Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool in A Night at the Opera (1935)
|Born||Daisy Juliette Baker
October 20, 1882
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Died||March 6, 1965
Hollywood, California, U.S.
|Years active||1902-1910, 1917-1965|
|Spouse(s)||John Moller, Jr. (m.1910-1918; his death)|
Margaret Dumont (October 20, 1882 – March 6, 1965)[a] was an American stage and film actress. She is best remembered as the comic foil to the Marx Brothers in seven of their films. Groucho Marx called her "practically the fifth Marx brother."[b]
Early life and career
She was born Daisy Juliette Baker in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of William and Harriet Anna (née Harvey) Baker. Dumont trained as an operatic singer and actress in her teens, and began performing on stage in both the U.S. and in Europe, at first under the name Daisy Dumont and later as Margaret (or Marguerite) Dumont. Her theatrical debut was in Beauty and the Beast at the Chestnut Theater in Philadelphia, and in August 1902, two months before her 20th birthday, she appeared as a singer/comedian in a vaudeville act in Atlantic City. The dark-haired soubrette, described by a theater reviewer as a "statuesque beauty", attracted notice later that decade for her vocal and comedic talents in The Girl Behind the Counter (1908), The Belle of Brittany (1909), and The Summer Widower (1910).
In 1910, she married millionaire sugar heir and industrialist John Moller Jr., and retired from stage work, although she had a small uncredited role as an aristocrat in a 1917 film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. The marriage was childless. After her husband's sudden death during the 1918 influenza pandemic, she returned reluctantly to the Broadway stage, and soon gained a strong reputation in musical comedy productions. She never remarried.
Her Broadway career included roles in the musical comedies and plays The Fan (1921), Go Easy, Mabel (1922), The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly (1923/24), and The Fourflusher (1925), and she had an uncredited role in the 1923 film Enemies of Women.
Performances with the Marx Brothers
Dumont then came to the attention of writer George S. Kaufman, who hired her to play the dowager Mrs. Potter alongside the four Marx Brothers in their Broadway production of The Cocoanuts in 1925. In October 1928, their next Broadway show, Animal Crackers, opened, and Dumont was again cast as the Marx Brothers' foil and straight woman, Mrs. Rittenhouse, the wealthy society dowager. In 1929, they filmed the screen version of The Cocoanuts.
Performing with the Marx Brothers, Dumont played wealthy high-society, posh-voiced widows whom Groucho alternately insulted and romanced for their money. The roles were Mrs. Potter in The Cocoanuts (1929), Mrs. Rittenhouse in Animal Crackers (1930), Mrs. Gloria Teasdale in Duck Soup (1933), Mrs. Claypool in A Night at the Opera (1935), Mrs. Emily Upjohn in A Day at the Races (1937), Mrs. Suzanna Dukesbury in At the Circus (1939), and as Martha Phelps in The Big Store (1941). Her work in A Day at the Races earned her a Best Supporting Actress Award from the Screen Actors Guild, and film critic Cecilia Ager suggesting that a monument be erected in honor of her courage and steadfastness in the face of the Marx Brothers' antics. Groucho once said that many people believed they were married in real life, even though they were not.
An exchange 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 gonna ask for the whole wig.
Dumont also endured dialogue about her characters' (and thus her own) stoutish build, as with these lines, also from Duck Soup:
- Dumont: I've sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
- Groucho: 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.
- Groucho: Why don't you marry me?
- Dumont: Why, marry you?
- Groucho: You take me, and I'll take a vacation. I'll need a vacation if we're going to get married. Married! I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can't see the stove.
Or her age (in their last film pairing, The Big Store):
- Dumont (kittenish after Groucho steals a peck): You make me think of my youth.
- Groucho: Really? He must be a big boy by now.
Dumont's character would often give a short, startled or confused reaction to such insults, but would not otherwise respond and appeared to forget the insult quickly.
Dumont's presumed ladylike innocence, in contrast to Groucho's perpetual leer, was fodder for Groucho's oft-stated comment that the brothers had to explain jokes like this to her:
- Groucho (to the other brothers, during a battle sequence in Duck Soup): Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did.
and this, from A Night at the Opera:
- Dumont: Are you sure you have everything, Otis?
- Groucho: I've never had any complaints yet.
Decades later in his one-man show at New York's Carnegie Hall, Groucho mentioned Dumont's name and got a burst of applause. He falsely informed the audience that she rarely understood the humor of their scenes together and would ask him, "Why are they laughing, Julie?" ("Julie" was her nickname for Julius, Groucho's birth name). Dumont was so important to the success of the Marx Brothers films, she is one of the few people mentioned by Groucho in his short acceptance speech for an honorary Oscar in 1974. (The other four were Harpo, Chico, his mother, and his companion Erin Fleming. Zeppo Marx and Gummo Marx, alive at the time, were not mentioned.)
In most of her interviews and press profiles, Dumont preserved the myth of her on-screen character: the wealthy, regal woman who never quite understood the joke. However, in a 1940 interview with the World Wide Features press syndicate, 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 you 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... I'm not a stooge, I'm a straight lady. There's an art to playing straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him."
Perpetuating Groucho's public remarks on the subject, film critics and historians have incorrectly stated for decades that because Dumont never broke character or cracked a smile at Groucho's jokes, she did not "get" the Marx Brothers' type of humor. However, she knew the jokes were funny indeed, but, as a seasoned actress and a professional, kept a straight face no matter what. In the early Marx brothers films, especially when Groucho levels an insult at her, she can be seen giving an appropriate and fleeting "shocked" response as part of her characterization. In a recreation of Hooray for Captain Spaulding from Animal Crackers staged on The Hollywood Palace in 1965 shortly before her death she can be seen laughing at Groucho's adlibs, proving she got the jokes. 
Dumont's acting style, especially in early films, provided a window into the old-fashioned theatrical style of projecting to the back row, such as trilling the "r" for emphasis. She had a classical operatic singing voice which screenwriters eagerly used to their advantage.
Other roles and later life
Over the course of her career Dumont appeared in 57 films, including some minor silent work that began with A Tale of Two Cities (1917). Her first feature film was the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts (1929), in which she played Mrs. Potter, the same role she played in the stage version from which the film was adapted. She also made some television appearances, including a guest-starring role with Estelle Winwood on ABC's The Donna Reed Show in the episode "Miss Lovelace Comes to Tea" (1959).
She played the same dignified, poised dowager in several other movies, with such comedians as W.C. Fields (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, 1941) and (Tales of Manhattan, 1942), Abbott and Costello (Little Giant, 1946), Laurel and Hardy (The Dancing Masters, 1943), Red Skelton (Bathing Beauty, 1944), Jack Benny (The Horn Blows at Midnight, 1945), Wheeler and Woolsey and George "Spanky" McFarland (Kentucky Kernels, 1934, and High Flyers, 1937, with Lupe Vélez thrown in for good measure), radio comedian Joe Penner (The Life of the Party, 1937), and (Here, Prince, 1932), George "Gabby" Hayes (Sunset in El Dorado), Tom Poston (Zotz!, 1962), and Danny Kaye (Up in Arms, 1944), and on television with Martin and Lewis (The Colgate Comedy Hour, December 1951). Turner Classic Movies’ website says of High Flyers — one of her lesser-known outings: "The surprise…is seeing her play a somewhat daffy matron, more Billie Burke than typical Margaret Dumont. As the lady who's into crystal gazing and dotes on her kleptomaniac bull terrier, she brings a discreetly screwball touch to the proceedings." Dumont also played some dramatic parts, such as Youth on Parole (1937) and Dramatic School (1938). She also appeared in Stop, You're Killing Me (1952), Three for Bedroom C (1952), and Shake, Rattle & Rock! (1956). Her last movie was What a Way to Go! (1964), in which she played Shirley MacLaine's mother, Mrs. Foster.
Eight days before her death she made her final acting appearance on the television program The Hollywood Palace on February 26, 1965, where she was reunited onstage with Groucho—that week's guest host—one final time. They performed material adapted from Captain Spaulding's introductory scene in Animal Crackers. The taped show was aired on April 17, several weeks after her death.
After her death from a heart attack on March 6, 1965, Dumont was cremated, her ashes stored in the vault at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles. She was 82 years of age, although many obituaries mistakenly gave her age as 75.
- Many sources, including obituaries, give an incorrect birth year of 1889.
- There were five Marx brothers - and a sixth, who died as a child - but only four of them performed together on film.
- International Genealogical Index records, derived from Brooklyn birth certificates, 1866-1909 Department of Health
- "Chronology - The Marx Brothers". marx-brothers.org.
- Mitchell, Glenn (2003). The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia. Surrey, U.K.: Reynolds and Hearn. p. 105. ISBN 978-1903111499. Retrieved August 7, 2016.
- "Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of The Marx Brothers: Simon Louvish: 9780312252922: Amazon.com: Books". amazon.com.
- "Scene Stealers: Margaret Dumont". Classic Movie Blog.
- "Margaret Dumont". IMDb.
- "Margaret Dumont (1889 - 1965) - Find A Grave Memorial". findagrave.com.
- The Broadway League. "Margaret Dumont - IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information". ibdb.com.
- Hal Erickson. "Margaret Dumont - Biography, Movie Highlights and Photos - AllMovie". AllMovie.
- "High Flyers". Turner Classic Movies.
- Thomas, Bob, A.P. Movie-Television Writer (March 11, 1965). "Passing of Hollywood Grande Dame". The (Mount Vernon, Illinois) Register News: 5.
- "Margaret Dumont Dies At 75; Acted in Marx Brothers Films". New York Times. United Press International. March 7, 1965. p. 83. Retrieved August 7, 2016.
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