Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool in A Night at the Opera (1935)
Daisy Juliette Baker
October 20, 1882
|Died||March 6, 1965 (aged 82)|
John Moller, Jr.
(m. 1910; died 1918)
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
Dumont was born Daisy Juliette Baker in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of William and Harriet Anna (née Harvey) Baker. She trained as an operatic singer and actress in her teens, and began performing on stage in 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 Sleeping 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, Dumont reluctantly returned to the Broadway stage, and soon gained a strong reputation in musical comedies. 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
In 1925, Dumont 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 the Marxes' next Broadway show, Animal Crackers, which opened in October 1928, Dumont was again cast as foil and straight woman Mrs. Rittenhouse, a wealthy society dowager. She appeared with the Marxes in the screen versions of both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.
With the Marx Brothers, Dumont played wealthy, high-society widows whom Groucho alternately insulted and romanced for their money:
- The Cocoanuts (1929) - Mrs. Potter
- Animal Crackers (1930) - Mrs. Rittenhouse
- Duck Soup (1933) - Mrs. Gloria Teasdale
- A Night at the Opera (1935) - Mrs. Claypool
- A Day at the Races (1937) - Mrs. Emily Upjohn
- At the Circus (1939) - Mrs. Susanna Dukesbury
- The Big Store (1941) - Martha Phelps
Her role as the hypochondriacal Mrs. Upjohn in A Day at the Races brought her a Best Supporting Actress Award from the Screen Actors Guild, and film critic Cecilia Ager suggested that a monument be erected in honor of Dumont's courage and steadfastness in the face of the Marx Brothers' antics. Groucho once said that because of their frequent movie appearances, many people believed he and Dumont were married in real life.
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): 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 these insults, but appeared to forget them quickly.
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 and would ask him, "Why are they laughing, Julie?" ("Julie" being her nickname for Julius, Groucho's birth name). Dumont was so important to the success of the Marx Brothers films, she was one of the few people Groucho mentioned in his short acceptance speech for an honorary Oscar in 1974. (The others were Harpo and Chico, their mother Minnie, and Groucho's companion Erin Fleming. Zeppo and Gummo Marx, who were both alive at the time, were not mentioned, though Jack Lemmon, who introduced Groucho, mentioned all four brothers who appeared with Dumont on film.)
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 jokes. However, in a 1942 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."
For decades, film critics and historians have theorized that because Dumont never broke character or smiled at Groucho's jokes, she did not "get" the Marxes' humor. On the contrary, Dumont, a seasoned stage professional, maintained her "straight" appearance to enhance the Marxes' comedy. In 1965, shortly before Dumont's death, The Hollywood Palace featured a recreation of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" (from the Marxes' 1930 film Animal Crackers) in which Dumont can be seen laughing at Groucho's ad-libs — proving that she got the jokes.
Writing about Dumont's importance as a comic foil in 1998, film critic Andrew Sarris wrote, "Groucho's confrontations with Miss Dumont seem much more the heart of the Marxian matter today than the rather loose rapport among the three brothers themselves."
Dumont's acting style, especially in her early films, reflected the classic theatrical tradition of projecting to the back row (for example, trilling the "r" for emphasis). She had a classical operatic singing voice that screenwriters eagerly used to their advantage.
Other roles and later life
Dumont appeared in 57 films, including some minor silent work beginning with A Tale of Two Cities (1917). Her first feature was the Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts (1929), in which she played Mrs. Potter, the 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).
Dumont, usually playing her dignified dowager character, appeared with other film comedians and actors, including Wheeler and Woolsey and George "Spanky" McFarland (Kentucky Kernels, 1934); Joe Penner (Here, Prince 1932, and The Life of the Party 1937); Lupe Vélez (High Flyers, 1937); W.C. Fields (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, 1941, and Tales of Manhattan 1942); Laurel and Hardy (The Dancing Masters, 1943); Red Skelton (Bathing Beauty, 1944); Jack Benny (The Horn Blows at Midnight, 1945); George "Gabby" Hayes (Sunset in El Dorado, 1945); Abbott and Costello (Little Giant, 1946); Tom Poston (Zotz!, 1962); and Danny Kaye (Up in Arms, 1944).
Turner Classic Movies’ website says of High Flyers: "The surprise... is seeing [Dumont] 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."
On February 26, 1965, eight days before her death, Dumont made her final acting appearance on the television program The Hollywood Palace, where she was reunited with Groucho, the week's guest host. They performed material from Captain Spaulding's introductory scene in Animal Crackers, including the song "Hooray For Captain Spaulding!". The taped show was aired April 17, 1965. Dumont died between the taping and the broadcast.
Dumont died from a heart attack on March 6, 1965. She was cremated and her ashes were interred in the vault at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles. She was 82, although many obituaries mistakenly gave her age as 75.
- Enemies of Women (1923)
- The Cocoanuts (1929) as Mrs. Potter
- Animal Crackers (1930) as Mrs. Rittenhouse
- The Girl Habit (1931) as Blanche Ledyard
- Duck Soup (1933) as Mrs. Gloria Teasdale
- Fifteen Wives (1934) as Sybilla Crum
- Gridiron Flash (1934) as Mrs. Fields
- Kentucky Kernels (1934) as Mrs. Baxter
- A Night at the Opera (1935) as Mrs. Claypool
- Anything Goes (1936) as Mrs. Wentworth
- Song and Dance Man (1936) as Mrs. Whitney
- A Day at the Races (1937) as Mrs. Emily Upjohn
- The Life of the Party (1937) as Mrs. Penner
- Youth on Parade (1937) as Mrs. Abernathy
- High Flyers (1937) as Martha Arlington
- Wise Girl (1938) as Mrs. Bell-Rivington
- Dramatic School (1937) as Pantomime teacher
- At the Circus (1939) as Mrs. Suzanna Dukesbury
- The Big Store (1941) as Martha Phelps
- For Beauty's Sake (1941) as Mrs. Franklin Evans
- Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) as Mrs. Hemogloben
- Sing Your Worries Away (1942) as Landlady Flo Faulkner
- Born to Sing (1942) as Mrs. E. V. Lawson
- Rhythm Parade (1942) as Ophelia MacDougal
- The Dancing Masters (1943) as Louise Harlan
- Up in Arms (1944) as Mrs. Willoughby
- Seven Days Ashore (1944) as Mrs. Croxton-Lynch
- Bathing Beauty (1944) as Mrs. Allenwood
- The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) as Mme. Traviata/Miss Rodholder
- Diamond Horseshoe (1945) as Mrs. Standish
- Sunset in El Dorado (1945) as Aunt Dolly/Aunt Arabella
- Little Giant (1946) as Mrs. Henrickson
- Susie Steps Out (1946) as Mrs. Starr
- Three for Bedroom "C" (1952) as Mrs. Agnes Hawthorne
- Stop, You're Killing Me (1952) as Mrs. Harriet Whitelaw
- Shake, Rattle & Rock! (1956) as Georgianna Fitzdingle
- Auntie Mame (1958) Uncredited role
- Zotz! (1962) as Persephone Updike
- What a Way to Go (1964) as Mrs. Foster
- 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. ASIN 0312252927.CS1 maint: ASIN uses ISBN (link)
- "Scene Stealers: Margaret Dumont". Classic Movie Blog. Archived from the original on January 18, 2010.
- "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.
- [McMurtry, Charles,] World Wide Features (March 1, 1942). "Straight Lady Explains Art of Timed Ad Libs. Margaret Dumont (Don't Call Her a Stooge) Can Sense Laughs, Save Them." New York Herald Tribune,E-4
- Sarris, Andrew, You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet, Oxford University Press, 1998, pg. 445
- "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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