Groucho Marx aptly described Margaret Dumont as "practically the fifth Marx Brother," and watching the films today, we find her much more beautiful than the prettier women who bore us to death in between the comedy scenes. At the Circus even has Eve Arden in a leotard, stuffing money into her cleavage (Groucho: "There must be some way I can get that money back, without getting in trouble with the Hays Office"), but all we want to do is get on with it and arrive at Mrs. Dukesbury's mansion.
We used to believe, on Groucho’s word, that Margaret Dumont had no sense of humor and never understood the jokes. But recent biographers like Simon Louvish and Stefan Kanfer have challenged this notion, so I guess the current thinking is that she probably did have a sense of humor and did understand the jokes. Louvish in particular has advanced this view:
She was, in fact, an accomplished comedienne, who found her character and then stuck to it for the next fifty-eight years. The more one examines her early record the less likely become all the later stories about her lack of humor or awareness of the Marx Brothers' jokes. [Charlotte] Chandler quotes Maureen O'Sullivan as stating that Margaret Dumont actually believed that A Day at the Races was a serious picture. "When we started, she told me, 'It's not going to be one of those things. I'm having a very serious part this time.'" This after ten years of playing comedy with Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo!! Some people are just too gullible for words.
Morrie Ryskind was one of the Marx Brothers' best writers (having collaborated with George S. Kaufman on The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and A Night at the Opera), and in his memoir, he writes that he was fascinated with Dumont from the moment he met her (which sounds like the setup for a Groucho punchline). Dumont, he thought, "was convinced that great ladies weren't supposed to have great intellects, and she responded accordingly . . . [Dumont] should be lauded for the longest-running performance in show business history." Louvish agrees:
It is not therefore Margaret Dumont who failed to see the joke, but the Marx Brothers, their interpreters, and biographers, who have been unwitting victims of a desperate practical joke played upon us for three-quarters of a century by that greatest of dissimulating comediennes…
This may sound like wishful thinking; it may also be an indication of how thoroughly we Marxists have accepted as gospel the pronouncements of Groucho Marx. Sure, he said Dumont had no sense of humor – he even said it in his Academy Award acceptance speech in 1973. As far as he was concerned, Margaret Dumont was just like him: Just like her character. But maybe she wasn't. In her vaudeville days, when she was known as Daisy Dumont, she was generally billed as a comedienne; in addition to the evidence provided by Louvish, I've found a Washington Post notice from October 12, 1909 which says that "Daisy Dumont graces the role of Mme. Denise de la Vire [in The Belle of Brittany] with the same queenly dignity and hauteur that made her a vision of statuesque loveliness in The Beauty Spot" -- suggesting that she was already playing something close to the character we know.
Certainly the films of the Marx Brothers are no help; you can't assume that she had no sense of humor based on the fact that she doesn't laugh at the jokes in the films. But perhaps there is a clue in her April 17, 1965 television appearance on Hollywood Palace. That episode was hosted by Groucho, who used the opportunity to show off his daughter Melinda (uncomfortable, as always, with her father’s attempts to do for her what Grandma Minnie had done for him). The last number on the program is introduced by Melinda, who explains that many years ago her father was in a play called Animal Crackers, and he would now be joined on stage by Margaret Dumont herself to recreate "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," thirty-five years later.
Dumont and Groucho are both slower than they used to be, but the old characters are unmistakable. What's really notable are her reactions to his jokes. Now, the familiar jokes – the ones from Animal Crackers, and the new ones in the script – get classic Dumont reactions: the brow furrowed, the eyes wide, the mouth a startled O for outrage. But Groucho ad libs too. "I'm highly honored," declares Dumont. "Really?" says Groucho. "For a moment I thought you were Haile Selassie." That's not in Animal Crackers, but it clearly has been rehearsed for Hollywood Palace; it gets a typical roll of the Dumont eyes. But then, Groucho tosses in an aside – "That's the kind of African jokes we have…" – and this makes Margaret Dumont laugh. She really laughs, facially and vocally. It's one of the greatest things I've ever seen. Groucho Marx made Margaret Dumont laugh! And it's a wonderful laugh, the laugh of nobody's fool. She's enjoying this. Later on, it happens again. Groucho is doing the old moose joke, and Dumont accidentally interrupts him. He looks at her pleadingly: "Don't step on those few laughs I have left." And she laughs. She seems to be having a wonderful time. By now, Chico has been dead for four years, Harpo for one. Gummo and Zeppo have been retired from the stage since 1919 and 1934 respectively. Groucho and Dumont are the only Marx Brothers left.
In conversation with Charlotte Chandler, Groucho remembered the Hollywood Palace appearance:
I'll never forget. After the show she stood by the stage door with a bouquet of roses, which she probably sent to herself. Some guy came along in a crummy car and took her away. A couple of weeks later she died. She was always a lady, a wonderful person. Died without any money.
It meant a great deal to Groucho that Dumont's final performance was with him, doing "Hooray for Captain Spaulding." He mentions it frequently in the Marx Brothers literature of his later years.
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Margaret Dumont's character is just as eccentric as any of the Marx Brothers'. Her eccentricity is her faith in Groucho.
In their creaky first feature The Cocoanuts, it's not quite there yet. Groucho (as the manager of a Florida hotel) is full of verbal tics, but is apparently not a complete fraud, as he will be in later characterizations. And Dumont's character here is too stuffy to be smitten with him; she seems to regard him as part of the rabble, like Harpo and Chico.
In Animal Crackers, their love comes into its own. Groucho's Captain Spaulding is a fraud – Louvish notes that this supposed African explorer "does not seem to have come from anywhere further than the Carnegie Deli" – but Dumont refuses to see it. Her high regard for Captain Spaulding cannot be swayed. He is a frowzy conman who’s after her money and makes no secret of it; she is a stuffy matron who's after his celebrity, and exploits it grandly. They are an ideal couple.
Dumont sits out the next two films, but when she returns in Duck Soup, she doesn't just want Groucho to be the main attraction at a party. Now she wants him to be the leader of an entire country. From the moment he makes his intentions known ("Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first") to the final fade-out (when Groucho and his brothers pelt her with fruit just for singing the national anthem), she inexplicably believes in him.
In the first scene in A Night at the Opera, Dumont shows some spine, and is able to reprimand Groucho for missing their date, only to be discovered dining with another woman at the very next table. She gets good and indignant about it for a moment. But she is helpless in the face of his charm. As soon as he explains himself, no matter how flimsy the explanation ("Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you!"), she melts.
Because of producer Irving Thalberg's desire to make the Brothers lovable, they have to spend much of the film helping the boring young lovers get what they want. Naturally, Dumont's Mrs. Claypool gets what she wants, too – a successful opening for the new opera season. For the first time, Dumont’s faith in Groucho is rewarded. Things can never be quite the same after this. It’s as though Captain Spaulding showed up at Rittenhouse Manor and graciously regaled the guests with true tales of heroic adventures. These movies aren't supposed to resolve. Until Thalberg, the closest the Marx Brothers ever got to happily-ever-after was the end of Horse Feathers, when Thelma Todd married all three of them.
A Day at the Races, which is either the Brothers' last good film or their first bad one, takes Groucho and Dumont further into conventional territory. Groucho's Dr. Hackenbush isn't really a fraud; he's just the wrong man for the job. He's a horse doctor masquerading as a regular doctor, but there's no reason to think he's not a perfectly capable horse doctor. It wasn't his idea to show up at the sanitarium and pose as chief of staff; Chico recruits him, because he overhears Dumont singing his praises ("Why, I never knew there was a thing the matter with me until I met him!"). What was only hinted at in Animal Crackers and Duck Soup has now become the central conceit: Dumont is the crazy one, and Groucho is a hapless pawn caught up in her psychotic vision. For most of the movie, Groucho tries to avoid confrontations, keeping his true vocation a secret, lest he get everyone in trouble. This is a far cry from the Groucho of Monkey Business, a stowaway on an ocean liner who brazenly confronts the captain and complains about the service.
At the end of A Day at the Races, Groucho and Dumont even wind up together. "I really am a horse doctor," he tells her in the film's closing moments, "but marry me and I'll never look at any other horse." There's an insult in there somewhere, but now love is apparently stronger than comedy. Playing for the approval of middle America, MGM reduced the Groucho/Dumont relationship to a fairly typical screen romance: They hit a few rough spots along the way, but everything is hugs and kisses by the fade-out.
Dumont’s remaining appearances in Marx Brothers films – in At the Circus and The Big Store – are hardly worth discussing, except to say that her mere presence suggests better times and makes those bad movies a bit more tolerable. She and Groucho do achieve one classic moment in The Big Store, when she expresses her concern that "a beautiful young girl will come along, and you'll forget all about me."
"Don't be silly," he says. "I'll write you twice a week."