Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

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.

This was no dame who just fell off the back of a Bentley.

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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.

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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 SoupA 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.”

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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).

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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.”

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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?)

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“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.

32 Comments

  1. Wonderful article about an actress I’ve admired for so long.

  2. I adore Dumont. Thanks for the great choice and engaging post.

  3. The Mikado, et al.

    Lovingly, and well, written.

  4. Matthew B. Tepper

    I very much doubt that Groucho was intentionally slurring her. He had respect for many of his colleagues (particularly his writers), and tended to pay them tribute, in his own way. Dumont had developed and maintained a persona as a clueless society matron who never realized she was the butt of the humor. She either bamboozled Groucho into thinking that she actually was that matron, or — and I think this far more likely — commanded such admiration from him for her talents that he kept up the masquerade even after her death.

    • I suggest you watch the Dick Cavett interview, available on YouTube, before you make that assumption. If saying that someone was swanning around “like she’s still a big star” and that she pretended to be given flowers she actually bought for herself is respectful, I hope to high heaven no one ever “respects” me that way… Groucho, for all his talents, was in fact somewhat notorious for hogging the spotlight and the credit, sadly, and this may be the most egregious example of that. And I say that as someone who loves his work, and wishes I could love him, as a human being, more…

  5. Aw, such a nice post. Yes, why WAS Groucho so insistent on joking about her? He could be a harsh person, that’s for sure. But could he, perhaps, have been keeping the joke about her onscreen persona going, figuring people would find that funnier than the truth? Maybe that’s why Dumont didn’t mind. Just a thought, your post made me ponder!

    • I wondered that myself, but his other comments about her over the years, which were downright nasty, dissuaded me from thinking the two of them had some sort of affectionate in-joke going on the subject. I find it interesting to contrast him with W.C. Fields, who praised his foil, Kathleen Howard, to the high heavens, and generously gave his co-stars tons of funny lines and bits…

      • That’s a good point…I’d hate to think of Groucho being THAT mean for so long, but unfortunately all his statements are out there for everyone to see. Dumont was indeed a lady about it!

  6. Thanks so much for setting the record straight for our poor fifth Marx Brother. My “no personal life” policy pays dividends with the Marx Brothers. Talented but oh-so messed up. Margaret Dumont’s professionalism and skill really shines on the screen. It’s a shame that her career has been turned into a punchline because she was responsible for so many on the screen.

    • Thank you, Fritzi, and thank you for co-hosting a blogathon that will lots of long-overdue credit to some great women!! In addition to being tons of fun to read!! 🙂

  7. Just crammed with stuff I didn’t know (like the Harris connection). Great post!

  8. Hooray for Margaret Dumont. She was one great straight. I’ve heard that canard for so long about her, that she didn’t know the jokes – thanks so much for covering her history, showing her deep stage experience and her understanding of her role. I once read the book ‘The Marx Brothers Scrapbook,’ which consisted of lengthy interviews with Groucho and some of his contemporaries still living. Groucho really WAS mean (his estate tried to get the book suppressed, I believe), and didn’t have a favorable opinion of women. Susan Marx, Harpo’s widow, who was interviewed for the book, had nothing good to say about him. If you can ever find a copy, read it at least once; it’s a fascinating, disillusioning read.

    Great post, great piece of writing – love your description of Dumont as the “too, too solid center.” She really was that, she always held her own with Groucho.

    • Thank you so much!! This was truly a labor of love, and I’m glad you and other kindred spirits enjoyed it and appreciate this wonderful, ubertalented lady!!

  9. Like you, I prefer to think Margaret Dumont was a lady who refused to dignify Groucho’s petty comments…instead of smacking him up the back of the head, which he deserved.

    She didn’t get the joke? That’s really quite funny, as you’ve expertly pointed out.

  10. There’s a scene in the Marxes’ first film, The Cocoanuts, where Harpo lies on Margaret Dumont’s bed and signals to her, to which she replies something along the lines of “certainly not!,” as if she would ever have considered the idea. Her characters were definitely more aware of what was going on than viewers and critics–and, it seems, Groucho–gave her credit for.
    Thanks for a fine look at a top comedic actress who could adapt her screen persona to fit whoever she was playing against, from the Marx Brothers to W.C. Fields to Lou Costello.

  11. I’m very happy you wrote this. I have told people Groucho’s story about Margaret Dumont not understanding what was going on and why the boys were so mean to her. I knew Groucho wasn’t always a reliable storyteller, but I didn’t realize how far off he was. No one could be as a good a straight person as Margaret Dumont without knowing what was going.

  12. I’m so glad that you talked about Lady Dumont! I’ve adored her for years and centering the discussion on how Margaret did understand the ‘joke’ and was badly mistreated by Groucho, (not surprised) was fascinating. I’ve always enjoyed her stout persona, the class and equilibrium she would bring to the zany goings on. Truly enjoyed your piece. And I want to thank you for adding this to our blogathon. We needed a bit of Margaret Dumont! Cheers Joey

  13. I found your blog a few minutes ago while I was looking up information on Kathleen Howard, which somehow led me to this page.

    I don’t know who you are, but this is great stuff. I guess I’ve found something else to read while I should be working on my own blog.

    I obviously don’t know where you live, but I’m in Syracuse, NY, home of the Syracuse Cinephile Society and former home of the annual Cinefest.

    Here’s a link, if you’re interested:

    http://www.syracusecinephile.com/node/17

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Michael!! I never got to the Cinefest and wish it were still an annual event… I look forward to exploring the link!!

  14. Jeff Missinne

    The number and variety of great comedians Margaret Dumont played “straight” to speaks for itself in terms of her abilities.

  15. skretvedt1958

    Bravo! Yes, it’s clear from her performances that she understood every joke and nuance of the Marxes’ performances and reacted to them perfectly. She was a great artist and she clearly knew what she was doing in every regard.

    • Yes indeed!! Thank you for taking the time to read my tribute, and for appreciating how fabulous Margaret was!! ❤

  16. I always figured that if Dumont was that clueless, why would should she always return? Her last appearance with Groucho was on an episode of the Hollywood Palace — and I understand she was smiling at the old repartee. Truth is, a good straight man (person) is hard to find — and they’re always more important in keeping a comedy team rolling. Ask Abbott and Costello.

    In the end, Margaret Dumont was one of the great straight people, and she deserved every credit she got. And she might just have treated Groucho’s perpetual comment as just one more laugh she could accept in her own inimitable style. Bravo.

  17. kali39

    I always figured that if Dumont was that clueless, why would should she always return? Her last appearance with Groucho was on an episode of the Hollywood Palace — and I understand she was smiling at the old repartee. Truth is, a good straight man (person) is hard to find — and they’re always more important in keeping a comedy team rolling. Ask Abbott and Costello.

    In the end, Margaret Dumont was one of the great straight people, and she deserved every credit she got. And she might just have treated Groucho’s perpetual comment as just one more laugh she could accept in her own inimitable style. Bravo.

    • Thank you! And I’m so glad you appreciate this wonderful, hilarious and modest woman!

  18. joycemelton

    I prefer to think that Groucho’s ego simply got in the way of him letting go of a great joke: that Dumont was as clueless as her characters. His stage name was well-earned of course. As someone who has done comedy myself, I don’t think any professional was ever fooled by Groucho bad mouthing her. Her timing and control of her face, her hands and her body were consummate. She needs no defender, though you’ve done a good job of it. All she needed was an audience.

    • She was brilliant! And clearly the other comedians appreciated her, as they lined up to work with her! Thank you for your kind words!

  19. How on earth did I find your wonderful blog and this article on Margaret Dumont? What crazy trajectory of procrastination and ricocheting attention? If I knew the answer to that I could probably cut my Ritalin costs in half.

    I always suspected that underneath Groucho’s lazy, semi-funny humor there lurked a spirit of unalloyed meanness, and it seems my hunch was correct.

    The “straight person” is indeed a thankless role, and much credit to Ms Dumont for her impeccable timing and her class for not answering back. But what really captured my imagination was the following: “…while still a teenager, she headed back to New York to take up a life in the theater”. What that must have cost her…! I wonder if any of us can ever understand the courage and defiance it must have taken for a “respectable” young woman at the turn of the 20th century to leave home, to throw away that respectability, for a dream of success.

    Brava, Celluloid Sister!

    David Roddis
    slowpainful.com

    • Thank you so much for your extremely kind words, David!! And yes, you nailed it about Margaret. She had every opportunity to play it safe and live a life of relative ease, both as a young woman and then as a wife and after losing her husband. She never did. She was a fearless spirit. I absolutely love this woman — that probably shows — and am so happy to share as much as I know about her with kindred people like you. Thank you again — you made my night!! ❤

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