Friday, May 21, 2010

Best Supporting Actress Of 1932-33: Margaret Dumont (Duck Soup)

Here's another award that tied me in knots for a while and with good reason. The five nominees belong on a short list of the greatest character actresses of the era, each appearing in superb movies while giving performances that are both memorable and representative of their careers as a whole.

Elsa Lanchester gave the first great performance of her long career as a decidedly non-historical Anne of Cleves in the witty satire The Private Life Of Henry VIII. Conversely, Marie Dressler, beloved in her day, largely forgotten now, gave the last great performance of her career, playing a has-been actress and veteran flirt too old to any longer trade on her name or looks in Dinner At Eight. And Billie Burke and Una O'Connor provide wonderful comic relief to what at times are quite serious movies, the former as a ditzy socialite in the aforementioned Dinner At Eight, the latter as a terrified scullery maid in The Invisible Man.

Any one of them would have been a good choice. A couple of them were almost mine.

But simply put, Margaret Dumont was the most talented straight-(wo)man in the history of movie comedies, and Duck Soup being both the best movie of the year and the most representative of her gifts, she's my pick as the best supporting actress of 1932-33.

Born Daisy Juliette Baker in Brooklyn in 1882 (she claimed to have been born Marguerite Baker in Atlanta in 1889), Margaret Dumont was raised by her godfather Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories. Dumont trained as an opera singer and spent the first decade of the twentieth century working as a singer and comedic actress, both abroad and on the American vaudeville circuit. Described in reviews of the time as "a statuesque beauty," Dumont met and married the wealthy industrialist John Moller, Jr. in 1910 and retired from the stage, but returned eight years later after his sudden death.

It was playwright George S. Kaufman who recommended Dumont for the role of a stuffy dowager staying at a hotel run by the Marx Brothers in the Broadway stageplay, The Cocoanuts, and she proved so successful as a comic foil to the supremely irreverent Groucho, she was cast in a nearly identical part in the Brothers' next play, Animal Crackers, then reprised both roles for film.

"There has never been a good comedian that didn't have a good straight man," Groucho said. "Audiences don't think the straight man means anything, but it's very important."

The role of the stuffy rich widow was a part she played in all seven of the Marx Brothers films she appeared in, and she played the part perfectly—regal and self-possessed without being arrogant, naive and romantic without being vulnerable—so that the audience neither felt sorry for her not angry at her as Groucho bounces insults off her. Indeed, his attempts at seduction play as surreal rather than hostile, enhancing the anarchic quality of the Marx Brothers' humor.

"Not that I care, but where is your husband?"

"Why, he's dead."

"I bet he's just using that as an excuse."

"I was with him to the very end."

"No wonder he passed away."

"I held him in my arms and kissed him."

"Oh, I see, then it was murder! Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."

(In real life, Groucho's aggressive banter drove three wives to drink. Maybe he should have married Margaret Dumont as many fans in the 1930s assumed he had.)

The widely-accepted notion that Dumont had no sense of humor, promoted by Groucho, studio publicists and perhaps by Dumont herself, is belied not only by the evidence of her early career as a comic actress but from her performances in the movies themselves.

Listen sometime to her delivery of a line like "It's a gala day for you" from Duck Soup (to which Groucho replies, "Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more.") The line comes at the end of a long, florid speech and as she arrives at the straight-line, her pace slows up just a hair and she adds a slight emphasis to the words, setting the gag up on a tee for Groucho. She clearly understood how a gag was constructed and how to deliver a straight-line in a way that made the audience anticipate the punchline, which as Buddy Hackett once explained to Roger Ebert, goes a long way toward selling a joke.

"I'm a straight lady," Dumont once said, "the best in Hollywood. There is an art to playing the straight role. You must build up your man but never top him, never steal the laughs." Groucho recognized as much when upon accepting an honorary Oscar, he spoke of Chico and Harpo then added, "I wish Margaret Dumont could be here, too. She was a great straight-woman for me."

Dumont also knew how to react to Groucho's gags. It may sound counter- intuitive, but in a comedy it's important that none of the actors in it signal to the audience that they know they're in a comedy. Unless you're Harvey Korman on the old Carol Burnett Show, where half the fun was watching him trying and failing to keep a straight face, a comic actor has to react as though what is happening makes complete sense in the world he inhabits; to laugh at the punchline is to take all the air out of the gag. Dumont's reactions punctuate the humor without puncturing it. Nobody else in the Marxian universe ever did it better.

And then, of course, with her battleship bearing and her battleship body, Dumont not only feeds Groucho an endless series of straight-lines, but is a walking straight-line herself.

"I've sponsored your appointment," she intones, "because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia!"

"Well, that covers a lot of ground," Groucho says. "Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You'd better beat it. I hear they're gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing."

Let's face it—it's funny because it's true. We're just too polite to say so.

And then Dumont was often given the thankless task of keeping the slender narrative of the Brothers' movies on track. This was especially true in Duck Soup where she insists on the appointment of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as leader of Freedonia; introduces him to his political and romantic rival Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern); worries about the secret code (and two pair of plans!); and tries to prevent war; all without ever becoming tedious in the process.

The best example of Dumont's work in Duck Soup is the scene in her bedroom involving all three Marx Brothers. Attempting to steal secret war plans hidden in Dumont's safe, Chico and Harpo (disguised as Groucho), followed by Groucho himself, pop in and out of her room with all the freneticism of a British bedroom farce.

"Your Excellency, I thought you'd left!"

"Oh no," says Chico, "I no leave."

"But I saw you with my own eyes!"

"Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Here, Dumont plays off three different styles of comedy—Groucho's hostile levity, Chico's faux Italian malapropisms and Harpo's pantomime—but just as Ringo mastered every musical style John, Paul and George threw at him without losing the beat (or his temper), Dumont plays off all three of the Brothers expertly.

Eventually you come to realize what you're watching in Dumont and the Marx Brothers is the equivalent of a tight little Jazz band, with Dumont providing a steady backing rhythm that keeps Groucho's (and his brothers') wild improvisations grounded and on track.

It's surprising then that the Marx Brothers ever worked with anyone else, and I suspect some (very) casual fans might not even be aware that she didn't. In fact, though, after the release of Animal Crackers in 1930, the Marx Brothers left New York for Hollywood; Dumont did not follow them. Whether that was her choice or theirs, I don't know, but in any event, the studio opted for the glamorous Thelma Todd in her place. Todd was young, beautiful and a veteran of the Hal Roach Studios where she made comedies with Laurel and Hardy, among others. Yet as lovely as she was, and no doubt comically adept, Todd's presence in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers serves only to underscore what Dumont brought to the proceedings.

In her two movies with the Marx Brothers, Todd played a seductress who has all four brothers panting for her company. Unfortunately, as it turned out, there's nothing inherently funny about a middle-aged man attempting to seduce a beautiful young woman—embarrassing maybe, and certainly foolish, but funny? Indeed, at times, watching Groucho and his brothers fawning over Todd is a bit creepy (to me, anyway).

Further, what is surreal and subversive when aimed at Dumont becomes hostile and misogynistic when aimed at Todd. Take for example Erik Beck's (of the Boston Becks) favorite line from Duck Soup—"We go forth to fight for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did." Applied to Dumont, the idea is absurd and incongruous and just plain hilarious. Not only does the physically imposing Dumont look like she could snap a man in half (certainly Groucho, who was two inches shorter than Dumont), she also comes across as a woman so Victorian, she doesn't even know what sex is, much less engage in it wantonly—you'd probably just bounce off of her.

But can you imagine that same line spoken about Thelma Todd, or any other young, beautiful actress? Suddenly it becomes a credible insult and not a funny one at that.

Besides, the Marx Brothers are funniest when they stop making sense altogether and there's nothing nonsensical about Thelma Todd. I mean, who wouldn't want to make love to Thelma Todd? But Margaret Dumont? That's plain crazy.

In her 1937 review of A Day At The Races, film critic Cecilia Ager wrote perhaps the finest tribute ever to Dumont's talents:

"There ought to be a statue erected, or a Congressional Medal awarded, or a national holiday proclaimed, to honor that great woman, Margaret Dumont, the dame who takes the raps from the Marx Bros. For she is of the stuff of which our pioneer women were made, combining in her highly indignant person Duse, stalwart oak, and Chief Fall Guy—a lady of epic ability to take it, a lady whose mighty love for Groucho is a saga of devotion, a lady who asks but little and gets it.

"Disappointment can't down her, nor perfidy shake her faith. Always she comes back for more though slapsticks have crippled her, custard pies spattered her trusting face. Surrounded by brothers who are surely a little odd, she does not think so. To her, her world of Marx Bros. pictures is rational, comprehensible, secure. Calmly she surveys it, with infinite resource she fights to keep on her feet in it. Equally ready for amorous dalliance or hair-pulling, for Groucho's sudden tender moods, or base betrayal, all her magnificent qualities are on display in A Day At the Races, where once again her fortitude is nothing human. It's godlike."

It's a pity more people didn't recognize Dumont's gifts at the time. Her success with the Marx Brothers led to typecasting and pretty much finished her dreams of taking on dramatic film roles. She appeared in fifty movies in a career that began with an uncredited bit part in 1917's A Tale Of Two Cities and ended shortly before her death in 1965 with a televised performance with Groucho on The Hollywood Palace where she reprised her role as Mrs. Rittenhouse from Animal Crackers.

"Don't step on those few laughs I have up here," he ad-libbed at one point, for once cracking up the consummate straight woman.

Margaret Dumont called herself the best straight woman in Hollywood and when I look back over the history of film comedy, I can't think of a better one. And more to the point, I can't think of a more indispensable one. With all due respect to Zeppo, Margaret Dumont was the real fourth Marx Brother.

Postscript: Half a dozen sources note that Margaret Dumont won the Screen Actors Guild award for best supporting actress of 1937 for her work in A Day At The Races—sources beyond the ever-reliable Wikipedia, such as The Marx Brothers: A Bio-Bibliography by Wes D. Gehring and Hal Erickson's All Movie Guide. Well, maybe. The Screen Actors Guild Awards as we currently know and love them only came into existence in 1995, so perhaps these sources are referring to an earlier, now-defunct version of the award. Or perhaps it was some other award. Only I can't find any reference to any of the other winners of such an award from 1937 and the usually thorough Internet Movie Database doesn't mention it at all. But there are many things I don't know and maybe she did win some kind of an award for A Day At The Races. If so, good for her, because she certainly deserved some recognition in her lifetime.

Can anybody out there clear up the discrepancy? If so, I'd appreciate it if you'd drop a line in the comments box and fill me in.

In any event, she's now won a Katie-Bar-The-Door Award which trumps the Screen Actors Guild any day, and I'm sure if Margaret Dumont were alive today, she'd rise up out of her grave, and we'd only have to bury her again.

Note: To read about Duck Soup's screenplay, click here.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I know this is going to sound weird, when I saw The Big Store recently, I got to thinking about what a gorgeous woman Ms. Dumont was. Not just funny or formidable, but downright sexy.

Maybe I've been seeing too much Groucho. But I'm glad to hear that she started her career as a beauty.

Mythical Monkey said...

Okay, now I need to dig The Big Store out of the basement and watch it again!

As if I need an excuse ...

Bellotoot said...

It is with wet eyes that I salute you, Mr. Monkey, with all praise for the honor you bestow upon Ms. Dumont! The New York Times, on Chico's death, lamented that the brothers would never again vandalize the land of cuckoo. Whatever lands they vandalized, as you so rightly observe, the Atlas who supported their globe was Ms. Dumont. And if they could do without Zeppo and Thelma and Thalberg and pint-sized gorillas, they seemed never quite themselves without Margaret Dumont! That, with three or four Marx Brothers running around, takes some doing!

Mythical Monkey said...

Thank you, Mr. B -- that means a lot coming from you. I have a blog post in the works called "Who Says A Movie Can't Change Your Life" about that job interview all these years ago when I looked at the handmade nameplate on your desk reading Rufus T. Firefly and I said, "Groucho Marx in Duck Soup." And then we did Marx Brothers routines for forty minutes and the rest is history.

I recommend that approach to anybody looking for a job. Just talk about the Marx Brothers until you find a like-minded employer. Trust me, you don't want to work anywhere else.