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Margaret Dumont

Margaret Dumont stars as Mrs. Claypool in A Night at the Opera.
Born Daisy Juliette Baker
October 20, 1882(1882-10-20)
Brooklyn, New York,
United States
Died March 6, 1965 (aged 82)
Hollywood, California,
United States
Occupation Actress
Years active 1917–1964
Spouse(s) John Moller, Jr. (1910-1918) (his death)

Margaret Dumont (October 20, 1882 – March 6, 1965) was an American comedic actress.

She is remembered mostly for being the comic foil to Groucho Marx in seven of the Marx Brothers films. Groucho called her "practically the fifth Marx brother" (In fact, there were five Marx brothers, but only four of them ever performed together on film).

Contents

Biography

Born Daisy Juliette Baker in Brooklyn, New York she adopted the stage name Margaret (and/or Marguerite) Dumont.

Dumont played wealthy high-society, posh-voiced widows who Groucho alternately insulted and romanced for their money. The roles are 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), Emily Upjohn in A Day at the Races (1937), Mrs. Suzanna Dukesbury in At the Circus (1939), and Martha Phelps in The Big Store (1941). Groucho once said that many people believed they were married in real life, even though they were not. A typical exchange, from Duck Soup, follows:

Groucho: You might 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 that you ...
Groucho: You're getting off easy. I was going to 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!

and:

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 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 defending this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did!

and this, from A Night at the Opera:

Dumont: Do you have everything, Otis?
Groucho: I've never had any complaints yet!

But there could be fleeting moments of touching consideration shown by Groucho in their faux romances, as in the final scene of The Big Store where he goes off to her apartment:

Dumont: Oh, I'm afraid after we're married a while a beautiful young girl will come along and you'll forget all about me.
Groucho: Don't be silly. I'll write you twice a week.

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 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.)

Over the course of her career Margaret Dumont played 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. Her last movie was What a Way to Go! (1964), in which she played Shirley MacLaine's mother, Mrs. Foster.

She also played the same dignified, poised dowager in other movies, with 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 (Kentucky Kernels, 1934) and (High Flyers, 1937), and Danny Kaye (Up In Arms, 1944), and on television with Martin and Lewis (The Colgate Comedy Hour, December 1951) [1].

She also played some dramatic parts, such as Youth on Parole (1937) and Dramatic School (1938).

Just days before her death from a heart attack, she made her final acting appearance on the television program The Hollywood Palace in early March 1965, where she was reunited onstage with Groucho - that week's guest host - one final time. They performed some material from Animal Crackers. The taped show was aired several weeks after her passing. Some sources say it was broadcast on April 10, others say April 17.

In her interviews and press profiles, Dumont preserved the myth of her on-screen character: the wealthy, regal woman who never quite understood the joke. She had claimed she had returned reluctantly to acting as a result of widowhood, turning to the Broadway stage in 1919 a year after her husband of eight years, sugar heir John Moller, Jr., died suddenly.[1]

As a young actress however, Dumont had specialized in straight female leads in musical comedies, where the cardinal rule was to make space for the featured comedian. Her theatrical debut was in Beauty and the Beast at the Chestnut Theater in Philadelphia. In August 1902, two months before her 20th birthday, she appeared as a singer/comedienne 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).[1]

Dumont's acting style, especially in early films, provides a window into the old-fashioned theatrical style of projecting to the back row, such as trilling the "r" for emphasis. She also had a classical operatic singing voice which screenwriters eagerly used to their advantage.

Perpetuating Groucho's joke on the subject, film critics and historians have stated for decades that since Dumont never broke character or cracked a smile at Groucho's jokes, she did not "get" the Marx Brothers' type of humor. The fact is she knew the jokes were funny indeed, but as a seasoned actress and a professional kept a straight face no matter what.[1] 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. One exception to her sticking with the script occurred in her last appearance with Groucho in 1965 on ABC-TV's Hollywood Palace. Mid-way through a recreation of a scene from Animal Crackers, Groucho stopped her as she was about to deliver her next line. "Don't step on those few laughs I have up here" he scolded, which made Dumont break up laughing.

Death

On her death on March 6, 1965, Margaret Dumont was cremated, her ashes stored in the vault at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles. Dumont was 82 years of age. [2]

References

External links

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