A photo of Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont in “A Day at the Circus,” listed on EBay for $5.95.
1882 – 1965
I think we can all agree that Groucho Marx was a real sonofabitch, can’t we? A comic genius, but one mean bastard. Groucho himself would not have argued the point. The worst thing he did, from my point of view, was to insult the great Margaret Dumont’s talents as a straight woman: “She never understood anything I did on the stage, she thought I was serious,” he told Dick Cavett. “Never understood what I was talking about. That was her charm, I think, that she was deadly serious.” Groucho knew better, he was just being an ornery, bitter jerk. Margaret Dumont was one of the most talented straight women in show business, which was why stars and directors such as Groucho, Wheeler and Woolsey, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Lewis Milestone, Leo McCarey, Sam Wood, Bert Lahr, and Jack Benny clamored for her services. Margaret Dumont could—with one raised eyebrow or imperious sneer—make a comic twice as funny. It was a thankless job, and goodness knows, she got precious little in the way of thanks.
And as a haughty dowager myself, I idolize Margaret Dumont. I never wanted to be Jean Harlow or Rita Hayworth or Grace Kelly—I wanted to be Ina Claire or Cora Witherspoon or Norma Varden, and wield a lorgnette with the best of them. Ginger or Mary-Ann? No, Lovey Howell, say I!
Margaret Dumont’s early years are hazy, at least to the casual biographer (if extensive family papers exist, I have yet to find them). She was born in Brooklyn in 1882—making her only 50-ish during her peak Marx Brothers years! I feel very old, suddenly. She appeared in several Edwardian-era musicals, seems to have been married and widowed by 1918, and shows up in a handful of musical comedies and movies through the mid-1920s. That’s when she was converted to Marxism, and her career changed forever.
She appeared in their Broadway show The Cocoanuts (1925-27), playing a society matron beset by Groucho—the template was set right away. When Animal Crackers opened in 1928, Margaret Dumont was along again, as Mrs. Rittenhouse to Groucho’s intrepid explorer Jeffrey T. Spaulding. In early 1929, a primeval talkie version of The Cocoanuts was filmed at Paramount’s Long Island studios, marking Margaret Dumont’s—and the Marxes’—talking film debut. She also appeared in the terrific 1930 film version of Animal Crackers, then was absent from their next two films, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers (I adore her “replacement,” the wonderful Thelma Todd, so no, I am not going to say a bad word about her here).
The “Marx Sister” was back in force for what is my favorite Marx film, the war parody Duck Soup (1933), in which she played the richest woman in all Freedonia, Mrs. Teasdale, courted by both Groucho and the pompous Louis Calhern (did you know he was married to Lovey Howell? S’trewth—from 1933-42!). The Marxes were smart enough to take Dumont with them when they left Paramount and moved to MGM, where the Production Code and Louis B. Mayer gelded them; their films were never as naughty or fun or subversive again. But Dumont was along for the ride, from 1935-41, in A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, At the Circus and The Big Store.
“I’m a straight lady,” she said in the 1940s. “The best straight woman in Hollywood.” Putting paid to all those “she never knew what was going on” cracks from Groucho, she told a reporter, “There’s an art to playing straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.” As for the Marxes, “The comedy method which [they] employ is carefully worked out and concrete. They never laugh during a story conference. Like most other expert comedians, they involve themselves so seriously in the study of how jokes can be converted to their own style that they don’t ever titter while approaching their material.”
Remember, though, those Marx Brothers films did not pay the rent. Margaret Dumont was a freelancer in a day without any social safety net—no insurance, no 401(k), just whatever money you could save and put in the bank or under your mattress. She worked steadily through the 1930s and ‘40s at studios large (MGM, Fox, Paramount) and small (Invincible, Republic). The best in the business wanted her: W.C. Fields (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Tales of Manhattan), Laurel and Hardy (The Dancing Masters), Wheeler and Woolsey (the enjoyable High Flyers), Jack Benny (The Horn Blows at Midnight), Danny Kaye (Up in Arms), Betty Grable (Diamond Horseshoe).
But much of her time was spent scrambling for work—sometimes her parts were as small as one day’s work (as little more than an extra) in Jean Harlow’s Reckless, and many of her other projects were forgettable B- and C-films (Youth on Parole, Gridiron Flash, Fifteen Wives). “The boys ruined my career,” she said at one point. “Nobody took me seriously as a dramatic actress. People always thought they saw Groucho peering from behind my skirt.” By the 1950s the work had all but dried up: she appeared in a handful of movies and TV shows through her death in 1965 her swan song being a sketch on The Hollywood Palace with Groucho Marx, aired a month after her death.
If you want to see what a lying bastard Groucho was, take a look at this clip from Duck Soup: here you see an expert actress, a wily straight-woman, feeding lines, waiting for laughs, and playing up her partner: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3FZ_jtDMVg Groucho knew damn well what a genius he had in Margaret Dumont, and when accepting his Deathbed Oscar in 1974, he said, “I only wish Harpo and Chico could have been here—and Margaret Dumont.”