We recently wrote about the unlikelihood of opera singers successfully making the transition to movie comedy (A Rarity — Opera Singers Turned Solid Comic Actors, March 10), and named two solid supporting players who did so: Fortunio Bonanova and George Gaynes.
But we alarmingly overlooked perhaps the best example of this rare genre.
We’re talking about the fabulous Margaret Dumont, who 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.
One slight difficulty is that the record of Dumont’s actual opera experience is murky. (If anyone out there knows otherwise, please let us know.)
Whereas both Bonanova and Gaynes were born in Europe, trained there and launched full-scale careers on the opera stages there, most Dumont biographies make only brief mention that “she trained as an opera singer.” Then, she quickly moved on to the stage and eventually the movies.
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.
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 an early 20th century woman.) 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 occurred 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 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.