Today is the birthday of Margaret Dumont (Daisy Juliet Baker, 1882-1965). She was raised in the South by her Godfather Joel Chandler Harris, collector and editor of the “Uncle Remus” stories, although she was born in Brooklyn. Trained in opera and dramatics in her youth, she made her vaudeville debut in 1902 as a singing comedienne in Atlantic City. She continued to perform in melodramas and comedies as a soubrette (she was considered a beauty in her day) regionally throughout the decade, ending the first leg of her career in 1910 to marry sugar magnate John Moller Jr.
In 1918, Moller died and Dumont returned to the stage, now reinvented as a matron — a literal one. She played such roles (wealthy, dignified society dames) in four Broadway shows (The Fan, 1921; Go Easy Mabel, 1922; The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly, 1923; and The Four Flusher, 1925) until George S. Kaufman got the brilliant idea to match her up with the Marx Brothers for The Cocoanuts in 1925 and Animal Crackers in 1928. Her roles in the film versions of these plays in 1929 and 1930, and her appearances in 5 other Marx Brothers films are what the public chiefly remembers and reveres her for today. Her apparently imperturbable ability to stand there like a wall as Groucho bounced jokes and non sequiturs off her was so entertaining that she came to be in demand for a long line of other comedians. In addition to the 7 Marx Brothers’ films she’s also a foil for Wheeler and Woolsey in Kentucky Kernels (1934) and High Flyers (1937); Bing Crosby in Anything Goes (1936), Joe Penner in The Life of the Party (1937), W.C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) and Tales of Manhattan (1942), Laurel and Hardy in The Dancing Masters (1943), Red Skelton in Bathing Beauty (1944), Jack Benny in The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), and Abbott and Costello in Little Giant (1946). Her late career included the 1962 William Castle film Zotz!, the interesting all-star black comedy What a Way to Go (1964) starring Shirley MacLaine and her historic final appearance with Groucho on the tv variety show Hollywood Palace in 1965.
To find out more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc