Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A glass of bourbon for the grand dame of comedy


Lewis had Martin, Costello had Abott and Hope had Crosby. Successful comedy teams usually consist of a wild and crazy partner and a straight man to anchor the zanines, someone who represents the audience in bemused bewilderment. The straight man seldom gets as much recognition or respect as their flashier counterpart, for obvious reasons, yet they remain an essential element to the comedic and cinematic ingredients. Jerry Lewis or Lou Costello simply would not have been as funny had they not had such perfect foils for their gags.

Today's glass of bourbon is raised in honor of one of the best straight "men" of all times, the astoundingly straight-faced and very funny Margaret Dumont.
Dumont, born Daisy Juliette Baker in Brooklyn, New York in 1882, is best known for being the foil of not one but three outstanding comedians, namely the Marx Brothers (I am here, of course, referring to Harpo, Chico and - most notably - Groucho. Poor Zeppo remains in that gray area of being not quite funny and not quite playing the straight man). Dumont's chemistry with Groucho was especially magical, creating some of the funniest scenes in the Marx Brothers ouvre. Usually playing a harried socialite who is either wooed or subdued by Groucho, Dumont starred in seven films with the brothers starting with the 1929 production of The Cocoanuts, reprising her Broadway role. Some people have claimed that Dumont's cluelessness was not an act but rather stemmed from the fact that she didn't understand the Marxs brothers jokes at all, especially Groucho's rapid-fire delivery. This seems somewhat unlikely given Dumont's long career in comedic productions, both on stage and on film, most of which had her playing the hapless foil to a variety of comedic shenanigans. 

Dumont remained friends with all of the brothers throughout their careers but was especially close to Groucho, whom she affectionately called "Julie" (Groucho's birth name was Julius). Groucho went so far as to call her a "fifth Marx brother" and mentioned her in his acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar along with Chico and Harpo.

The friendship between the two must have been strong as some of Groucho's jokes seemed pointed at Dumont herself rather than her screen persona. As an example, Dumont suffered from hair loss and had to wear a wig. In Duck Soup, perhaps the greatest of the Marx brothers comedies, Groucho and Dumont share the following exchange:

Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, uh, I suppose you would think me a sentimental old fluff, but, uh, would you mind giving me lock of your hair?
Mrs. Teasdale: A lock of my hair? Wh-why, I had no idea.
Rufus T. Firefly: I'm letting you off easy: I was going to ask for the whole wig. 

Groucho would also repeatedly make fun of Dumont's age and weight, as in this famous quote:

Rufus T. Firefly: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it - I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven't stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. 

Yet Dumont took it all with grace and nobility, adding an essential mixture of humanity and warmth to the Marx brothers comedy routine. Without her they would have easily slipped into either nastiness or outright insanity with not enough leverage to make the jokes as funny as they eventually turned out to be. Margaret Dumont is an extremely unsung performer but one which played an essential part in bringing about some of the most wonderful comedy moments of film history. Let us raise our glass and yell a hearty SKÁL! in her honor.

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