The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother"
By Chris Enss and Howard Karanjian
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although Margaret Dumont appeared in nearly fifty movies between 1917 and 1964, she is best known for the seven films she appeared in opposite the Marx Brothers over a twelve year period. Those films, and the lore which sprung up around them have overshadowed her career as an actress, but have also led to erroneous beliefs about her as a person, not helped by Groucho Marx's statement that she never understood any of their jokes or early newspaper articles that claimed she and Groucho were married in real life. Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian attempt to set the record straight in Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother".
They begin with a look at Dumont's early life, during which time they reveal the truth behind several rumors and falsehoods about the actress. She was born in 1882, not any of the later dates claimed by her mother, herself, or publicists. Despite longstanding rumors that she was author Joel Chandler Harris' goddaughter and spent time growing up at his house, the authors explain that there was no tie between Dumont and Harris, who was probably unaware of her existence.
Dumont began performing at a young age, often as a duo with her younger sister, Harriet. Their success caused strife with their mother, who appears to have been jealous of their careers. The authors also talk about Dumont's father and step-father during this time. Eventually, she made it to Broadway, but turned her back on her career, when, like her mother before her, she fell in love with a married man, John Moller, Jr. Following his divorce, Dumont married Moller in 1910 and lived a life of luxury until his death eight years later, after which, she returned to acting.
Once Dumont returned to the theatre, Enns and Karanjian focus on her projects, most notably those with the Marx Brothers. They do so with an overreliance on lengthy quotes from newspapers, magazines, and articles. Moreover, Dumont is not always the focus on these lengthy quotes, instead they focus on the shows she appeared in, occasionally being singled out for her performance in the quotes. The authors also use these long passages to describe the plots of the films Dumont appeared in, rather than providing their own descriptions of the films. The result is a book that seems to look at a selection of films and plays have Dumont as a common factor, but not a look at Dumont's life or work, specifically.
In fact, although the book is ostensibly about Margaret Dumont, she disappears from the book for pages at a time when the authors discuss Marx Brothers films in which she did not appear. The authors spend three pages on Monkey Business, in which Dumont did not appear, followed by five pages about the similarly Dumont-less Horse Feathers. References to Dumont's appearances in the film The Girl Habit and the Broadway play Tell Her the Truth during the time those films were being made take up only a couple of pages, and those are interspersed with a discussion of the Marx Brothers' Dumont-less London trip. It becomes clear that despite being an important part of their films, and a genuine affection for her, at least from Groucho, she was viewed as a contracted cast member, rather than an integral part of the comedy team, to be used when it suited the screenwriters.
Enss and Kazanjian discuss the social life Dumont had when she was married to Moller and considered part of New York's 400, but beyond that, she barely seems to exist outside the roles that she takes in film and on television. Her quoted interviews seem to focus on her adamant declaration that she was a straight woman, and not a stooge. She notes that while playing opposite the Marx Brothers, her most important talents were the ability not to break no matter what the brothers did, and the ability to ad lib to fill space following their jokes with inconsequential phrases that could serve to be laughed over. Her acknowledgement of these abilities directly contradicts Groucho's frequent statement about her lack of a sense of humor. Enss and Karanjian also point out that while typecast as a dowager, Dumont did, occasionally, get to play variations, such as the role of Mrs. Willoughby in Up in Arms, demonstrating a range that is often ignored. Nevertheless, her life outside film is mostly ignored.
Straight Lady whets the appetite for a more detailed exploration of Margaret Dumont's life and work. Unfortunately, Dumont often takes a back seat in a book that purports to be about her life and times. The reader comes away from the slender volume with an understanding of the way the Marx Brothers movies were conceived and made, as well as how Dumont fit into them (or didn't). The book does not, however, offer a look at who Dumont was when she was not acting as a straight woman to the Marx Brothers or reprising the dowager role in other films.
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