She is most remembered as a foil for Groucho Marx, but Margaret Dumont had a long and successful career as a character actress in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
When she starred opposite Groucho it cemented her career as a stand up ‘straight man.’ In fact, she was considered by Groucho to be “the fifth Marx Brother.”
She, of course, played the formidable society doyenne in so many Marx Brothers pictures, the butt of Groucho’s innuendos and insults. But she also appeared in many other big screen vehicles; her career, begun in 1917, spanned nearly a half century.
Most Dumont biographies make only brief mention that originally “she trained as an opera singer.” That’s interesting in that she always lent a certain Wagnerian presence to her screen roles.
Dumont was not a European. She was born Daisy Baker in 1889 in Brooklyn, and raised in Atlanta, Ga. area. She prepared for the opera stage as a teenager. But because back then you needed European experience to be taken seriously in the opera world, she moved on to theater and other forms of show biz including, of course, the movies.
For a time, she worked onstage as a show girl in Britain and France, and was hailed for her “statuesque beauty.” (Dumont stood 5-foot-9, tall for a woman back then.) In 1910, she married a wealthy industrialist and sugar heir, and retired. After his death in 1918, she resumed her stage career.
The connection to the Marx Brothers came about when Dumont was noticed by playwright-director George S. Kaufman, who hired her to play the haughty dowager in the Broadway production of The Cocoanuts in 1925. Animal Crackers followed, and then on to the movie versions of these stage productions.
Throughout such Marx Brothers classics as 1933’s Duck Soup, 1935’s A Night At The Opera, 1937’s A Day At The Races and 1939’s At The Circus, Dumont essentially played the same character — a wealthy, strong-voiced woman totally befuddled by the Marx Brother antics. Her haughty operatic bearing was perfect for the part, and made her a weighty comedy presence.
Her imperturbability is based on the placid knowledge that she is stronger than Groucho, that all his insult is childish prattle, wrote critic David Thomson.
But Dumont was by no means limited to the Marx Brothers vehicles. She played all sorts of imperious characters in a wide range of comedies and musicals. In 1936’s Song and Dance Man, she appeared with Claire Trevor and Paul Kelly as “Mrs. Whitney.”
In 191’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, she took on the role of “Mrs. Hemogloben” opposite W.C. Fields. With Red Skelton and Esther Williams, she contributed a “Mrs. Allenwood” character to MGM’s 1944 musical comedy, Bathing Beauty.
Dumont easily expanded to television as well as films in the Fifties, including Bob Hope’s tv show in 1956. Her last big screen appearance came in 1964 — the year before she died at the age of 82 — as “Mrs. Foster” in What A Way To Go starring Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman and Robert Mitchum.
Imperious to the end. What a way to go, indeed.