Margaret Dumont biography (October 20, 1882 – March 6, 1965)
Margaret Dumont appeared with many comedians, including Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Red Skelton, and W. C. Fields – but she is best known for her recurring role as the stodgy dowager straight man to Groucho Marx in many of the Marx Brothers‘ most popular films.
Margaret Dumont was born on October 20, 1882, as Daisy Juliette Baker, and as a girl she sang on the stage in both America and Europe under the name of Daisy Dumont. A trained singer, she moved onto the stage as an actress in 1907, but after her marriage to John Muller Jr. in 1910, she retired from the stage to devote herself to her wealthy husband.
She returned to the stage only after the death of her husband, where in 1925 she was cast in a very popular Broadway production titled The Cocoanuts, appearing alongside four brothers named Julius, Leonard, Adolph and Milton – who would soon be better known as Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Gummo, the Marx Brothers.
In addition to their zany antics and madcap comedy, the Marx Brothers were well known for their improvisation and departing from the script on a whim – making it difficult for Margaret Dumont to deliver her lines properly. Even so, she enjoyed working with the Marx Brothers – for the most part.
After several years of performing The Cocoanuts, the Marx Brothers starred in another Broadway hit, Animal Crackers – and again, they used Margaret Dumont to play straight man to Groucho. As the era of sound films began, she reprised her roles for the movie versions of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers as well in 1929 and 1930.
Margaret Dumont went on to co-star with the Marx Brothers in many (not all) of their films, including Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), At the Circus (1939), and The Big Store (1941). As much as she enjoyed the fame that her appearances with the Marx Brothers, she said “It was fun while it lasted. I wouldn’t take $1,000,000 for the experience and I wouldn’t give a cent to do it again. Making pictures with the Marx Brothers is really the strenuous life.”
In addition, she appeared in several other movies in this time frame, including Anything Goes with Bing Crosby, The Women with Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russel, and the classic W. C. Fields movie Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
Margaret Dumont continued making classic comedies with the leading comedians of the day, such as The Dancing Masters (1943) with Laurel and Hardy, Up in Arms (1944) with Danny Kaye, Bathing Beauty (1944) with Red Skelton, The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) with Jack Benny, and Little Giant (1946) with Abbott and Costello. However, most of these were small parts, with Margaret playing the same stereotypical role that she had made popular with Groucho Marx – that of the staid, rich dowager.
Margaret Dumont’s film appearances slowed down, but she continued her career through the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s. In 1964, the year of her death, she appeared in a film with Shirley McLaine titled, ironically enough What a Way to Go. Only days before her death, she appeared on the television show The Hollywood Palace with guest-host Groucho Marx. She died on March 6, 1965, in Hollywood, California of a heart attack.
Trivia about Margaret Dumont
- Last appearance of any kind was on the TV show “The Hollywood Palace” (1964) in 1965, reprising her role as Groucho Marx’s straight woman. She died just days later.
- She was bald and wore wigs for several years on and off camera.
- Her screen persona was that of a stolid, wealthy society matron, which is exactly what she was: her husband, John Moller, was a millionaire industrialist, and she often commuted to filming locations from her mansions in Palm Springs, California, and Paris, France.
- Started on stage in 1907
- She was the god-daughter of author Joel Chandler Harris.
- Biography in: “Who’s Who in Comedy: Comedians, Comics, and Clowns from Vaudeville to Today’s Stand-Ups” by Ronald L. Smith. Pg. 143-144. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
- Groucho Marx called her “practically the fifth Marx Brother”.
- Offstage, she usually called Groucho Marx “Julie”, which is short for Julius, Groucho’s given name.
- Some have argued that her image of the refined lady who did not understand the Marx Brothers’ humor was an artificial one since she had a long career being a comedic foil in comedy stage productions years before her more famous work.
Films of Margaret Dumont
- 1917 A Tale of Two Cities
- 1929 The Cocoanuts
- 1930 Animal Crackers
- 1931 The Girl Habit
- 1933 Duck Soup
- 1934 Fifteen Wives (UK version: The Man With the Electric Voice)
- 1934 Kentucky Kernels (UK version: Triple Trouble)
- 1934 Gridiron Flash (UK version: Luck of the Game)
- 1935 A Night at the Opera
- 1935 Orchids to You
- 1935 Rendezvous
- 1936 Song and Dance Man
- 1936 Anything Goes
- 1937 A Day at the Races
- 1937 Life of the Party
- 1937 Youth on Parole
- 1937 High Flyers
- 1937 Wise Girl
- 1938 Dramatic School
- 1939 The Women
- 1939 At the Circus
- 1941 The Big Store
- 1941 For Beauty’s Sake
- 1941 Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (UK version: What a Man)
- 1942 Born to Sing
- 1942 Sing Your Worries Away
- 1942 About Pace
- 1942 Rhythm Parade
- 1942 Dancing Masters
- 1944 Up in Arms
- 1944 Seven Days Ashore
- 1944 Bathing Beauty
- 1945 The Horn Blows at Midnight
- 1945 Sunset in Eldorado
- 1945 Diamond Horseshoe
- 1946 Little Giant (UK version: On the Carpet)
- 1946 Susie Steps Out
- 1952 Three for Bedroom C
- 1953 Stop, You’re Killing Me
- 1956 Shake, Rattle and Rock
- 1959 Auntie Mame (uncredited)
- 1962 Zotz!
- 1964 What a Way to Go!