She wasn’t born into high society, but you’d never know it from most of her film appearances. With her nose firmly in the air, her upper-class dignity was constantly under attack by the relentless comic assaults of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo Marx. But for the indomitable Margaret Dumont, it was all in a day’s work…even if she claimed to never get what was so funny.
She was born the Brooklynite Daisy Juliette Baker in October, 1882, and grew up in the south as the goddaughter of “Uncle Remus” author Joel Chandler Harris. While still in her teens she changed her name and began a stage career as an actress/singer, but gave it up after marrying a well-to-do sugar heir in 1910. Dumont returned to the boards following his death, and had her first film role as, appropriately, an aristocrat in a silent version of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
In 1925 Margaret’s work caught the eye of writer Geoprge S. Kaufmann, who tapped her to play the dowager Mrs. Potter alongside the Four Marx Brothers in their Broadway comedy The Cocoanuts. Audiences instantly loved the comedic chemistry between Dumont and would-be suitor Groucho Marx (“Ill meet you tonight under the moon. Oh, I can see it now–you and the moon. You wear a necktie so I’ll know you.”) , and she reteamed with the boys in 1928 for Animal Crackers. Both plays were filmed at Paramount’s Long Island studios, with Dumont reprising her roles.
When the Marxes moved west in 1930, so did Dumont. Over the nest 12 years she was again courted by Groucho in Duck Soup (which featured his immortal line, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did!”), A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, At the Circus, and The Big Store. Lest anyone think her a one-comedy team foil, Margaret found time to work with Laurel and Hardy in The Dancing Masters and Abbott and Costello in Little Giant. She was a wealthy widow pursued atop her mountain retreat by W.C. Fields in Never Give Sucker an Even Break, and she even appeared in Jack Benny’s infamous The Horn Blows at Midnight.
Dumont’s final film role was as Shirley MacLaine’s avaricious mother in What a Way to Go!, but her final performance came, fittingly, opposite Groucho in a re-creation of their Animal Crackers scenes for the TV series The Hollywood Palace. A few days after the episode’s taping, in March, 1965, she passed away from a heart attack.