It’s the Only Woman We Got: Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup (1933)

This post is the SBBN entry for the Funny Lady Blogathon, going on now at Movies, Silently. Check out the other entries today!

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Duck Soup (1933) is a tight little 68 minutes of absurdist, anarchic comedy featuring the Marx Brothers and a cast of constantly befuddled straight men and women. One part old-fashioned musical comedy and two parts political satire, Duck Soup was a box office failure on its release, and the Marx Bros’ final film for Paramount.

The wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees to sponsor the small country of Fredonia to the tune of $20 million, but on one condition: That Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be made the new leader. Firefly is a scoundrel and a cad, insulting everyone who wields power while remaining steadfastly unimpressed with his own. He quickly decides to woo the widow Teasdale — for her money or not, we’re never sure; that’s part of the fun — competing with Trentino of nearby Sylvania (Louis Calhern) who also wants her money. Hell-bent on causing a war, Firefly insults Trentino so many times conflict cannot be avoided. Meanwhile, two Sylvanian spies, Chico and Harpo Marx, join in on the antics in ways that really can’t be explained. If someone tells you they can explain everything that happens in Duck Soup, they are lying to you.

The title is the first head-scratcher. Though allegedly based on the American slang phrase “duck soup,” with a meaning similar to “easy as pie,” Groucho once explained the title: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.” And of course, the title just sounds funny, following the well established rules of Vaudeville comedy of the day.

Duck Soup (1933) title screen“Words with a k in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a K.” – Neil Simon, The Sunshine Boys

 

It also sounds dirty, like “wind surfing on Mount Baldy,” and a case can be made for the title rhyming with a vulgar but popular phrase.

Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck SoupI think Groucho would agree.

 

As in most of their comedies, the humor of the Marx Bros. relied on a supporting cast portraying rules-bound, powerful, and socially well-placed people as villains to be undone. “Comedy is protest,” as Mel Brooks has said, and the Marx Bros. were masters of protesting the horrors of a society powerless to fight against political machinations. They made the people in charge look foolish and ridiculous, undermining their power as effectively as a heavily armed coup. The Brothers portrayed simple people who created their own power through humor to shape the world into an egalitarian society they could better navigate.

Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup

Margaret Dumont, frequent co-star in the Marx Bros. films, was the perfect foil. She was usually a wealthy widow, a society matron during the years of the Depression, an archetype disliked, or at least distrusted, by Hollywood audiences. But she traversed the vague space between the struggling masses and the unjust upper class, because she always wanted to help people and was never greedy for power. In Duck Soup, Mrs. Teasdale was a good sport, open minded and playful and obviously fond of Groucho.

Audiences responded to Dumont’s characters. Certainly, she was made fun of for her appearance, being taller and older and larger than most actresses seen on screen at the time. Her mannerisms are frequently ridiculous and her voice quavers in a high-tone Transatlantic accent that becomes the most glorious and awful singing voice ever presented on screen; her final, exuberant trill of the Fredonia national anthem in Duck Soup is a crowning achievement in deliberately terrible musical performance.

But as broadly as she plays the part of Mrs. Teasdale, she is still a beautiful, formidable woman, strong and in control of her own life, even though the jokes are undeniably playing on the idea that no one would find a large 40-something (later, 50-something) woman attractive. There is, however, an unquestionable sexual chemistry between Groucho and Dumont:

Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx in Duck Soup“I can see you right now in a hot kitchen, bending over the stove… but I can’t see the stove.”

 

This joke, as Rob Halford might say, works on two levels. There are numerous moments when Mrs. Teasdale just glows at Firefly’s attentions, and even more moments when one can see Margaret Dumont stifling laughs to save a scene. This was an actress who portrayed characters susceptible to the charms of a Groucho-based cad, but also a woman who thought Groucho Marx was hilarious. Dumont was clearly delighted to play straight woman to his wacky, lecherous characters, and Marx must have appreciated her talents. The pair click with the kind of mythical cinematic chemistry rarely seen in Hollywood.

That’s why it’s so puzzling that Groucho Marx spent decades in interviews insulting and demeaning Margaret Dumont, even slamming her after her death for her last public performance — which just happened to be with Groucho Marx, one week before she passed on.

Because Margaret Dumont’s past is so mangled by the Hollywood publicity machine, many don’t realize she had been an accomplished comedienne nearly three decades before the release of Duck Soup. Born Daisy Baker in 1882, Margaret went into theatre by 1902, where she’s listed as a “vocal comedienne” in programs and directories. She sang in many musicals over the next several years, and was described by critics as a “statuesque beauty.” Somewhere around 1910, she married the wealthy John Moller, Jr. and left the stage, but he died in 1918 and she returned to her former career.

Margaret Dumont circa 1905Dumont, circa 1909.

 

Groucho often said that Dumont only succeeded as a straight woman because she was a dour society matron in real life and simply played that on screen. That makes for a good story, of course — one is reminded of Kubrick claiming Slim Pickens didn’t realize Dr. Strangelove was a farce — but it hardly seems possible. The jokes in Marx Bros. films are broad and complicated, usually requiring Dumont to fly through a dozen emotions as Groucho rapid-fires one-liners directly at her (and behind her, and over her head, and everywhere else he ended up while mugging for the camera).

Racquel Torres in Duck SoupRaquel Torres would like to remind you that Duck Soup is a pre-Code.

 

Publicity for the Marx Bros. relied on presenting themselves as irreverent off stage as on, and numerous articles cast Dumont as their real-life punching bag, the long-suffering victim of their practical jokes. Dumont was happy to comply; her own publicity encouraged audiences to believe she had the same financial independence and desire to make social changes as her characters, though it’s possible she had been left nothing after being widowed; it seems her in-laws had not been pleased with their son marrying an actress. It’s also possible that she simply missed the stage and wanted to continue to work, even if she was financially solvent.

She was a solid character actress and transitioned into films seamlessly. First joining the Marx Bros. on stage in Animal Crackers, Dumont reprised her role in the 1930 film version of the same. Biographer Morrie Ryskind once speculated that her years of experience as a burlesque comedienne had taught her that the media didn’t expect actresses to be intelligent or cunning. Playing down her experience to a certain degree, once going so far as to state, “You must build up your man but never top him, never steal the laughs” in an interview, must have served her well, and this attitude surely fed into the myth that she was merely “playing herself,” as the cliche goes.

And as much as we all love Groucho, he could be a mean bastard if it meant he would get attention for it — Matthew Coniam points out a nasty little joke Groucho made about Harold Lloyd’s disfigured hand during Lloyd’s “This is Your Life” episode here on TDoY, which is a good example of the hard comedy Groucho could serve up. At the same time, screenwriter Julius Epstein once said Groucho thought it was simply expected of him to be insulting, as part of his public persona. Writer Bert Granet noted that he had heard all of the Marx Bros, except maybe Zeppo, had hit on Dumont while filming both Animal Crackers and Duck Soup; he also noted that you could never tell what sort of response you would get from Groucho when you spoke to him. It could be pleasant, it could be difficult, and even if you were a relative you never knew what you would get.

Duck Soup 1933Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) with assistant Bob (Zeppo Marx) chastise the federal Fredonian cabinet for running the country properly. Includes bonus art deco set design.

 

One should always remember that when Groucho Marx was portraying Dumont as a clueless, vapid woman in interviews, he was talking more about himself than her, not-so-subtly setting himself up as the real genius of their comedy pairing. Even in his honorary Academy Award speech in 1973, he could not manage to praise Dumont without also insulting her.

Though they may have appeared disheveled, inconsistent, insane and without a clear purpose, the Marx Bros. were consummate professionals. It’s impossible to believe Groucho Marx would use a straight woman who didn’t understand comedy… and in seven films, no less. It’s also telling that his treatment of her was merciless, both on screen and off. One doesn’t expend that kind of energy to tear a clueless society matron down; that is effort reserved for a formidable competitor.

Margaret Dumont in Duck SoupMrs. Teasdale takes up arms and defends Fredonia.

 

Dumont was indeed formidable. The comedic duo of wise guy vs straight woman is almost necessarily imbalanced, the straight woman (or man) getting less attention than the jokester. But Dumont subtly upset that power balance with her generous acting style. She may have been the slightly more glamorous cousin of the battleaxe archetype, but she was also warm, charming, delightful, befuddled, naive and, most of all, humane. She feeds the Brothers straight lines, reacts to every syllable, sputters and sings and plays the fool, no questions asked, while still commanding attention and respect, affection, even desire — no mean feat for the only woman in a group of hyperactive manchildren willing to do anything for attention. She appeared in half of the Marx Bros. films, and in the other half, her absence always resulted in hundreds of letters to studios asking why she had been left out.

Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup

Duck Soup is one of the Marx Bros’ finest comedies, surreal and sharply satirical. Dumont’s comparatively light burlesque of the society matron brings the entire plot — or what there is of it — closer to earth. The Brothers can change costumes in the middle of a scene or don wigs and pretend to be each others’ reflections, but only as long as those around them exist in the audience’s reality. Margaret Dumont captured the bare minimum of necessary reality and did so with grace, enduring insults that would not be out of place in a modern day pick-up artist’s handbook. Though she is loved by many, she is still too often thought of as an accidental success. There was nothing accidental about Dumont’s solid comedic performances, and as the works of the Marx Bros. continue to entertain succeeding generations, she is slowly building the appreciation she should have had decades ago.

Sources:
Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends by Charlotte Chandler
Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of The Marx Brothers by Simon Louvish

21 Comments

  1. I’ve always been partial to Dumont since we share the same first name. I’ve never really bought the notion that she didn’t understand or like the Marx Brothers’s jokes. If she didn’t she probably wouldn’t have hung around for as many pictures as she did, unless she was a fool, which I don’t think can be true either. The dame must have a had a sense of humor and I’d like to believe that she and Groucho got along better in real life than either of them were ever willing to admit publicly.
    http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/2013/06/when-comedy-was-queen-funny-lady.html

    1. stacia says:

      I agree, I think behind the scenes she was probably treated much more nicely, though Groucho was a handful — she probably had to regularly put up with shenanigans. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Aurora says:

    FANTASTIC READ!! And a fabulous choice in Dumont for a Funny Lady event!

    Aurora

    1. stacia says:

      Thank you Aurora, I really appreciate it!

  3. Hi there! I loved your fascinating piece on Margaret Dumont. And thanks for digging up the picture of her as a young actress, she was a true beauty! Her presence was an essential ingredient for a successful Marx Brothers film, I’m glad that I am not alone in this sentiment.

    Marvelous work, as always, and thank you for participating!

    1. stacia says:

      Thanks for your kind words — and thanks for hosting this blogathon, it has been terrific!

  4. Judy says:

    Great piece, Stacia – I’ll admit I struggle to enjoy ‘Duck Soup’ as much as I feel I should, but I do enjoy the scenes with Groucho and Dumont, and it is fascinating to learn more about their working relationship and her background. Maybe I’ll give the film another try!

    1. stacia says:

      I have a lot of trouble with the Chico and Harpo parts in Duck Soup; Chico doesn’t get as much funny stuff as he should — his delivery on one-liners is excellent — and I loathe Harpo just on general principle. He’s all gimmick and no substance. What I thought was interesting was in the scenes where Chico and Harpo dressed like Groucho, Margaret Dumont seemed intensely irritated with the other two brothers. There was a definite hint of “don’t even” in her voice that I didn’t hear when she spoke with Groucho.

      1. Judy says:

        Relieved to hear it isn’t just me struggling with Chico and Harpo – I keep thinking I should get them, but just don’t. Interesting point you make about Dumont seeming irritated with them – thanks, Stacia!

  5. thanks for such a great post on an overlooked lady and an underrated talent. Dumont was the Brothers’ best straight ‘man,’ and there’s nothing accidental about her timing or double takes – she was a real pro.

    1. stacia says:

      Thanks! I definitely agree, she was sharp and professional in film.

  6. Vinny says:

    I really enjoyed your article. I’ll have to have myself a Marx marathon, it’s been too long since I’ve seen them.

    1. stacia says:

      Thanks Vinny! The Marx Bros are my second favorite classic Hollywood group, my first being Laurel & Hardy — though it’s a close race between the two.

  7. Le says:

    I love Margaret in the Marx Brothers movie. She makes me laughj the most in her brief time in A night at the opera.
    Don’t forget to reaed my contribution to the blogatthon! :)
    Greetings!

    1. stacia says:

      Thanks Le!

  8. Scott C. says:

    I remember a clip of Groucho from some 70s chat show — Dick Cavett, maybe — claiming that Dumont never understood the gags and was always asking, “But Julie, what does it mean?” Which seemed odd, because as you note, she had to go through a dizzying array of facial expressions during their dialogues, and the only reason it was believable that Mrs. Teasdale (Or Rittenhouse, or Claypool, or Upjohn or whatever Society-sounding monicker they’d hung on her) didn’t just stalk off in a huff (or a minute and a huff) at the first whiff of an insult was because, under her stuffy veneer (which like most veneers, was pretty thin) she found Groucho as roguishly charming as we did.

    Thanks especially for finding that photo of her from 1909. I refuse to believe that any Gibson Girl whose posture and face so clearly states, “Oh go wax your mustache, Clyde – I take shit from no Gay Young Blade” wasn’t in on the joke.

    1. stacia says:

      I remember that, it was back when she still drove a 1938 Huff.

      When Groucho accepted the honorary Oscar, he seemed a little out of it — I think he was hard of hearing, and didn’t know when the crowd stopped applauding — but when he got to the “Julie, what does it mean?” part he recited it like it was an old gag he would never forget. That really makes me think this was all part of the off-screen persona shtick. It’s just unfortunate that it has to undermine Dumont’s talents, because she was exceptional with the Marx Bros.

  9. KC says:

    Did you know this post was cited at Mental Floss?

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/61383/fifth-marx-brother

    So funny.

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