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She Was Hollywood's Best Straight Man

Margaret Dumont was the “straight man” in seven films for The Marx Brothers, and Groucho considered her “the fifth Marx Brother.” But it seemed she never understood why they were so funny. Or did she?

Margaret Dumont was trained in opera and was a showgirl in Europe. But in 1910, when she married the wealthy John Moller, Jr., Dumont put her theatrical career on hold. When John died in 1919, Dumont returned to theater. She was spotted in a play by Sam Harris who was producing the stage production of The Cocoanuts which featured the Marx Brothers. Dumont was cast as Mrs. Potter, a high-society woman. whose character would serve as brunt for many a Marx Bros. joke. This would be the first of seven films in which she would appear. When Groucho appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1969, in relating to Margaret Dumont, he mentioned on one routine from “Duck Soup” (1933) where he said, “I am fighting for your honor, which is more than you ever did.” After, Dumont asked what he had meant by it. Groucho also recalled that, “She was the same offstage as she was on it – always the stuffy dignified matron. She took everything seriously. She would say to me: “Julie, why are they laughing?”

It was for her role as Emily UpJohn in “A Day at the Races” (1937) that Dumont received a SAG Award in 1937. Shortly after, she was quoted saying, “I’m a straight lady, 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.” She was so successful as the “straight man” for The Marx Bros. The Marx Bros. films from which she was in were “The Cocoanuts” (1929), “Animal Crackers” (1930), “Duck Soup” (1933), “A Night at the Opera” (1935), “At the Circus” (1939), “The Big Store” (1941), and “A Day at the Races” (1937). She also teamed with other comedic partners such as Abbott & Costello and Laurel & Hardy.

Dumont was reunited with Groucho Marx one last time on “The Hollywood Palace” (1964) television program to perform some material from “Animal Crackers” (1930). Just days after that appearance, Margaret Dumont passed away.

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