at her mountain retreat), Abbott and Costello (Little Giant), Laurel and Hardy (Dancing Masters), Danny Kaye (Up in Arms), Red Skelton (Bathing Beauty) and Jack Benny (The Horn Blows at Midnight).
Dumont continued to work steadily through the 1950s, mostly in television, including with Martin and Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour and with Bob Hope and Dinah Shore on their variety shows. Her final film role was as Shirley MacLaine’s mother in What a Way to Go! and her last TV performance was, appropriately, opposite Groucho in an update of the Captain Spaulding scene from Animal Crackers for The Hollywood Palace. On March 6, 1965, just eight days after the episode was taped, she succumbed to heart failure at age 82.
Dumont, who looks great, is in top form, as imposing as ever—breaking character only a few times to laugh, including when Groucho quips, “Don’t step on those few laughs I have.” And she sneaks in one other little bit of business: When Groucho leeringly jokes about his pictures of the native girls “not being developed yet,” she playfully pauses and then feigns an “Aha!” moment, as if she’s finally getting the joke for the first time. Talk about no good gag going unpunished…
In an interview with Dick Cavett several years later, Groucho dredged up the tired trope about Dumont not getting the jokes, and then recalled the 1965 TV session in especially ugly terms, claiming she behaved “as if she was still a big star,” sitting backstage clutching roses “that she probably bought herself.”
Now, I’m guessing that whenever a lady appeared on The Hollywood Palace, the producers left a bouquet in the dressing room. But even if Groucho thought she’d brought her own, why on earth would he be so nasty as to say so on national television? This is a woman who was as responsible as anyone on earth for the success of his films, whom even he sometimes called “the fifth Marx brother.” But maybe that’s precisely the reason he felt the need to take her down a peg or ten.
In deriding Dumont as dumb and haughty—even pathetic—Groucho was giving himself full marks as the brains behind their comic chemistry. After all, you can’t get credit for something you don’t know you’re doing. But in comedy, timing and rhythm are everything—and if you don’t get the gags, you’ll be hopeless on both counts. So why would the Marx Brothers use someone so clueless in seven films? And why would just about every other comedian in Hollywood snap her up as well?
Because she knew exactly what she was doing, that’s why. If her character had appeared to get the jokes—if they hit her smack in the face rather than gliding over her carefully coiffured head—they wouldn’t work at all; they’d just seem cruel. (How could we ever root for Groucho if he said something like, “I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove!” to a woman who knew what he meant?)
“The more one examines her early record, the less likely become all the later stories about her lack of humor or awareness of the Marx Brothers’ jokes,” writer Simon Louvish wryly noted in Monkey Business, his biography of the brothers. “It is not therefore Margaret Dumont who failed to see the joke, but the Marx Brothers, their interpreters and biographers, who have been unwitting victims of a desperate practical joke played upon us for three-quarters of a century by that greatest of dissimulating comediennes.”
I’ve often wondered why, when Groucho leveled his insulting charges, Dumont didn’t buttonhole a reporter or two to defend herself. The answer, I suspect, is that she was—not like the dowagers she played, but in a very real sense—a lady. And perhaps she thought the idea of her not getting the humor was a pretty funny gag. After all, this was a woman who always appreciated—and understood—a good joke. Even one at her own expense.
- Posted in: Mini-Portraits ♦ Movie Briefs
- Tagged: a day at the races, a night at the opera, abbott and costello, animal crackers, at the circus, dean martin, duck soup, groucho marx, jack benny, jerry lewis, laurel and hardy, margaret dumont, marx brothers, red skelton, the big store, the cocoanuts, the hollywood palace, vaudeville, w.c. fields