In the most recent episode of my new podcast, Fantasy Bakes, I imagined baking a Red Velvet Cake for Groucho Marx.
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The films of The Marx Brothers were a bit part of my childhood and were largely responsible for the development of my anarchic sense of humour, as well as my sense of style. I love these films deeply and they are a constant source of joy in my life.
In the podcast, I discussed the Brothers AND the blondes who so often shared the screen with them but I barely mentioned Margaret Dumont.
Why? Well, as soon as I mentioned her name I knew that a sidebar or a quick nod would not be enough. I couldn’t bear to just mention her as a part of a podcast about Groucho. She was so much more than just a bit part player in Marx Brothers films… wasn’t she?
Immediately after recording the podcast, in which I said that I would have to write about Margaret Dumont, I hit up eBay and Amazon to order her biography. I found nothing. I couldn’t find a book about Margaret Dumont and that broke my heart a little.
The Marx Brothers movies were ‘structured’ around the misadventures of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. Groucho would play a figure in possession of some misplaced authority – a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a politician – though he was a wise-cracking buffoon. Chico would be a faux Italian with all the associated lost-in-translation gags (see the Sanity Clause routine) and Harpo would be silent physical comedy accompanied by a horn and a harp. In all of this madness, nothing would be as funny without a straight-woman to act as both cause and reaction to those around her.
There was a misconception, fueled by Groucho himself, that Margaret Dumont did not get his jokes or the humour of the Marx Brothers. This, I am entirely certain, is a lie. It suits the schtick for the public to believe that she was the genuine article, a woman truly unaware of the humour around her, but I believe that she was just a phenomenal actress.
Margaret Dumont was born Daisy Baker in 1882. She trained in the theatre and operatic arts, appearing on the stage many times before retiring upon her marriage in 1910. When she played the socialite so perfectly, it was largely due to the fact that she lived that life. Her Husband was heir to a fortune in sugar and by all accounts life was pretty sweet. All was to come to an abrupt end when he died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Margaret returned to the stage. I do not know whether she did so out of necessity or desire. Personally, I would have imagined her to be left some of her Husband’s fortune so assume that her return to the stage was either to keep herself occupied or to return to her first love.
She gained a reputation in musicals on Broadway and was introduced to the Marx Brothers in 1925 as the perfect actress to play wealthy socialites Mrs Potter and Mrs Rittenhouse in their plays The Coconuts and Animal Crackers. When these plays became the first two Marx Brothers movies, Margaret Dumont was seen as essential in her roles.
Groucho later described Margaret Dumont as the fifth Marx Brother. Throughout the seven films that she made with the Brothers, her character changed as little as theirs did. She was upstanding, proper, an embodiment of the establishment that their anarchic antics could clash with. Her characters were treated with equal amounts of tenderness and contempt.
Variously, Groucho would attempt to romance Margaret Dumont’s characters for their money (they were frequently wealthy widows), and ignore her romantic advances to chase a younger blonde.
Watch any on-screen exchange between Groucho and Margaret Dumont and tell me that she did not get the jokes. Her reactions are spot on. She knew exactly what she was doing and she played each part to perfection.
This is why I find it so sad that there is nothing of note written about Margaret Dumont; the comedy of the Marx Brothers is dependent upon this reaction and upon some grounding in reality. She provided the perfect foil to Groucho’s humour.
Sadly, of the other films that she appeared in, none of them stand out as essential viewing. Many of the titles listed on her IMDB page are unaccredited roles even after her time with the Marx Brothers. I cannot quote get my head around this. She was a legend and, in my mind, still is.
Further proof of proof be needed that Margaret Dumont did get all of the jokes was in her very last performance with Groucho. This was on a TV show called The Hollywood Palace, on which they reprise a scene from Animal Crackers. Groucho sings Hello, I Must Be Going and Hooray for Captain Spaulding (two of his most iconic songs from the film) and actually tells Margaret Dumont off for laughing and stepping all over his next line. She is clearly enjoying every moment of their reunion. She is every inch the upstanding socialite from the movies and their 40 year partnership.
She died in the days following the broadcast at the age of 82. Her name will never be forgotten by those who know and love her.
As a final word, from the very limited research that I have been able to do, I am going to leave you with a quote which proves without a doubt that Margaret Dumont got all of the jokes and was therefore a brilliant actress.
“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.”
Of course Groucho wanted to preserve her legacy as the ultimate straight woman who didn’t get his jokes because, without her, they may never have received the appreciated that they deserved. The Marx Brothers would not have been as good as they were without Margaret Dumont.