Showing posts with label Margaret Dumont. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Margaret Dumont. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother"

Straight Lady
The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother" 
by Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian
Lyons Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9781493060405
208 pages
October 2022

“For more than four decades, the statuesque funny lady played the role of an austere dowager and grande dame of the social set on stage and screen... Margaret [Dumont] suffered each insult or physical assault with a classic assurance that made her the greatest grande dame in the history of filmed comedy.” — Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian

The Marx Brothers had a winning formula for their success as a comedy team. Each brother had their own individual persona and when put together with their physical antics and whip smart verbal jabs—they really had some of the best comebacks of all time—they created this magnificent maelstrom of chaos that left audiences in stitches. Before making a movie, they'd take their story concept to the stage to perfect their antics before a live audience. By the time the cameras started rolling, they were primed and ready to make movie magic. But one of the most important elements of their formula was having a straight man or lady. Whether it was their brother Zeppo Marx or a comedienne like Thelma Todd, their performances were enhanced by the presence of someone who could keep their composure. Arguably their best comedic partner was Margaret Dumont, a talented actress who excelled at this role and became an important member of the Marx Brothers troupe.

In their book Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother", authors Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian make the case that Margaret Dumont not only played a pivotal role in the Marx Brothers' success but that her own success was intrinsically tied to theirs. Dumont and the Marx Brothers had a sort of symbiotic relationship and while they would work on projects separately, there some something special about their collaborations.

This biography is fairly short with about 159 reading pages. It's clear that there isn't that much information about Margaret Dumont and the authors did a great job filling in the timeline with interesting information about the Marx Brothers and the movies they made with and without Dumont. It reads very much like a Dumont-Marx biographical hybrid. 

Here are some interesting facts about Margaret Dumont from the book:
  • She changed her name from Daisy Juliette Baker to Daisy Dumont and eventually to Margaret Dumont. Her past was riddled with scandal—she was born out of wedlock and the result of an extra marital affair—so changing her name was crucial if she was going to have any success in the theater. She changed Daisy to Margaret when she graduated from ingenue roles to dowager ones.
  • She briefly gave up acting when she married John Moller Jr. and became a society woman. He died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic and after his death she returned to the stage.
  • After the success of The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), the public became convinced that Margaret Dumont was secretly married to Groucho Marx and the two had a difficult time trying to dispel the rumor.
  • Dumont suffered many injuries as a result of the Marx Brothers' physical antics. She was notably injured during the making of Duck Soup (1933) and by the time she made A Day at the Races (1937) she wore a harness "to prevent from having her ribs broken."
  • The Marx Brothers loved to pull pranks on Dumont off-screen. In one instance, they went too far when they called the cops to report Dumont was working as a hotel prostitute. After the incident, Groucho Marx apologized to Dumont and promised that they'd never do anything to hurt her again.
  • Margaret Dumont was passed over for several Marx Brothers pictures. Most notably for Go West (1940) because the thought was that a Western setting wouldn't suit her established persona of a society woman.
  • Dumont collaborated with many comedians including W.C. Fields, Danny Kaye, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton and Jack Benny. She was permanently typecast as a straight lady and "pompous dowager" despite her great range as an actress and singer.
  • Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont reunited for a skit on a TV variety show in early 1965. Dumont died shortly after this reunion and their episode aired one month after her death.

Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother" is an enjoyable read and recommended for Marx Brothers enthusiasts who want to know a bit more about Dumont. The book is very matter-of-fact and it's straightforward and simplistic approach will appeal to readers who want to focus on the information rather than read something with more editorial interjections. The edition I read was a slightly oversized but slim hardcover edition with a beautiful dust jacket and plenty of black-and-white photographs within. 

Thank you to Lyons Press for sending me a copy of this book for review.

This is my first review for the 2023 Classic Film Reading Challenge.

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