Splitsider

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

The Fifth Marx Brother Was a Sister

Groucho Marx called her “practically the fifth Marx Brother” and she appeared in nearly 60 films in a career spanning four decades, but the name Margaret Dumont is relatively unknown in today’s pop culture. What a shame; she only essentially invented the “straight-woman” character, paving the way for Ann Perkins and Pam Beasley, among dozens of others, years later.

Margaret Dumont was born Daisy Juliette Baker in 1888. She first lived in Brooklyn, NY, but moved to Atlanta, GA as a child to live with her godfather, Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Uncle Remis stories. As a teenager, she became an opera singer, then a stage actress, changing her name to Daisy Dumont, then Margaret.

She was gorgeous, talented, tall, and smart, but in 1910, she quit the stage and married John Moller, Jr., the son of a millionaire businessman who made his money from owning many sugar refineries. When John Jr. passed away in 1918, Dumont returned to acting, and was soon introduced to the Marx Brothers by either theater producer Sam Harris or writer George S. Kaufman. Either way, she was cast in the Broadway production of The Cocoanuts, thus beginning her career with Groucho & Co.

Of the 16 movies the Marx Brothers made together, at least four could be considered the greatest comedy of all-time: Animal Crackers (1930), Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), and A Day at the Races (1937), all of which starred not only Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (not poor Zeppo, though), but also Margaret Dumont. She would also appear in The Cocoanuts (1929), At the Circus (1939), and The Big Store (1941), which are all funny, but not quite as great.

Dumont played characters named Emily Upjohn and Mrs. Suzanna Dukesbury, and it’s not too tough to guess that those roles were for uptight socialites, the perfect opposite to the Marx Brothers’ deadpan delivery and slapstick shenanigans. It wasn’t much of a stretch: Dumont was a socialite herself, with homes in California and France. Like her characters, she was occasionally uptight and always mindful of her manners — and she knew how to take a joke, even if she didn’t always understand the punchline, and not be fazed by Groucho Marx.

My favorite Marx Brothers film (and possibly favorite movie altogether) is Duck Soup. It’s only 68 minutes long, so every line is packed with multiple gags, ranging from psychical comedy to witty wordplay; by the time you’re done laughing at the famous mirror scene, you’ve missed three jokes about selling peanuts. But before Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo even come on-screen, Dumont appears as Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, explaining how she intends to give no more of her late husband’s money to the fictional Freedonia (“Land of the Spree, and the Home of the Knave”). Government officials are asking for a loan of $20 million to help bail the country out of debt, but she replies, “The government has been mismanaged,” and tells His Excellency that she’ll only give Freedonia the money they badly need if he steps down from his position, giving his leadership to Rufus T. Firefly.

Cue Groucho. She introduces him with a grand proclamation, but in typical Groucho fashion, he’d rather have some fun. He asks her to take a card from the deck he’s holding, she does, and he replies, “You can keep it; I’ve got 51 left.”

Things only get funnier from there. Like this exchange:

Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he's dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see. Then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Groucho was often cruel to her on-screen — in Duck Soup scene, after Dumont says, “I've sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia,” he responds, “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!” — but when the cameras stopped rolling, he had nothing but nice things to say about her, calling her a “wonderful woman.”

In every movie they appeared in together, Grouch and Dumont were romantically involved, leading some to believe they were married in real life. That wasn’t the case, but it is a testament towards how convincing of a job they did. The romantic scenes in a comedy are almost always the worst, but their romance wasn’t romantic; it was funny. She towered over him, he made fun of her, and love was always beside the point, just the way it should work in a comedy.

Margaret Dumont had the thankless task of being the straight woman, while the Marx Brothers got to act like fools around her. Some have stated that Dumont didn’t always know what was going on during filming (writer Morrie Ryskind once said, “She'd been a social lady, and her husband died, so she needed a job. Groucho would explain to her that something was funny, and she would walk out to the audience and ask them what was going on”), but I don’t buy that. I think the reason she never laughed was because she had been trained as an actress, and trained herself to never break character — and you gotta admit she’s one hell of an actress to have never even chuckled at one of Groucho’s one-liners. She’s even an underrated psychical comedian. So much of her character’s description was to exaggeratingly react to Groucho, and she mastered it, moving her body backwards, while her eyes looked all over the room, just never at the camera. So much of her time on screen was spent while Groucho did his thing, telling joke after joke, until it was her time again to jump back into conversation, which she always did without missing a beat.

Dumont also took a lot of pride in her roles. After winning the Screen Actors Guild award in 1937 for A Day at the Races, she said, “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.”

Three days before passing away at the age of 82 in 1965, Groucho and Margaret re-enacted a scene from Animal Crackers live on The Hollywood Palace. As Captain Spaulding, Groucho tells a story about his time spent in Africa, saying, “The principal animals inhabiting the African jungle are moose, elks, and Knights of Pythias. Of course, you all know what a moose is. That's big game. The first day, I shot two bucks.” Margaret tries to say something, but Groucho cuts her off: “That was the biggest game we had,” then, working off-script, he remarks, “Don't step on those few laughs I have.” It is then, and only then, that Margaret breaks character, starts laughing, then goes right back to being Mrs. Rittenhouse. A pro to the end.

Josh Kurp wishes he was the fifth Marx Brother.

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  • HerooftheBeach

    My first reaction to the headline was "I'm pretty sure Gummo was a dude" before I realized the article was about Dumont. "The Fifth Marx Brother" doesn't work quite as well as "The Fifth Beatle" since there actually was a fifth Marx brother. (Sorry, Stu Sutcliffe.)

    But Dumont is one of the most amazing straight actors in the history of film. Comedy is hard, but being the straight man is harder. It's annoying to see people put forward theories that she had no idea what was going on, but it's a testament to how good she was: she made it look easy.

  • grovberg

    Margaret Dumont taught me everything there is to know about the importance of a great straight (wo)man. Great article.

  • http://www.sethmad.com Seth Madej

    Thanks for this piece. I love hearing any appreciation of the Marx Brothers (and sister).

    I saw a screening of Ghostbusters a couple of weeks ago that featured a Q&A with cast and crew, including William Atherton. Atherton said that when he was cast as Walter Peck he felt lost, because he had no idea how to play comedy. He finally told Ivan Reitman that what he needed to do was to be the Margaret Dumont to Murray, Ackroyd, and Ramis's Marx Brothers. Reitman loved the idea, and that's what he went with.