(Written for another, now defunct, blog in January of 2006.)
By Scott Ross
The shade of Stephen Crane will I hope forgive me, for I come in praise of Margaret Dumont. Arguably the greatest “straight-man” in the business. That paragon of public virtue who stood more abuse — verbal and physical — from Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo (not to mention the likes of W.C. Fields) than any one woman should ever have to shoulder alone.
Now, Groucho always maintained that she never understood any of the jokes or why their audiences laughed (an image even Dumont was happy to feed the press). But I challenge you to watch any scene in which she appears opposite the Bros. Marx and convince yourself that’s a true picture of her. It’s possible — just barely — for an actor to get by on that sort of thing maybe once, if the director is clever enough to elicit a performance out of confusion or wooden-headness. But try making a career of it.
No, she got the jokes and then some. No one who was that much of a thickie could have performed so knowingly and with such grace and comedic polish. Imagine building an entire performing life out of being the butt of the joke. (And a bigger butt there never was, so to speak; cf. the “stateroom scene” in A Night at the Opera.) Was anything meaner ever said of a dowager than Groucho’s “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did” in Duck Soup? Dumont’s reactions are models of comic timing, and if they’re a little broad, as though she was still playing to back of house on Broadway, that doesn’t detract from her charm. After all, was Groucho subtle? Was Chico? How about Harpo?
I was trying to resist the urge to quote endlessly from the movies themselves, but I find I’ve had to succumb to temptation. After all, it’s the only way to illustrate what that sainted woman had to bear from the lips of the Great Grouch.
In Duck Soup:
Groucho: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Dumont: Why, he’s dead.
Groucho: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Dumont: I was with him to the very end.
Groucho: No wonder he passed away.
Dumont: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Groucho: Oh, I see, then it was murder!
Dumont: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Groucho: Is that so? How late do you stay open?
Groucho: I suppose you would think me a sentimental old fluff, but, uh, would you mind giving me lock of your hair?
Dumont: A lock of my hair? Why, I had no idea—
Groucho: I’m letting you off easy: I was going to ask for the whole wig.
In A Night at the Opera:
Groucho: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
Groucho: Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (Aside to the audience) If she figures that one out, she’s good.
But she could take it — luckily for us. A Marx Bros. movie without her is a poor thing indeed. (Well, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers had Thelma Todd, but that’s a wholly different animal, if you’ll pardon the expression. Todd, a spunky comedian in her own right, could more than hold her own, especially with Groucho; their demented tango on the balcony in Horse Feathers is a thing of comic beauty.)
Maggie even has a fan club. And it may give you a measure of the affection and esteem with which Groucho regarded her that, despite his public pronouncements about her alleged lack of humor, he hired her to do a dialogue sketch with him on a comedy show in the mid-1960s. She died a few days later — happy, one hopes, in the knowledge that she still had it, and that someone wanted to see it.
Even if Dumont didn’t get the jokes, she was herself funny as hell. Aside from Toddy, Groucho never had a better foil. That alone cements her place in movie history. And if only for that, she is, quite properly, immortal.
Non-Marx Text Copyright 2006 and 2019 by Scott Ross