Margaret Dumont

Ducksoup189


 TCM recently ran a Marx Brothers marathon.  I caught bits of “Horse Feathers,” and afterward my very favorite, “Duck Soup.”

 

 

I like so many things about the Marx Brothers’ movies: the freedom, the cleverness of the dialogue, the stupid obviousness of the slapstick bits, the bizarre/surreal quality of many of the gags, even the sudden lapses into sentimentality when they stop to sing a song.

 

 

And I am always thankful when Margaret Dumont shows up.

 

 

She is the grand dame who reigns over seven of the Marx Brothers’ movies: the hostess, the millionairess, the unlikely love-interest.  She is handsome and stately, like an ocean liner.  She has a rich plummy voice, slipping from reedy alto to fluting soprano.  She is not at all physical; she generally stands in one place and lets the Marx Brothers run around her like squirrels around an oak tree.  She was with the brothers on Broadway in “Cocoanuts” in the 1920s; when they made it into a movie a few years later, she and the brothers reprised their stage roles.  This is how Groucho described the action in 1930, in a letter to his friend Arthur Sheekman:

 

 

“I arise in the morning and before I have had my clothes on ten minutes, I am over at the theater doing the ordering scene.  Then follows thirty minutes of Harpo climbing up Dumont’s leg, and the shirt scene, and then to the dressing room for what I imagine is going to be a good long rest.  I am no more than seated with the Morning World, when the buzzer rings and I am downstairs again doing the ordering scene, and Harpo is back again at Dumont’s leg.”

 

 

Dumont is queenly and oblivious, the perfect foil.  She does reaction shots, seemingly unaware of what she’s reacting to.  Groucho later said that, after filming the “Duck Soup” scene in which Groucho shouts “We’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did!”, Dumont came over to him and said: “Julie [his real name was Julius], what does that line mean?”  

 

 

(I think Dumont was smarter than this.  She’d been on stage for years, after all, and she was no dummy.  Here’s one of her quotes from IMDB: “I’m not a stooge, I’m the best straight woman in Hollywood. There’s an art to playing it straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.”)

 

 

Film critic Cecelia Ager said it best: “Somebody somewhere should erect a statue to Margaret Dumont, with a plaque reading: “Dedicated to the woman who took an awful lot of guff from the Marx Brothers through the years, and answered it with courage and steadfastness.”

 

 

Dumont passed away in 1965, just days after doing a television reenactment (with Groucho!) of their big musical number from 1930’s “Animal Crackers”: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” 

 

 

Her real name was Daisy Baker.

 

 

Rest in peace, Daisy.


 

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

One Response to Margaret Dumont

  1. kleeyaro says:

    Three cheers for Margaret Dumont! Hooray, hooray, hooray!

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